Irving B. Sherman; ludwig baumann / greater new york home furnishings association
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
FEBRUARY 27, 1993
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
HOME OF IRVING B. SHERMAN
Roy Briggs, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: Irving, start with your personal background. When were you born?
SHERMAN: May 5, 1904, which makes me in the alter cocker society in New York City.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to say anything about your early time in New York City?
SHERMAN: I was born and raised with hardworking parents, and I helped myself through school.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you live?
SHERMAN: I lived in New York City, in Manhattan, most of my life. I was born on 88th Street, between Park and Madison Avenue, which today is a high class area. When I was born, it was Harlem, Yorkville. We lived four flights up. We didn’t have elevators in those days, where I lived. I was schooled in New York – raised in the schools in New York.
INTERVIEWER: Was your family in the furniture business?
SHERMAN: No, sir. My father was in the cigar business.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any in-laws in the furniture business?
SHERMAN: No, sir.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still have any family in the furniture business?
INTERVIEWER: You’re very unusual in that you have no furniture connections.
SHERMAN: I have a very small family.
INTERVIEWER: Describe your growing-up years in New York City.
SHERMAN: I went to high school in the Bronx. Because we were not too wealthy (in fact we were poor), in order to have a buck or two, I used to sneak out of school at the end of school and set up pins in the bowling alley on 161st Street at a German-American club. There I met some wonderful people who were very influential in my life later on. From there, after high school, I went to City College in New York, which was a free institution in those days. I graduated from City College in 1921.
INTERVIEWER: What was your major?
SHERMAN: Political Science. Language was my minor. I had French – four years of French in high school and four years in college. I had had aspirations since I was a young man to be an attorney, so I took Education at college so that I could get into the city school system. Knowing that nobody was going to pay my way through law school, I started teaching for a couple of years, along with my wife, whom I met when we both went through college. She went through the other city college in New York known as Hunter College. We graduated. We were 21 years old. We got married and we were teaching in separate schools and going to law school at night.
That is how I got into knowing something about furniture. One day we got a call from a young man who was in my class and he said, “Irving, I wonder whether or not you’re up to date on your assignments.” I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’d appreciate it – I just am way behind on it – would you mind giving me the papers and helping me?” His father was in the furniture store Eagle Furniture Galleries at 175th Street and Third Avenue. The school at which I was teaching at the time was at 173rd Street and Fulton Avenue – no more than five blocks away.
I said, “I’ll walk it over Saturday morning. I’ll bring them over to the store. But remember to return them to me in time.” So I went in to do that, to leave it there. Joe Breslov, the father of this young man, was in the store, and I gave him the papers.
He was busy and a customer came in, fortunately. A few minutes later another customer came in. Here I am on this beautiful, top-class furniture, catering predominantly to the Jewish population. I said to the people, “Can I help you?” (They had no doorman or anything like that.) They wanted to see a dining room set.
I looked around on the main floor – it was the first time I was in the store – and I said, “It’s not here, so it’s got to be up the flight of stairs. Come with me, please.” I took them upstairs and walked them around the dining room section. I’m Jewish but I spoke very little Jewish (Yiddish) at all. I didn’t understand much of it because my mother was born in Syracuse. My father came over when he was 14 from Poland into Boston. We had no Jewish help. But here I was talking in a place where the customers were predominantly Jewish. I did learn a few words. They liked one dining room set. They opened up a drawer and I said to the man, “How does one say, ‘This is solid walnut.’?”
He said, in Yiddish (in Jewish), to his wife, “solid walnut”. He opened up another, and I said, “Vea say zuckman,” which is Jewish for, “how does one say?” (I can say “how does one say” in Spanish, Italian and Chinese just as well as I can in Jewish.) I showed them how it was veneered and how it was on the drawer slides.
Before you know it, he sold his wife a dining room set. I was not a smart businessman at that particular time, but I was smart enough to know that you took the name, the address, and I put my hand out for a deposit. He gave me a $200 deposit. I said, “Come with me.” He said, “No, no, we want to see a bedspring and mattress.” I said, “Come with me first.” We went down a flight of stairs into the office and I gave this to Joe. I didn’t know where the hell the bedsprings and mattresses were. I said, “I just sold a dining room set. These are the people. They want to see a bedspring and mattress. Here is the deposit. I’ll stick around until you finish. Maybe your son will be back.”
That’s how I got into the furniture business. After that, Joe Breslov had his son call me and say, “Hey, my father thinks you’re great and he’d like to talk to you.”
He got on the phone and said, “I’d like you to come as a part-time person. What evenings can you give me? How about Saturday?”
I said, “Saturday is the only time I can give you.” I went to work for Joe Breslov on the floor as a salesman. I was married, and at that time school teachers made $30 a week. Between the two of us, making $60, we were able to have an apartment and feel pretty good at 60 bucks a week. It sounds ridiculous when you talk of those figures today, in today’s economic structure.
INTERVIEWER: Did he pay you commission on the dining room suite?
SHERMAN: No – I ought to go back! It’s too late now. But that’s how I got into the furniture business. What happened subsequent to that is that I stayed there for quite awhile and every once in a while, he’d call me in. After school, I would come to the store because, as I said, it was only four or five blocks away. Some of the salesmen would come in to sell him, like Earl Jacobs and people like that. He’d want me to sit in and listen to them make their pitch.
One day, Earl Jacobs particularly said, “What the hell are you doing here? If you’re going to be in the furniture business or start something, why don’t you come down to Ludwig Baumann where you belong with your education and your background and do something for yourself instead of staying?”
I said, “I’m only doing this part-time. I want to be a lawyer.” At any rate, that’s how I got to Ludwig Baumann. Earl Jacobs made an appointment for me and I went down to see the head of Ludwig Baumann. He said that they’d like to put me on immediately as a junior salesman. I said, “What is a junior salesman?”
He said, “You only handle the small stuff, like end tables and consoles.”
I said, “I’ll have to think about it.” I went back home and talked with my wife. She said, “Do whatever you want to do – whatever makes you happy.”
I said, “I don’t want to continue this. I’d like to be able to make a little bit more money than I’m making teaching school. There’s no reason why I can’t do something in the furniture business and still take my courses at night.” In those days, we didn’t have anything but one Thursday night a week when the store was open. That was true right across the board – whether it was Macy’s, Gimbels or anything else. We only opened up one night a week. I said, “I’ll go back and talk to them again.” I went to work for Ludwig Baumann. That was in 1928.
INTERVIEWER: How much did you make selling furniture?
SHERMAN: I didn’t make anything. If I made $10 or $12 for that Saturday (which was commission and a base), that was money that I could add to my $30 a week income.
INTERVIEWER: Almost half as much as you made teaching all week.
SHERMAN: That was little then. Then when I went to Ludwig Baumann, I started off there on the floor as a salesman. By the time I finished law school, which took me six and a half years to finish at night, I was making $4,400 to $4,600 a year.
By then, I had become an assistant manager – from salesman to assistant manager of the main store at Ludwig Baumann.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that?
SHERMAN: At 35th Street and 8th Avenue. It was a whole block – 35th to 36th Street and 7th to 8th Avenue.
INTERVIEWER: You were there when you and I worked together.
SHERMAN: That’s right. At that point, the question came up about my taking my bar examination. I started investigating prices for law clerks from schools that I came to. I took mine at Fordham University, which had a pretty high ranking in law. Against Harvard and Yale, of course, or Stanford, we didn’t have a chance. The people graduating from Harvard or Yale could possibly get into one of the Wall Street places that paid $18 a week. For the others, $15 was the going figure. In my particular case, if I were to take my bar and get into a law practice, I would be making $15 a week as a law clerk.
I had a son on the way; he was born in 1932. This was 1931 and a half when I finished. I never took my bar exam because I couldn’t afford it. But the law information and my education as a lawyer helped me a great deal later on.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting that a school teacher made $30 a week and a law clerk made $15.
SHERMAN: A law clerk made $15 in those days; that was universal. It was only the top flight guys. I was not in that class undoubtedly. They got $18. But what actually happened was that I went to work with Ludwig Baumann. I was a salesman on the floor. We had a beautiful building – it was big, a full block.
We used to have two doormen and all of a sudden they decided to cut it down to one doorman. A salesman would sit in the back of the store and then you’d be called in turn to sit up front. I’d sit back there with the guys, schmoozing or reading until our turn came up. We used to have 42 salesmen. It was a very busy place. Instead of sitting back there when the doorman went out to lunch, I would come up front and act as the doorman. I thought it was no more than fair to greet people one-on-one and not have one of the guys come up to greet them.
