Eli Silverstein says it with hands-on knowledge: “Joseph’s is an institution in Havre de Grace.”
With its 74-year history, he's right. But you don't become an institution in a town of come-and-go, mom-and-pop-style shops without showing a willingness to change and adapt to the times.
Silverstein, who celebrated turning 70 years young Feb. 20, knows that all too well. He grew up in the retail business. His father, Joseph, opened the doors to Joseph’s Department Store on May 6, 1937.
Eli says his father was a “one-man operation” who was “pretty well set in his ways.” But he admits to spending more time in the shop than he probably wanted to. His first big retail order came at about 15 years of age.
“I remember one time we had a salesman come in here from a luggage company and my father was someplace else. I ended up buying a bunch of luggage—the thing that I probably wasn’t allowed to do. But it all sold. He wasn’t too happy about that.”
Silverstein was born in New York, but that’s semantics. His mom, Gussie, went to visit with her mom through the birth. Within a month or two, he estimates being back in Havre de Grace, where he and his two brothers, Monte and Louis were reared.
When Silverstein was 18, he went on to Rider College and then George Washington University Law School. He got married and had two boys, Jack and Michael. He was working as a criminal lawyer for the assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County.
“It was a totally different world,” he confesses. “That was a major jurisdiction as far as crime and in the 10 years I was there I tried every kind of case there is: murder cases, rape cases, wire-tap cases.”
When his father died in January, 1981 Eli came back to Havre de Grace “basically to wind the business up,” he says coolly. Some 30 years later he sits in the 8,000-sq. ft. showroom on a bench smiling.
“I’m still here,” he said.
As if running one business isn’t hard enough, Silverstein got back into practicing law about 10 years ago with the Harford County Assistant State’s Attorney office.
Navigating retail and law, Silverstein says it’s interesting and a challenge, but one he looks forward to, obviously, putting in six days a week.
“The nice thing for me is that I’m able to escape two different things," he said. "They’re diverse. It’s interesting because the law part of it makes me intellectually—not that [the shop] isn’t an intellectual challenge—but I have to keep up with current laws and facts, you know, and the different cases.”
Joseph’s employs two full-time and one part-time employee.
Back in the day, Silverstein says, the store had seven employees.
Things have certainly changed in this business.
“With the advent of Target and Walmart and the other box stores, they’ve taken away business so we have to reinvent ourselves in the way of finding unique products that they don’t have and that’s what we try to do,” he says.
Another difference in business today for Silverstein, he gets no sales calls. Most of his purchasing takes place at annual clothing show in Las Vegas in February.
Add to that fact, the fashion stream of Havre de Grace for teenagers used to be a year behind the main fashion scene.
“Years ago, before MTV and the Internet, our kids here were a year behind everybody else. It’s not like that now,” he said.
“I don’t have the crazy fashion-forward customer. I’m not a trendy shop, and I’ll be the first to admit that,” he says adamantly.
Joseph’s carries various product lines, from Carhartt and Levis to New Balance, along with some specialty lines like Fresh Produce and Tribal for women and Pendleton for men.
Silverstein likes these types of lines because they are quality products and they don’t sell to mass merchants. He says the store does custom orders for patrons.
The Darlington resident enjoys the scene at Joseph’s because of the people he gets to meet.
“The diversity of the people that I meet and the challenge, I enjoy it," he said. "I hate it when there’s no customers.”
Joseph’s is owned by Eli and his two brothers Monte and Louis, both doctors.
Another advantage of being in this business for him “is to go out into the market place and find merchandise that people will appreciate and buy. If I find a new resource and people like it and buy it, that means it's successful and I did the right thing. That’s my gratification.”