What’s it like being America’s Oldest Furrier (and staying that way).
Well that’s an interesting story…….
Let’s start at the turning point.
There I was, 32 years old running our family business with my father retired 6 years before and the perfect storm hit us! The giant 1991 US economic recession, a ground swell of animal rights protests, warmer weather, more casual dressing, a backlash against the outlandish spending of the 1980’s, and a proposed national luxury tax on the sale of furs. Staring this overwhelming beast in the face I was on my own as the sole protector of our 102-year old family business.
To understand how I was going to try to deal with this, you need the “back-story”.
I was the typical boy; playing games, sports, girls, beer, and gadget all at the usual time. Staying focused on books, not so much. But fortunately I did have one passion and that was traveling. I yearned to see faraway places, see the how others lived and to experience whatever was out there to experience.
Problem was I had no money and according to our family’s value system I wasn’t getting any for free. I quickly realized the solution. Work for a furrier wherever I went in order to pay my own way. The furrier’s recognized our store name and therefore always offered to speak with me but not always hired me (that’s a story for another day).
I worked for some special people as I traveled the globe during summers in high school and college. I was even able to take time off from college to work in Europe for the famous furrier, A.C. Bang! Each stop taught me valuable life lessons. Imagine 15 years old and living in the YMAC in New York City in the 1970 with Son of Sam on the loose. Also I was able to work with string creative entrepreneurs who took an interest in me and some became life time mentors. And all the while I did not realize I was learning the fur trade from the ground up. Bottom line was that I learned to survive and be resilient in an unknown place because I had no one to rely on at the moment but myself.
I would never want my father or grandfather think I needed them for help!
Before then beginning at age 9 my job on Saturdays was to make boxes and go to Lexington market and pick up the corned beef sandwiches for lunch. I felt like it was a foreign land as I grew up on a farm an hour away from the inner city of Baltimore where our store was located. As you can guess I loved every minute of it. Too many stories from those days for this but one I must share.
There was man named Paul who had lost both legs in a car accident. He was on a little platform with wheels and brushes in hands to push himself along. All the fancy merchants shooed him away because they thought he would scare off the customers. Not my grandfather! He told Paul as long as I am here you stay right in front of our store. If anyone gives you a hard time get me. I carry this lesson of empathy with me everywhere I go.
Before then my unofficial but foundation training and practically a full MBA began when I was old enough to be out of a high chair at the dinner table. Each night my elders would debate the happenings of the day in our fur retail store. It was like a big jumble at first to me all mixed in with stories about taking care of customers, working with our staff, how to make money and philosophy of life. What a combo! The stories would make sense to me later as I progressed through my professional career. I listened to how my family broke the color barrier to selling furs to African Americans despite death threats. Wow that made an impression on me.
Now back to the beast facing me.
I did what I was trained to do, survive and thrive. I realized the hardships that my forefathers faced (think immigrating to the USA because of not enough to eat in Eastern Europe (my great grandfather), hand to hand fighting the Germans (my grandfather), facing the depression as a child (my father) and the persecution for being Jewish along the way to name a few examples.
It was time and I knew it and I knew I could slay the beast I just needed to figure out the how.
It was just figure out the next step. Like a shark keep moving or die. I moved our business into a smaller space within a high end boutique in the Village of Cross keys. This was we would pay much less rent but still have a beautiful space in which to help our customers in a first-rate manner. After a few years we got a bigger space in the same shopping area. Then in 2007 we moved to our current location in Green Spring Station. All the wire working tirelessly to use the latest technology to make our business more efficient but also more personal. Today our customers have more options and more ease in dealing with us than ever.
I didn’t realize it at the time but was I was doing was reinvent the business for the current time. No different than showing up in an unknown city with $80.00 in my pocket and no job!
And fortunately we have had and had an amazing staff that also has made all the difference. Their skill and caring create a truly special work place.
But my real secret weapon was and is my wife, Debbie.
Besides being the creative force behind everything we do, she worked for decades helping our customers find that special something, designing and making her unique one-of-a kind, fur and knit handbags, being our buyer, my sounding board, inspiring me and so so much more. And oh year raising two very special kids. All done while adding positivity to the world and the people she comes in contact today. Recently she has made our business become a leader in reducing environmental impact.
And now for me in 2018? I am grateful for each day. Our business is thriving, our staff, customers and vendors all smile when I see them, so we must be doing something right.
The Owner Mano Swartz website America’s Oldest Furrier.
Mano Swartz Instagram: @manoswartzfurs follow me =)