Martin Wartman, who was my idol, and who was the president of Ludwig Baumann at that time, would go to lunch with his people across the street at the New Yorker Hotel, which had just been built. He did this a few times and a few times he saw me at the door. One day, he asked Lee Zimmern, who was his brother-in-law and the head merchandising guy – he and his brother, Henry; they were the two brothers-in-law of Martin Wartman – “Who’s that young man at the door?” They said, “He’s one of the salesmen.”
Martin Wartman said, “Keep an eye on him.” That’s exactly right.
I said, “No sense sitting back there with a bunch of guys, schmoozing when I could be up front greeting customers and making it look official, calling the next man up.” From that point on, I guess they kept their eye on me. I became the assistant manager and then became the manager of the main store.
From that I worked in my office as the manager of the store. We had decorators and all that. Henry Zimmern and Lee Zimmern, who were the big buyers, always called me in to get my opinion about the pictures and stuff. They were not the guys that would sit down and work out a formula. We didn’t have machinery at that time. We didn’t have technology in those days. Everything was done by hand – stock cards and everything. You had to know what the inventories were. They had no feeling for that kind of bookkeeping, so I did it. Before you knew it, I was in the merchandising end.
INTERVIEWER: Your number skills helped you there.
SHERMAN: I know. I was organized and they weren’t. They were good, good merchants in making selections for furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Give me a little bit about the time span. You went to work for Ludwig Baumann in what year?
INTERVIEWER: When did you become the assistant manager?
SHERMAN: It must have been a year later.
INTERVIEWER: And then the manager?
SHERMAN: A year later.
INTERVIEWER: This was, by now, 1930.
SHERMAN: 1930 or ’31, I’m not sure.
INTERVIEWER: Then you worked in the stock control.
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any military experience? You were in-between.
SHERMAN: No, I have military experience. That’s a little peculiar. When I was at Ludwig Baumann and the war hit us, I kept saying to myself, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing at this particular point. The whole thing is ridiculous. The world’s going to hell.”
INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
SHERMAN: 1941. I went to Washington. I told my wife and she said, “I think you’re foolish.” We had two kids at that time.
INTERVIEWER: What was your title at Ludwig Baumann?
SHERMAN: I was vice president in charge of merchandising. I was the vice president of the whole thing, in charge of everything. We had a president, Martin, and I was the general manager, vice president.
I said, “This is silly. I’ve got plenty of guys; I could turn it over to one guy or another. They can run it for a while.”
I went to volunteer my services. I found out that they were really only interested in one thing and that was to make their air bases in Greenland or places like that.
The colonel who interviewed me said, “I know you’re married; I know you have two kids. This is not the job for you. But if you’d like to, we can give you a good position in quartermaster, which is what your field is.”
I said, “Is that full-time work?”
He said, “No, it would be three or four days.”
They had to give me a position because there were people working under me; they made me a colonel. I’m trying to remember the word that they used for it. I had no status; I had nothing; I had no uniform. The biggest, toughest job I had during the war was getting a ticket from Washington back up to New York to be with my family on weekends. Anyway, I was an auxiliary colonel.
INTERVIEWER: In Washington?
SHERMAN: In Washington, in the Pentagon. That’s the only military service I’ve had.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any furniture involved in that?
INTERVIEWER: Thinking back to the early ’30s, tell us about the industry at that time. Who’d you buy from? What companies were there? Who were the salesmen?
SHERMAN: That’s where I tell you my big failing: I don’t remember names. You’ll have to prompt me. That’s why I said it would be a wonderful thing if a couple of my guys would be here to tell you. We not only bought from well-known people, but also helped a lot of people like Hibriten and Ed Broyhill.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that you were Broyhill’s biggest customer.
SHERMAN: Oh, yes. We helped a lot of people. We came across Prestige, Lee Corson’s father.
INTERVIEWER: Crestline. Rome Jones.
SHERMAN: That’s right. Rome Jones. We found Rome Jones working out of his garages at the very beginning when we were in search of furniture during the war period. I had my two guys and me, and we separated to find people like that. We shipped Rome Jones samples of what we had on the floor and asked him to make it. Prestige became a very, very big company.
INTERVIEWER: He made sofas for $65 so you could retail them for $99.
SHERMAN: If I could remember things like that, I would be happy to tell you. But as I say, I live in the present. I always have and don’t think too much of what has happened. It takes me a long time to recollect some of the things that you mention.
We helped build a lot of factories, not because we were altruistic, but because we were in need of furniture. Furniture was very, very scarce during the war years. A lot of people say, “We owe a great deal to Ludwig Baumann and particularly to so-and-so.” That isn’t true. They didn’t owe it to us. We owed them the favor of their being able to do it. We would advance money to them. In advance of giving them an order and before their order was filled, we would very, very definitely send them money, part payment of what the shipment was going to be in the future.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about Rome Jones and Prestige. You mentioned Lee Corson; his father was Nat, as I recall.
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Where did Nat Corson come from? Was he with Hearns?
SHERMAN: Yes, at Hearns. So was Charlie Seidenman; Charlie was at Hearns.
INTERVIEWER: Then Hearns closed up. He got together with Mr. Barrus up in Valdese and they started Crestline and got to be very big. You mentioned Charlie Seidenman, whom we’ve both known very well and have fond memories of. What about Charlie Seidenman?
SHERMAN: Like everybody else in New York, we were all in love with Charlie. He was “Uncle Charlie”. He was Uncle Charlie, even though I don’t think there was an age disparity between us of more than four years. I was the kid in the business, because positions similar to what I held were held by people who were anywhere from four to eight years older than me. They always looked at me as the kid in the business. Well, the kid finally grew up to be an alter cocker. Thank God.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I say, that’s for the lucky ones. Can you think of any other names or companies from back then?
SHERMAN: I know them all. I’m trying to think of people that we did so much volume with. Funny, I just draw a blank. When it comes to names, I’m S-O-L.
INTERVIEWER: If the names come up, interrupt and put them in. What was the first Market you attended?
SHERMAN: The first Market I attended was with Lee Zimmern, who was in charge of the furniture division at Ludwig Baumann. Remember, we had a few other things happening at Ludwig Baumann. We were really a department store. We had not only furniture, which was a predominant 60 percent of our business, but we had a very large housewares department. We had what we called the linen end of it, which were draperies, linens and the whole schmear.
Later on, it was decided to shrink one floor because of furniture merchandising. We didn’t have enough to fill the 12-story building that we had. Each floor was 15,000 square feet.
INTERVIEWER: In the one store?
SHERMAN: In this main store.
INTERVIEWER: But you had other stores.
SHERMAN: Oh, sure. I’ll talk about that with you anytime you want. At that particular point, the main store was 15,000 square feet for each floor, and we’re talking about a 12-story building.
Little by little, the samples on the floor of the lines that we were carrying were small enough so that we decided to open up one floor and get into the ladies’ division. I didn’t have much to do with this. The board of directors and Martin Wartman, who was the president, hired a guy who was one of the top buyers in one of the department stores, B. Altman. He came in and they instituted. We had a whole 15,000 square feet for ladies’ merchandising.
INTERVIEWER: Was this clothing?
SHERMAN: Yes. We also took a portion of the main floor and made a clothing department. We had men’s clothing, men’s haberdashery and ladies’ up on the 4th floor. On the 3rd floor, we had half the floor devoted to housewares, half the floor devoted to what we called the linens, which were nothing but soft goods. We also had 7,500 square feet devoted to T.V. when it first came in, and radios and appliances; we were very, very big. There was the furniture, the housewares, the drapery, the ladies’, and the second portion, the big portion of the business, was in the appliances – radios and T.V.
INTERVIEWER: Sixty percent of your business was furniture.
SHERMAN: That’s right. It never shrunk below 50 percent.
INTERVIEWER: About the first Market, what year was that?
SHERMAN: 1950 or 1951.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t go in the ’30s to Market?
SHERMAN: No, never went to the Market.
INTERVIEWER: There were no Markets during the war.
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: They resumed about ’47.
SHERMAN: I think it was ’50 or ’51. The first time I went down was with Lee when I was his boss. I was just promoted to be his boss and Lee went with me. I went to the factories with him because he knew them better than I did. Everybody at that particular point knew about this new guy, Irving Sherman. They were doing a little kowtowing to me – not because of Irving Sherman, but because I represented the largest there was. The second in the United States at that time was Barker Brothers out on the coast, which I almost took over. I remember them making their pitch to me as though I knew my ass from my elbow.
INTERVIEWER: This was in North Carolina?
SHERMAN: Yes, this was in North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: Was it summer or winter?
SHERMAN: It was not winter because we drove down. I remember driving down with Lee. We stopped off in Richmond and from Richmond we went down. I would always say, “That’s very nice of you to say that, but the decision is Mr. Zimmern’s,” because I knew how badly he must have been feeling that he was the kingpin. Everybody came around kissing his ass because he was really the top guy. His brother, Henry, took care of all the soft goods – living room and all that. Between the two of them, they were the kingpins at Ludwig Baumann until I became their boss. I would defer to him and say, “whatever Lee thinks is the better thing to do,” for the first couple of Markets until I got a little bit more conscious of what I was doing.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work the Markets previous to that here in New York, down at 206 Lexington Avenue?
SHERMAN: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: What was the first Market down there?
SHERMAN: The first Market I attended was – time frames and names are my two weaknesses. There may be others that you can discover, but I’ll admit to those immediately, willingly.
They had an annex right around the corner. Before they moved to 200 Lex, we had a place on 36th Street between 8th and 7th Avenue; that was the annex. I’d go there and eventually, when it went to 200 Lexington Avenue, of course, we all went there.
INTERVIEWER: It was 206 Lexington for a long time.
SHERMAN: That’s right. Then they changed it to 200. I’m very close to it. I do all I can for it. They were wondering about what to do and I said to the man who’s the president, “The D&D Building at 979 Third Avenue, which is the decorator’s building, is known as 919. Instead of what you’re writing about, let’s call it 200 Lex.” I said, “Tell all your people when they go into cabs to tell them you’re going to 200 Lex.” It got to a point where taxi drivers knew 200 Lex like they knew the D&D Building.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the first Market. What did the building look like? Who was there?
SHERMAN: It was one single building. I thought it was a large building. Compared to what you got there today, it’s a city.
INTERVIEWER: This is in High Point?
SHERMAN: In High Point. There were eight or nine floors. We also went once or twice to Grand Rapids, and we used to go to Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: When did you start going to Chicago and Grand Rapids?
SHERMAN: The same time that I took over the job – when I became Lee Zimmern and Henry Zimmern’s boss. They would go out to Chicago. I had nothing to do with it. When they came back home, they’d tell me what they were doing. I would say, “In this particular store, we need so many ...” – how many bedrooms or dining rooms they could have at the Brooklyn store or the Newark store. That’s as close as I ever got to making selections.
INTERVIEWER: The New York Market – were you familiar with that before the war?
SHERMAN: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: When did it gravitate to Lexington Avenue? When did that building open – in the ’30s sometime?
SHERMAN: I do not remember the date.
INTERVIEWER: What about at the first Chicago Market you went to and in Grand Rapids?
SHERMAN: It was the same year that I went down South, if I could remember the exact time.
INTERVIEWER: It would have been either in the winter or in the summer.
SHERMAN: Both. We had two Markets. One was in the spring and one was in the fall in Chicago. As for housewares, I’d come out with my buyers because housewares was out on the pier. We’d freeze our asses off in the wintertime and sweat our hosiers off in the summertime. I’d go out with my group of buyers to the Furniture Market and stay over the weekend for the housewares department.
INTERVIEWER: Over what period of time did you go to the Markets? What can we say about changes in the Market from the time you started going until the time you stopped?
SHERMAN: The big changes were, of course, the discontinuance of the Grand Rapids Market, which was a visit from Chicago to get over there. Another change was the transfer of these factories and showrooms to the southern areas, principally around the High Point district. I don’t remember whatever happened to the building after the Furniture Market closed on Lake Shore Drive. I’ve seen the factories that opened up and blossomed through the South, whether it was Lenoir or all the other towns around. I’ve seen them grow from small operations into gigantic operations today.
INTERVIEWER: What about the transition from Markets in winter and summer to spring and fall in the South, the way they are now?
SHERMAN: I think they’re much better for timing and also for selling periods. It was a great change.
INTERVIEWER: The initial reason for it, as I understood, was that Ludwig Baumann couldn’t buy furniture in July for your big sale in August.
SHERMAN: That’s right. That was true not only for us, but for everybody else. We had two big events: the February furniture sale and the August furniture sale. I think the principal reason for my losing track of time frames is that I was always working so far ahead. For instance, I’ll start with Christmas.
We had a big toy department. One of our floors was not used sufficiently. On the 12th floor at Ludwig Baumann, we had toys and all of our Christmas merchandise. Our Christmas catalogs were put to bed no later than June 15th. We did all of our purchasing – whether it was ladies’ or whatever – all the divisions. We had a presentation, a 48-page catalog that was mailed to our 280,000 customers. Remember, we were installment people. We sent it to them and they could order the stuff and add it onto their accounts, which was a completely different business than the department stores which had no such thing as accounts at that time.
By the time June 15th came, we were finished with it. By the time Christmas came, all I was interested in was seeing that the merchandise was gotten rid of. I was working on my January white sale, my February furniture sale. When we were fretting about one, the next thing we were talking about was Easter for the ladies’ and men’s clothing departments. I always was working and I get confused with the dates.
INTERVIEWER: When did you mail the Christmas catalog?
SHERMAN: We mailed the Christmas catalog 10 days before Thanksgiving. It had to be in the people’s homes by Thanksgiving at the latest. That was the deadline. In particular, Howard Que, who was my vice president in charge of advertising, was responsible for this work. He is my dearest friend. He’s now 92 and I visited him only last week. We would mail the catalogs so that everybody definitely had them by Thanksgiving.
INTERVIEWER: You also advertised in the newspapers.
SHERMAN: We were the largest advertiser in the Daily News, the number one advertiser. We also had many papers in those days. We had the World Telegram. We had the Post, which was a class paper. We had the Daily Mirror. We had seven newspapers and the New York Evening Journal, of course. But our biggest audience was the Daily News and we catered to that.
We did our furniture advertising with the Daily News, but I am not in favor of mementos of things that happened, because whatever happened, happened. That’s gone. I don’t have portfolios of some of our ads, but our ads were class. Ludwig Baumann was a class store. It was a very class store and our advertising reflected it all the time. Howard Que came to Ludwig Baumann before my time. I was a salesman on the floor, but I didn’t know what was happening upstairs. Howard came from Macy’s and he was a department store person. Our advertising reflected the best there could be in presentation of furniture. Howard was very, very responsible for creating the image of Ludwig Baumann as a different store than the borax stores. We were not a borax house. We were a one-price house and there was no bargaining, except on T.O.s when I first started. Do you remember T.O.s?
INTERVIEWER: What does T.O. stand for?
SHERMAN: Turn over.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about a T.O. then.
SHERMAN: That’s where it started with me. As a salesman, if you had price resistance, you’d press a button on each of the floors. Press a button, then the assistant manager or the turn-over man, (that could be the top salesman), if he were free, would come up and be introduced as the “manager” of the store. He’d say, “What can I do for you?” If you couldn’t make a sale, you could call this guy to see if he could enhance the sale and make it.
Incidentally, the guy that I originally told you I went to interview with, which was the head of the whole furniture department at Ludwig Baumann, was Mr. Solomon.
At any rate, he’d come over and be introduced as the “manager.” As the “manager,” he could do things. He would say, “If you don’t like that, here’s something. Even though this is $198, I can let you have this for $180,” or whatever it was, 10 percent off or something like that. He’d make the sale. The salesman, Irving Sherman, who had asked for the turn-over man, would get the credit for the sale and he, the T.O. man would get 1 percent, or I forget what it was, of the sale. That was the T.O. man.
When I got to be in the sales end of it, at the end of that first year, they thought that I was pretty darn good, so I became the man they’d call as the number one guy to be the T.O. man. If I wasn’t with another customer, I was the guy who was the “manager.” At that particular point, after having done that for a month or two, putting my name on top of his name, I refused to do it.
I had a guy on the sales force (there were 42 men) who was a very straight-laced salesman. I had very high regard for him. He was a very wonderful, straight person. He was a big person in his church. He was a wonderful salesman and customers trusted him, but he was not a closer.
He made the sale, but he didn’t know how to say “What’s your name and address?” and “Let me have your deposit.” He would be one of the guys who would be pressing the button for help or he’d pick up the phone in front of the customer and say, “Let me have the manager, please.” Then I’d come up as a “manager.”
One day, because I was crazy about this guy, I said, “You know, you’ve only got one trouble.” That particular day I said, “I refuse to put my name on the chart.” He said, “Why, Mr. Sherman?” I said, “I don’t need this. It’s no honor to me. I don’t need that ½ percent or whatever it was. I would rather help you train yourself to close your own sale, because that’s all I’m doing.”
All I had to do was to say, “This is fine. I think it’s wonderful. I can make the delivery for you.” I’d take out my book and say, “Would you like delivery on such-and-such a day? I can arrange for that,” and I would close the sale. I had nothing to do with the sale. He did it.
From that point on, I said to the guys, “I will put my name on something where you were unable to interest a person in picking their selection; I will help you do that. That’s fine. But if it’s just a matter of having the ‘manager’ come up to be able to give a discount or cut the price a little bit, I won’t do it.”
This came to the attention of Mr. Zimmern, who was the big boss. He called me one day and he said, “How come Sol Wallace (who was the other guy) has this?”
I told him very honestly, “Wallace will walk up – whether the guy was on the floor or not – and put his name on it, even if he wasn’t called. I’m not interested in that. I like to be honest with myself.” I told him why I did this.
He said, “I’d rather you didn’t do it, because the only reason you two guys are doing it is that his record is that long and yours is that short.”
I said “I’m not looking to compile a record. If you want to get another guy to take the duty of it, that’s all right with me.”
When I was talking to him, at that particular moment, Martin Wartman, who was the president of the company, happened to be just outside the office and heard this whole conversation.
I didn’t know about it at the time, but the following day, Lee Zimmern called me back up and said, “I want to talk to you. I think what you did – what you’re doing – is right. You don’t have to do that kind of stuff.”
I said, “I’ll tell you another thing while we’re talking about it, Mr. Zimmern. I don’t know why we can’t cut out altogether the fact that you have to get a discount or a cut in price.” There was enough markup in those days.
Again and again, the same thing happened. Martin Wartman was right outside of the office when I was talking to him and I said to him, “I don’t know why we can’t be a one-price house. Ludwig Baumann, we have a wonderful picture of our advertising and everything about our place. Our stores look completely different than all the other kind of places around.”
We had a whole decorating staff; our windows, which stretched from 35th to 36th Street (multiple windows with the minions), they were beautifully done. Everything was done 100-percent legitimate looking.
“Don’t give me the privilege of cutting the prices. Make me be the salesman if I’m taking a T.O. to make the sale, because I’m a better salesman or I can put a little bit more pressure on making the sale than the first salesman. But don’t give me the privilege of cutting the price.”
From that discussion, Mr. Wartman, who was my idol, who was just a wonderful person, decided that we would become a one-price house.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, he took your idea that he overheard.
SHERMAN: He overheard and he said that it was right because he undoubtedly had been thinking about it. Martin Wartman called me into his office one day, and I said, “Holy good Jesus. What did I – what happened – did I do something wrong?” Martin Wartman, the president, all the way up on the 12th floor. I went up to see him. This was maybe three or four weeks after that.
We were talking about the time I started off as a salesman. He never used the word “I.” He said, “We’ve been keeping our eye on you because we were impressed with the fact that you, instead of sitting with the boys in the back, went up and stood at the door to welcome customers and make the assignments. We’ve watched you ever since. We are inaugurating a one-price policy because you stimulated us.” I remember that word: stimulated. “You stimulated us into good activity to do that.”
Those are things that are meaningful, that have a very deep meaning to me. It’s very personal.
INTERVIEWER: Macy’s used to advertise 6 percent less than anybody for cash. You have brought this into focus, because you said Macy’s didn’t carry accounts and Ludwig Baumann did.
SHERMAN: That’s interesting. I can tell you more about the retail aspect than I can tell you about the manufacturing aspect. When we first started, we were a time-payment house. Macy’s had what they called a “30-day account,” which meant that if you put a deposit into your account, you could buy merchandise and they would bill you. But the money was there so that they were guaranteed. We, on the other hand, took a 5 percent or a 10 percent deposit, depending on the references we had for the people, their credit and ability to pay. We went along and were very highly successful, year after year, doing business on our terms. We didn’t cheat people. We were very, very straight. When we became a one-price house, there was no dickering, no bickering if exchanges had to be made. We became totally, totally legitimate. I want to take a lot of credit for that – not only the institution of it but the following through also. My attitude was 100 percent legit. In the credit department, which was under my supervision also (where Eddie Schrotter first started), there was no flimflamming. Our collections were done – no flimflamming. We were a very, very highly ethical operation. I take a lot of credit for that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you mind telling what the markups were and the commissions and so forth?
SHERMAN: I don’t remember. You heard me say something to Eddie Schrotter a little while ago about one-two-three-four color related, right?
SHERMAN: The color related. We had a system of marking on our tags. Remember, these were kids when they came up. Eddie Schrotter’s father worked for me prior to Eddie coming to work, just like Al Jacobs’ father worked for me in a different kind of position. Eddie said something about my being of some help to him and his father at the time. We were very close-knit. We were like a family. We were a family.
I’ll tell you about markup after this, because talking reminded me of it. Furniture had its tagging. We used different colors: white, red, green, whatever it was. The red was what we called “PM.” If a guy sold a tag that was PM, there was an extra 1 percent commission.
INTERVIEWER: What does “PM” stand for?
SHERMAN: It was a 1 percent commission on merchandise that we were anxious to dispose of and cut down our inventory. Number one was what we called “stimulus.” That gave 1 percent.
If something had a really high markup, that was the preference to selling your number, which was regular. Number three was what I called the “PM.” Number four is one that you stayed away from as much as possible because that was exactly the price that Macy’s or Gimbels would have. That was our competitive price. Number five was the switch from the ADV or the advertising. The number six color was advertising. So if you walked along the floor and you didn’t remember, don’t go to the six, because why sell them the advertised price, which was the come-on price? The number five was the step up from the number six. That’s what he referred to when he said, “Number one, number two, number three, number four, number five.”
Now these guys got 1 percent or 2 percent of their sales – I don’t recall. They got a basic salary; I don’t remember exactly what that was. By the time the year rolled around, the good salesmen would make somewhere between $4,000 and $4,200. The better salesmen, like the guy by the name of Jackson who was the shining salesman throughout all the stores, would make $5,200, $5,300 a year, which was a lot of money back in the years that I’m talking about.
INTERVIEWER: It was better than $50,000 today.
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: If you had 40-some guys making this kind of money.
SHERMAN: No, we didn’t; they didn’t; they ranged. Mr. Jackson was at the main store. We had stores also in Brooklyn, which was almost the size of our main store.
INTERVIEWER: Where was it in Brooklyn?
SHERMAN: Right opposite A&S (Abraham & Straus) at 40 Livingston. Now I remember that one – 40 Livingston Street was almost as large a store and just as important-looking as the main store. It was a number two store.
We had a store up in the Bronx at 152nd Street and Third Avenue. We had two stores in Newark: one on Market Street and one on Broad Street. Oh, we had a store in Jamaica. My God, how could I forget?! That was our third largest place. Jamaica was where the department stores were. Livingston Street and Hoyt were where A&S and all the other stores were; we all were clustered in that. In Newark, we surrounded Bamberger’s and there were other stores in Newark, with one store on Broad and one on Market. Later on, I bought an operation up in Hartford on Asylum. The only other place, other than G. Fox, was a department store that had a very good furniture department. I decided that it was time for us to have a store to compete with them – our class kind of merchandise against Shore Brothers, who was the run-of-the-mill, time-payment, borax store. We came across that operation and we bought it. Those were our stores. Then of course, there was our expansion later with the Spears.
INTERVIEWER: That was six or seven stores that you’ve enumerated.
INTERVIEWER: Ludwig Baumann began a long time before you were with the company.
SHERMAN: I was there when we celebrated our 105th or 106th year. The whole history of furniture in New York at retail is very interesting. Want to spend a minute on that?
SHERMAN: Furniture was sold way back and was predominantly run and owned originally by Irish people. The reason they were in that business was because they also made caskets. They started off with caskets and funeral equipment and then gravitated into furniture. They had the furniture department, which was relatively small, and a division of caskets, a room in which they had samples of caskets.
INTERVIEWER: Did they just sell in New York or were they manufacturing here also?
SHERMAN: I couldn’t tell you that. My research didn’t go back to where they did it. My guess is that most of the manufacturing was done primarily in Brooklyn, because that was the closest access into New York.
INTERVIEWER: We’re back in the 1800s?
SHERMAN: Yes, roughly. I would judge it to be about the Civil War period or a little after the Civil War. There was a great German immigration into the United States. Ludwig Baumann and the Sachs were Germans. Right after the Germans came in (and they were merchants), there were the other guys that founded the Hearns were Jews. Abraham and Straus were Jews. The Losiers were Jews.
SHERMAN: The Sterns were Jews. They were in 1840, 1850 and 1860. That was the second wave; that was the change. Then came the European Jews. The European Jews came in and they were with Sachs Furniture, Spears and stuff like that.
The business was run by these people in those successions until what happened when the Latinos came in. Right now in the New York market that is the big surge. They are the mama-and-papa stores and they are growing. They have been growing; even during the bad economic times, they grew and they grew. They are now the sons and daughters of the immigrants who came, like the sons and daughters of the Germans or the Jews that came. They are running most of the furniture businesses.
INTERVIEWER: In terms of dollar volume, do you remember what Ludwig Baumann was doing when you came, during your time there and when you retired?
SHERMAN: If I quoted the total figures (if I could remember them all), they would be misleading. I can’t tell you how much of it was furniture or how much was in each of the divisions. But we were the largest home furnishings company in America. Second to us was Barker Brothers. Third to us was People’s Outfitting Company in Detroit. The fourth were the guys down in the southwest whose names I don’t recall. They are still the big people down there.
Were we $12 million or $15 million or $18 million? I can’t remember. I can tell you that with the financing that we had to work out, I would sit with a group of bankers who were combined to make sure that we had the money. I can only tell you that I would get loans up to $8 million. So we had to be doing, at that time, $15 million or $16 million, but it was below $20 million.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a lot of money.
SHERMAN: It was either $15 million or $16 million. Twice a year, we’d sit with this group of bankers down on Wall Street at 120 Broadway. I would have to give them a forecast for the year. That’s an interesting story. We had six guys who worked. Here’s what happened to us to be able to finance and grow like we were from $8 million all the way up to $16 million. It was about $8 million when I came to the place.
When we grew and added these departments, we needed the money and we were opening our accounts. We constantly had promotions that made people say, “Hey, it doesn’t cost me anything more right now. All I have to do is add $2 more a week to my payment.” I’ll tell you about some of those promotions, which were very interesting. I would make the forecast on what our profitability would be. What they did was to advance collectively as one group (they worked it out), so that they paid us as we took a new account and gave it to them; believe it or not, we got 80 percent payment. They withheld the 20 percent. We had a cash flow constantly. Even though we were opening up new accounts and extending a lot of credit, we could afford to do this, because as the sales came in, 80 percent was sold. With a cash flow of having people coming and buying and making their payments, we made up that 20 percent to be always an influx properly.
INTERVIEWER: That was pretty close to factoring, then.
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: On a sort of informal basis.
SHERMAN: It was not. It was a very formal basis, I can tell you that. These guys would rip apart my forecast and try to do everything they could. There was one guy from Midland Bank, whom I will never forget; he was the son of the founder of Midland Bank. Somebody challenged me one day and said, “Did you know you were off 2 ½ percent on your forecast of the last six months?” He said, “What do you feel will be on this new forecast for the future?”
I said, “I don’t know how to answer that. These are the best figures that I can think, talking ahead of what the economy’s going to be and what the conditions are going to be. This is my forecast, broken down by departments.” Oh, it was a very detailed thing. I’ll never forget this guy, never forget him; he was 6 foot 4 inches in height. He was sitting at the end of that table with these other six bankers, with me and the chairman of the board.
INTERVIEWER: Of Ludwig Baumann.
SHERMAN: Of Ludwig Baumann, who was very quiet, because he didn’t know about what was happening, other than the fact that he was the money man. He said, “What the hell are you talking about? How close are you on your forecasts? He’s 2 ½ to 3 percent and you’re finding fault with him? I think Irving’s done tremendous forecasting in each of the departments, coming up with the total. Are you ever as close as 2 ½ to 3 percent?” I said, “Thank God for this guy.” I’ll never forget him. He was a football player for the Senators.
INTERVIEWER: Who was the head of Ludwig Baumann?
SHERMAN: Martin Wartman.
INTERVIEWER: What jobs have you held in furniture companies?
SHERMAN: After I left Ludwig Baumann, I went with Lit Brothers, which was part of City Stores. I was vice president. I left Ludwig Baumann after 27 years of being with them.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to comment on that?
SHERMAN: I will comment on that to give you more of a history of why I left Ludwig Baumann and what happened. Why Ludwig Baumann became Ludwig Baumann Spear. That was when I sat in on this business of the banking situation.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see.
SHERMAN: It’s not necessarily in sequence as we’re talking. The guy who was head of Lit Brothers, which was one of the City Stores, which was a combination of many, many department stores, knew me quite well. He was primarily a furniture man even though he was head of the whole department store.
INTERVIEWER: Was this Lit Brothers of New York or Philadelphia?
SHERMAN: Philadelphia. City Stores’ main headquarters were there. He’d been after me for a couple of years, knowing what was happening at Ludwig Baumann and about some of the changes that were happening. He said, “I wish to hell you’d get out of there and come with us.”
INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
SHERMAN: I would say it was 1955 or ’56. I was with them a couple of years and came back to New York.
INTERVIEWER: What can you tell us about changes in purchasing, sales and merchandising?
SHERMAN: Buying proceedings were no different than before the individual guys. The buyers went down and they were the big shots, particularly in our case. They got what we needed and promoted because we got really good prices from manufacturers, because they knew that the volume would be there and the volume was right. Very frequently we demanded exclusivity on a style number, because we could take that and get a markup, which we were not afraid of breaking against our competitors or department stores.
INTERVIEWER: Who gave you exclusives?
SHERMAN: Practically everybody we dealt with.
SHERMAN: Sure, on a particular number. They could do something and make the changes and sell it all over, but that particular number was ours exclusively.
What actually happened in the buying customs was that I got to a point where I was afraid to order to get the quantity that I needed in order to obtain the discount and the exclusivity of it. There were two other operations in New York at that time: One was Spear and Company, who had stores in New York, Brooklyn and Pittsburgh; and the other one was Sachs Furniture. I got together with the Spear’s guys and the Sachs’ guys and I said, “I cannot afford to give a guy a total cutting just to get the exclusivity. One who’s going to make another design for somebody else. How would you like to agree on a particular number, which I have selected or you may select and bring to my attention, and if I can use it, I’ll say yes. If Spear can use it, they can say, ‘Yes, we can use it.’ Then we can say, ‘I can take X number.’ Then we can talk to the factory.” I was the leader of it, not because of Irving Sherman though. As I said, I had the weight. We’d all agree on the uniform price. This was the markup. It could be 200 percent.
INTERVIEWER: You probably couldn’t do that now.
SHERMAN: We would all price it at that. On that particular suite, we’d all price it one price. The customer could go from our store to another – we were all within walking distance actually. I’m talking about our main store in New York City itself, not in Brooklyn, Jamaica, Harlem or the Bronx.
INTERVIEWER: Where did Michaels fit into this?
SHERMAN: Number four.
INTERVIEWER: How did this factor in with the advertising and the merchandising? You didn’t all advertise the same suite.
SHERMAN: We never advertised it. That was an exclusive item that we had a good markup on and that we constantly reordered. Because of the higher markup on it, they got an extra 1 percent for selling that. That had the number one black tag. But we were always afraid of no competition on it, because if you tried to sell that, they couldn’t find the same suite all over and make a comparison. We advertised anything and everything, but we never advertised that.
You may have heard Eddie Schrotter say something about Dixie.
INTERVIEWER: Dixie Furniture Company in Lexington, North Carolina.
SHERMAN: Yes, Dixie Furniture. We bought a three-piece bedroom set that we used to advertise for $39.95. We had what we called “the switch.” This was a come-on. It was advertised at a low price and then we had a step-up from that which would be $15 more. It might have been another one from Dixie. It could have been another suite. That gave us a little bit of markup on the advertised price. The advertised step was usually around 33 1/3 percent onto cost. Then the step-up was 50 percent. Then the regular markup on the whole step of the other suites was 100 percent. I’m not talking retail figures. I’m talking 100 percent of the original cost, landed cost.
INTERVIEWER: Right, with your markup.
SHERMAN: That’s how we worked. The 33 1/3 percent or 35 percent markup on an ADV and then the step-up to that was like 55 or 59 percent. The next went up to whatever suites were on the floor. But we’re talking about the low end of it. The same thing happened on the better stuff when we advertised it. We had one brand name, which was used, like Thomasville Furniture. We mentioned some others in that category; that was our class stuff. That’s what we were known for because we didn’t have the borax, the cheap things.
Isn’t that funny? If I go back to my manufacturers’ book and I call them, we did the whole range of quality furniture.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t go up into the Drexel category?
SHERMAN: Sure we did. I should hope to tell you we did. We didn’t have too much of it, but we had Drexel.
We were class, class merchandise. I can’t recall names because of my poor memory, but that’s all.
INTERVIEWER: You did business with Lane, I’m sure.
SHERMAN: Of course. Lane was just coming up. Lane was coming up in my later days. The only thing we had in Lane were the cedar chests.
INTERVIEWER: That’s all Lane had for a long, long time.
SHERMAN: That’s right and that’s what we bought from Lane. Lane was in our linen department; we sold cedar chests. Toward the end of my career was the first I ever saw any Lane furniture being made.
INTERVIEWER: Did they start with occasional tables?
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Then gradually into case goods.
SHERMAN: That’s exactly right. Yep.
INTERVIEWER: What would you comment on about labor conditions in New York City over the years?
SHERMAN: When I started at Ludwig Baumann, and I’m naturally alluding to Ludwig Baumann because that was the only outside experience I had – not in furniture – I mean as far as labor conditions. We had no CIO; we had no AFL. We had no 32-Bs. We had completely free operations – no union. At Ludwig Baumann, I was treated as an employee as well as the others. We had a very decent salary range.
Bambrick, who was the head of building employees and the elevator, was superintendent; I think it was known as 32-B. Bambrick was a powerful guy. At one point, he organized our employees, and he meant to organize the employees in our building – not only in the main store. Of course, I was stationed there, so I knew what was happening all the time.
I remember him having a rough time with these guys, but he sold them on the idea that they should join the union. One of our employees was very recalcitrant. I had heard through the building (it came to my attention) that some of his guys had beaten up a little bit on this one guy who refused to join
INTERVIEWER: Was this just the labor people in the company or did it include your salespeople?
SHERMAN: That was the salespeople. That’s the first place that it started. Then after that, salesmen had no union. Office workers had no union. There was no union throughout the whole organization. Then AF of L came in and tried to organize following the 32-Bs, and Bambrick was a very important name in that. Later on Bambrick was held up by the Justice Department, brought to trial for a lot of bad things that happened that he was doing (he came to me personally). After everything else, I handled union affairs because at law school, there were two points that I studied: One was business law and the second was labor law. So I handled labor all through my experience, whether it was in the furniture business or whether it was in the food business when I was eventually into another enterprise. That’s Brass Rail and people like that.
INTERVIEWER: We’ll come to that.
SHERMAN: That’s a personal history; it has nothing to do with furniture. Then there was a guy by the name of Hensley, who was one of my top salesmen and more like an assistant manager. He had been a furniture worker in Grand Rapids. He graduated from that and became a salesman. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy and I respected him immensely. He knew things about unions and he felt strongly about unions because he was the working man, you know, working with his hands. He became the president of a chapter with AF of L and got the furniture guys. When he came to me to tell me about it, I said, “I know that’s the wave of the future and there’s nothing that I can do to stop it. All I can tell you is that I will give you my blessing. Gordon, I will only tell you one thing: I know that there is no stopping this situation. All I can tell you is that we could have a lot of arguments and disagreements, but if you play fair, I will play fair. We will never hurt each other for the good of both of our organizations.”
They started getting the guys. They came to me at the time. They came to the managers of the stores and we put no pressure on any of them. My word was out to all of them, to all the managers to let them do what they wanted. If they wanted to sign up because they thought it was right, that was entirely up to them – no pressure one way or the other. They all became union.
INTERVIEWER: The salespeople?
SHERMAN: CIO came into the picture because they knew what was happening. Everybody sensed it. The whole thing was mounting to get these other people. It all started, as I say, with 32-B with Bambrick. They communicated, naturally; they knew what the hell was happening. Then they got the office workers and the same thing happened there. When it came to that, I didn’t like CIO.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, CIO – Congress of Industrial Organization.
SHERMAN: I didn’t like it. I had a feeling that it was more communistic in those days. It was what we all talked about. AFL lost out to them, and they tried to get the people to join. They got the office workers and we had a tremendous staff with our credits, our collections, our adjustments, our bookkeeping, our stock keeping – remember in those days we didn’t have the things on computers, no printouts or anything like that; everything was done by hand. When merchandise was received, it was put on stock cards. When sales were made, the sales slips were sent up and the deductions were made. When you finished with it, you had to take an inventory; you read your last column and you knew that you had started off with 20. We sold 19, 18, 17, 16. That meant we had 16 things in stock. That was what those people did. We had a big enterprise with a hell of a lot of people. We had 1,400 employees.
INTERVIEWER: Did they ask for or did you give them a closed shop? Did they have to belong to the union?
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t deduct union dues?
SHERMAN: No, we didn’t deduct union dues. We were not a closed shop for only one reason. In our negotiations with these people – I’m talking about Hensley or Bambrick – there was one fight up in the office with Martin Wartman, the president. Then one guy walked out disgusted. I was on the main floor. I’ll never forget it. I said, “What happened? Why don’t you talk to me? I’ll listen to you.”
He said, “You have influence with those bastards upstairs?” They were willing to break the whole thing off.
I was against it and I told them that. I said, “It’s a wave and you’re not going to stop a wave. The wave is here, so do it pleasantly and get the best deal you can while you’re giving in. And compromise.”
You’re making me go back into my life and that’s not an easy thing to do.
INTERVIEWER: That’s what we’re here for, Irv.
SHERMAN: That’s very true, but these are things that happened that I just don’t recall. I had a reputation with the guys that I worked with on the union. I developed a reputation in the union area that kept me in very good stead later on in life when I became vice president of Brass Rail. If Irving Sherman says it’s a deal, it’s a deal. I’ve brought people together and I’ve done … It’s nice of other people to acknowledge it and talk about it, but I can’t do it.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you personally received from people in our industry.
SHERMAN: As far as support, I don’t know that anybody in this world could have received more support from the people in the industry, whether they were manufacturers, representatives or associations. My best support, of course, was the people that I worked with. Our interaction was phenomenal.
INTERVIEWER: Describe the support you have given to other people in our industry.
SHERMAN: I can only say, as you heard Eddie Schrotter say, as you would hear from Al Jacobs – this is easier for them to talk about than for me. I get embarrassed with it, because what I did, I did because this is where I am. I wasn’t putting on any acts. I extended myself because it was a privilege to do it. I put together a lot of things. I was helpful to a lot of people and received a lot of help from people because that’s interaction at its best.
I can’t tell you any of the specific things that I’ve done. In addition to the furniture at Ludwig Baumann, we had these other departments that I alluded to. Also we were the biggest news advertisers.
At one particular part when they got into rotogravure, which was a color section, I was very interested in it. We put together packages. This is what I’m talking about when I say “give and take” with people. I came up with the people; I came up with the idea: Here we have all these sheets, pillowcases and everything else. (Cannon was our main supplier.) I said to the salesman and the buyer down in that department, “When they come in, I’d like to talk to them.” So they brought them up to the office. I said, “I think I have an idea that will help Ludwig Baumann sell more pillowcases, sheets and so forth from one ad, than Macy’s will sell in one week.”
They looked at me askance and said, “You’re out of your mind.”
They looked at me as though I was crazy. I said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. If you’re not interested, I’ll get a hold of Pepperell (which was the other big supplier) and ask them whether they would like to go in together 50-50 on a color ad.” That’s what it was – a color ad in the newspaper. It was a lot of money. I said, “But I will guarantee that we will have X number of sales.”
They said, “We’ll have to take it up with the home office.”
In the meantime, I had my art department (under Howard Que) frame up an ad with the sheets, pillowcases and all that kind of stuff – all of that to go in color. We ran it. After we ran it, these orders came in.
We were open on Sunday because they could call in. Remember that this was an account. It would sell for $19.95 or $29.95 depending on what quantities we had. They had to pay a small down payment or no down payment if they had an account with us, and we had close to 300,000 active accounts. When that merchandise came rolling in …
For the first ad, they refused to do it. I said, “I’m going to do it in any case. But if I do it, I may never use you again. I will go to Pepperell.”
So we spent, I think it was $3,000 in those days. I don’t know what the hell it is now. This was national circulation. We didn’t bother at all if people came in from all over. They had to pay the shipping costs and everything else.
We worked out the deal with Cannon that they would make up the package as we had said – so many sheets, so many pillowcases. They would make it up in packages like that. We shipped it out. The results were so good that the next time we wanted to run it, which was six months later, I didn’t ask them; I went to Pepperell and asked them whether or not they would be interested. They said they were interested in it. I said, “Wait awhile. I’m not so sure whether we’ll use you or not.” They had heard about the success of this. Cannon came to us immediately.
Pepperell would have loved to do it, but I went back to Cannon because Cannon got in touch with me immediately and said something like, “We were wrong that we didn’t want to pay half of the cost of the thing. We would like to run the ad again.”
I said, “Very good. Repeat the ad right now, but I’ll tell you what I would like to do. We will be happy to take all of the information. We will ship you the labels for these sales and you ship them out to the people.” That was my pound of flesh from this.
That’s what we did. We had a very clean operation. We didn’t have any taking in, packing or anything else. That was the penalty for not going with me halfway. That was the kind of thing we did.
One day I was down with the guys in the housewares department. We were looking at pots and pans and they were telling me what they were buying and where it was from. A guy came in from Club Aluminum, which was a big thing in those days. I thought, “Gee, I don’t know enough about Club Aluminum, but that’s a class item, isn’t it?” Oh, yeah, it was wonderful. I said, “Do you sell much of it?”
He said, “We could sell a hell of a lot more because they’re very profitable and we never have any problem with Club Aluminum.” What the hell did I know about cookware? So I said, “What would constitute a good package for the homeowner?” He outlined what it would be.
I said, “Fine and dandy. When the salesman comes in, tell him to come up. Bring him up to me and we’ll talk about it.” I said, “Who else do you sell?” Of course, Gimbels, Macy’s, they all had it.
I said, “How much do you get out of Macy’s in a week or 10 days of selling?” He said, “I really don’t know, Mr. Sherman, but it’s quite a good deal.”
I went out for the whole package without spelling out the details. He said he’d take it up naturally with the home office.
One of the big shots, a vice president, came down to see me and said, “I’m intrigued with what you say. Why do you think you can do it?” I told him the history of what happened. I had run two ads now on Cannon and I showed him the results. We got them to go with it.
At first they said they didn’t know. I said, “It’s all right with me, because it was a choice. I don’t know anything about housewares, but I do know that I thought of Club Aluminum because I know the people would love to have been able to buy that for $29.95, to have so many different pieces that would constitute a set (enabling them, in their kitchens, to be able to use Club Aluminum). But if you’re not interested, the second thing that we carry, the second line is Wearever.” I said the same thing with Cannon and Pepperell. I said, “I’ll go and it’s not a threat or anything,” but I told them the truth. I believed in laying it on the line perfectly straight. I wasn’t kidding them and I didn’t want to be kidded. “I’ll go to them and see if they would like it.” They would’ve liked it very much.
We were the biggest Club Aluminum people in the entire New York City, because our ads reached all over and people knew that for $29.95 they had whatever the components were of the thing. It had a whole complete set for the kitchen. They could do all their cooking. We thought it through. We did that with many other things.
INTERVIEWER: This is co-op advertising, but is this the beginning of that?
SHERMAN: This was the beginning to me. We had co-op and then eventually it spread into other things when we got the fancy names that meant something. At one particular point, advertising Broyhill didn’t mean a damn thing to anybody. Or Thomasville didn’t mean a damn thing. The only company whose name meant anything was Drexel, if you used Drexel. No, there were two others …
INTERVIEWER: Kroehler, perhaps?
SHERMAN: Kroehler, yes. But we never got any Kroehler money.
INTERVIEWER: Lane was one of the first to go into advertising.
SHERMAN: Simmons. We were the number one USA Simmons account. Our ads always had that banner on it when we were running our bedding sales: Number 1 USA Simmons.” We developed that with Wrightson and the other guys. Whenever a new line came out with Simmons, I was called by my bedding buyer; naturally I never went without him. We were there to preview their new line of merchandise, and they wanted to get our opinion because they were anxious to know. If we think that this is good, this is what we’re going to be buying. We were extremely close to Simmons. As I say, the only competition was out on the West Coast with Barker Brothers, who hated the idea that we could advertise “Number 1 USA Simmons” and they couldn’t. I forget the name of the guy who was in charge of Barker Brothers.
He was a pain in the ass, to me, at any rate. Not because of his business acumen or anything else, but I went out to see him at one particular point. We were talking possibility of either them buying into us or us buying into them. I met with him and he had his furniture guy, who was Irish and Catholic. I hated the guy in charge not because of anything to do with business, but because of one thing: When he introduced me, he had the nerve to say about his own furniture guy, “He’s the Catholic in our company.”
I said to him, “Isn’t that funny? We have a Catholic. You’re a very good friend. I’m Jewish.” He didn’t know that at the time. He was strictly WASP, completely western WASP. I hated him from that moment on. To be able to say that in front of this man.
There were other things that came up, other combinations that we had. We expanded our accounts. At one particular point there were 220,000 active accounts.
INTERVIEWER: How did this co-op idea spread into furniture?
SHERMAN: Not much.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get any support from furniture companies?
SHERMAN: Very little, because as I said before, using the name of the company didn’t mean a damn thing at all. The only thing that we got as far as support is concerned (not because they supported us, but because they needed our volume), is we were able to get a better price in many instances. Between Spears and Sachs, we had something that the country would frown on right now.
INTERVIEWER: But the fourth company, Michaels, did not participate.
INTERVIEWER: It was Michaels Brothers, wasn’t it?
SHERMAN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: In this same context of help, what have you done for other people?
SHERMAN: I can’t talk about that.
INTERVIEWER: You’re legendary for that.
SHERMAN: Well, then let the legend carry on, but I will not talk about that. I can’t talk about it. I can make an overall statement on it and that is: I know that I’m known for being helpful. I know that I would go out of my way to be helpful. But to point out the specific incidents and the occurrences – no, I can’t do that. Let the other people do that. I can’t.
INTERVIEWER: Give me one instance that has been particularly rewarding to you to help somebody else be successful. I know, Irv, that there’s a great personal satisfaction in seeing somebody else succeed with your help.
SHERMAN: Yes, and that is my satisfaction. I’ll give you one case that has nothing to do with any of this stuff.
We had a jewelry department. One particular day, Ralph Lazarus, who was the president of Benrus Watch, which was a big company in those days and is still very well-known, was working on a new idea. He was coming up with a centennial design. They wanted to know whether I would go along with it, to give permission for my buyer to do it. I said, “There’s more to it than that. When Mr. Lazarus comes in, let him come up and talk to me. I’d like to see him.” So Ralph Lazarus came up with the jewelry buyer and I said, “I understand from the photograph that was shown to me that you’re working on something that sounds very good. Aside from what you’re going to sell through your own advertising and all, if you could make a little change on it – not a big job in tooling because what the hell do I know about the manufacturing of watches – I can run an ad on this at a very hot price, which you’ll tell me.
“I will sell a greater proportion of watches the first time we run an ad than you will sell. It will take you two or three months nationally to get this thing started.”
He said, “I don’t believe it. How would you do it?”
I said, “I have an avenue that doesn’t interfere with yours. I went through all the accounts, the 280,000 people that we could reach strictly by the mailing, not necessarily by an ad, but by sending out to them something that would be a very personal thing. ‘This is a Benrus watch, which you will see advertised very shortly. There’s only one change.’ We’ll tell them what it is and show them the difference. We’ll have a special price.” It was $39 or $49; I don’t recall.
He said, “I don’t understand it.”
I said, “You do what you want to do in selling it to your stores. We have a different audience. In addition to that, I will tell you that if this looks successful enough, I know that there are other people like People’s Outfitting that are the same thing as we are; they have accounts – whether it’s 150 or anything – that they will mail to. It’s no advertising, no conflict at all.”
I called in a guy, Sloane, whom I had met some years before through Hamilton Fish. I said, “This is it.” I had the ad all drawn up. (We had a whole advertising department. We were very well self-contained. We sent stuff off to the papers in advance. We did all of our air brushing and preparation. We had a big department.) I said, “Al, I want to do something. Here is an ad. Take this around.” This was his job. That was his promotion. He went around to these three or four big furniture operations.
He’d say, “This is what LB is doing. Would you like to do something like this? We will provide the pictures, our photos, our artwork,” which were all set up for them. All they had to do was to make it a mailing piece and put their own terms on it.
INTERVIEWER: These were all geographically separate companies?
SHERMAN: Oh, absolutely. They were all over, all around – Southwest, Midwest and South. This is where they were – not because I decided.
That was the most successful event that happened. Al Sloane came into see me. We knew each other quite well. I used to be out in Chicago, which is where he was. He and his wife would join me because I was a dancer. We’d be at the Chez Paree in Chicago. She and I just loved to dance together and be together. We liked each other a great deal. He came to New York, sat down, closed the door and said, “Irving, I just want you to know how much I made on the Benrus deal.”
I said, “That’s between you and Benrus. It has nothing to do with me. That’s between you and Lazarus.” He got a percentage, whatever it was. I never knew.
He said, “I want you to know that I have written you a check.”
I said, “Stop.”
He said, “No, let me finish.”
I said, “No, stop. If you tell me that you have a check for me, I don’t want to know what it is. I don’t want you to talk about it or I’ll throw you out of the damn window.” I was on the 7th floor. I said, “Al, what I did was not for you. I did it because I had to create a whole big picture to get the slice that I wanted. My slice could not be made unless there was a whole picture. You did your job. I got what I wanted. I got compensated.”
This is the kind of stuff that I did, not only with that item but with other items. That’s about as far as I’ll go with talking about helping people.
INTERVIEWER: Now we are to talk about your business strategies and your management techniques. Any comments on either strategies or techniques?
SHERMAN: I think I was possibly a little ahead of the Zimmern-type of people who possibly did not have the schooling or didn’t keep up with the trends so that they could make the shifts and make up an ideal line-up. It meant sitting down and figuring out what each store would have and what kind of merchandise categories. But I didn’t do that much.
Compared to what is being done right now, we were, as far as I’m concerned, in the 18th century as far as statistics. How the hell we did forecasting is beyond me. We were just flying by the seat of our pants, taking figures and stuff like that. There was no strategy.
The only thing that I will say is that one of the basics that kept me in very good stead was the support I gave to people, whether it was to the manufacturers when they needed it, as they did very frequently. Very frequently we helped build the factories because we thought a great deal of their capabilities. Again, it wasn’t because we were good-natured; it was because we needed the furniture from them. In order to get it, we even helped finance them so they could buy the raw merchandise. I’m talking about the guy we had mentioned before.
INTERVIEWER: Rome Jones.
SHERMAN: That’s right. Rome Jones didn’t have any money in his pocket to do that, so we advanced him just the same as what this whole group of bankers did to give us 80 percent. It all worked mutually.
INTERVIEWER: What has been your personal goal in business?
SHERMAN: I guess it was to do the best that I could do. Work hard, achieve and do the best you can. I can’t think of any goal other than to succeed, in whatever I was doing.
I do have to tell you a story. This is one thing that you should have as far as the history is concerned. At one particular point in the life of Ludwig Baumann, Martin Wartman, who was the head, had married into the Baumann family and he was very successful. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, particularly to me. He died accidentally in our building. Somebody fell down the elevator shaft from the 11th floor. I didn’t wait for an elevator. I started running – I was very agile and very fast. I ran all the way down to the basement. We got onto the main floor in the back and he was down in the pit. I asked the guy to help me down into the pit. I went down there and I discovered Martin Wartman. He had fallen, accidentally. So what the hell happened on the floor? Well, when he died, Sylvan Froehlich who was also part of the Baumann family became the president. Sylvan Froehlich had as much desire to be in the furniture business as the man on the moon.
Sylvan was the best fly-tying expert. He was a dog fancier and one of his biggest prides and joys was at Madison Square Garden when he entered his Sealyham. Do you know the English dog Sealyham? His dog was the first Sealyham to have been number one at Madison Square Garden. I remember that it was Saturday night and I was just leaving the store late at night to go to a theater when Sylvan came by to brag to me on the way to Penn Station. (He lived in Jersey.) He wanted to let me know that he won this great honor. That was his big thing. He had no interest in the company and it finally got around to the banks that he had no interest. At that time, acquisitions were just beginning to start, not only in the furniture business.
Sylvan Froehlich was interested. He would come to a board of directors meeting. I would meet him at Penn Station because he lived in Deal, New Jersey. I would go over an agenda with him and tell him what had happened, what should be happening. I said, “I will be there, naturally. If you don’t want to go into this any further, Sylvan, then you can turn it over to me, ask me a question on it and I will give the answers.”
That’s when acquisitions were happening and the guys in the big banks were specialists in saying, “Here are two companies that should be put together.” There was a company by the name of Spear and Company that was a pretty big company. The headquarters were in Pittsburgh, and they had one here in New York and a branch in Brooklyn.
One particular day, there was a group of guys headed by one particular man. Spears also wanted to get out of the business because they had it for generations, too. They were part of the Ludwig Baumann era, German people who came in. These old guys didn’t want it any longer and their kids had different interests.
INTERVIEWER: Did they do the same kind of account-carrying business that you did, like People’s Outfitting?
SHERMAN: Exactly. Yes, except that they were a little bit classier than People’s Outfitting. They were pretty close in operations to us. Their advertising was not up to our standards or anything. We were classier than they were, but they were second to us in ethical behavior of their business.
An outside group of people, completely foreign to the furniture business, bought Spear and Company. They retained the people that were operating it, the buyers and all that kind of stuff, because they knew nothing about it. They ran it for about a year or so. Then they realized they were not achieving the goals that they were hoping for.
This one guy was a great planner; this guy had made his money. He was born in New York City (poor). He was a Cooper Union graduate in engineering. He made his money by going around and buying old businesses and machinery; that was his job. He was the guy also, with a group of investors, who took the big ship that was sunk off Argentina or Brazil and raised it. He was able to sell it and make a ton. That’s the kind of a guy he was. He was great in that kind of stuff. This group of investors with him, who were his buddies, followed him. They went to buy Spear and Company. He didn’t care if it was furniture. It could have been clothing; it could have been anything. They went along with him. They were not achieving what they wanted. They were talking to a guy who was instrumental at one of the banks. They went to him and said, “What else can we do?” This guy said, “How about you make an investment by combining with Ludwig Baumann?”
These were behind the scene things that I know very little about – other than the fact that this thing was happening without my knowledge until it came to the front.
Sylvan Froehlich called me and said, “This is what’s happening,” and let me understand what was happening, the reason for it and where I stood. While they were going to be buying Ludwig Baumann, they wanted to make sure that Ludwig Baumann personnel would be running the combined efforts.
He said, “Before I sign it, I wanted them to know whether or not you would be the head of it and stay with it. That’s why I’m telling you the whole story.” He laid the whole thing out for me, beautifully and very honestly, because we had that kind of a man-to-man relationship.
INTERVIEWER: Was he chairman of the board?
SHERMAN: Yes. Later, this guy who was the ring leader became the chairman of the board. That’s how Ludwig Baumann became Ludwig Baumann Spear. It was my job and Howard’s job to decide what we’d do with the company, which became known as LB Spear. That was Howard’s handwriting, which was beautifully, wonderfully well done.
I had all my guys. Al Jacobs was the head of the furniture division. I called him immediately.
INTERVIEWER: Could you put a year on this?
SHERMAN: I can’t remember. All I can tell you are the facts behind it. We had a 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City at 45 Pearson Street. Spears had its warehouse on 23rd Street West, near 11th Avenue. Our job was to combine two inventories; our job was to combine two accounts; our job was to combine positions, to bring them in. I brought in a couple of buyers that I thought would fit in well with the organization. I brought in Freddie Daum, who was their head merchandising man, and I made sure that Freddie knew where he stood in that position – that Al Jacobs was still going to be working very closely with me in running the place, but that I’d want Freddie Daum to be working in cooperation with Al Jacobs, because he was a very, very good man, a very good merchandiser.
INTERVIEWER: How many stores did they have?
SHERMAN: Spears had one in Pittsburgh, the big store. In New York City, they had the 34th Street store, and they had one in Harlem at 121st Street and 3rd Avenue. We had the job of doing all the things to make LB Spears like that. It was a tremendous, tremendous undertaking to [integrate]]]] the two big organizations. Our big job was to liquidate the warehouse because the property was worth money aside from being able to consolidate. We had our force, division by division, warehouse by warehouse, working together. Aside from the accounting, which is another division, we started accumulating and integrating the two organizations.
Our job in the furniture end of it, as far as I was concerned, was the liquidation of it. We started running our ads and we started writing about it. The guy who was the big shot and the chairman of the two companies now said, “How are you going to do this? How do you think it’s going to work?”
Everybody likes to have a forecast. I said, “I plan that we should be able to sell.” People would come with their cars and pick up the merchandise, which they’d do because they could save a lot of money. Or if they wanted to pay, we had two outside trucking organizations. They made the deal with them. They had people with whom they’d make the arrangements to pick up that merchandise. Then they bought and delivered it to their homes.
I said, “I plan that we will sell $100,000, roughly, a day,” which was a lot of money in those days. “It’ll take us about 10 days to two weeks, which will then leave us with a residue of stuff that we can take from the Spear warehouse and bring over to the Ludwig Baumann warehouse.”
INTERVIEWER: This was all together in warehouses. We’ve not talked about the stores.
SHERMAN: Not the stores, no. Stores remained where they were.
At the end of the 10 days, my warehouse men – Al Jacobs and his whole crew – started taking inventory. They said, “Mr. Sherman, this is as far as we can go. We really haven’t got enough now to give a full picture with people coming in.”
I said, “Fine. Quit. That’s the end of it.” We did $1.2 million worth of business.
INTERVIEWER: In 10 days?
SHERMAN: In 10 days. I went to the guy and said, “We’re finished. This is what’s happening.”
He said, “I don’t believe it.”
I said, “Believe it. That’s what it is.”
He thought he was a big shot. He said, “I didn’t think you were going to be able to do it; I want to take you down to 21,” which was pretty big.
I said, “Thank you very much. I’ve been to 21; I don’t need it.”
He said, “Well, how do I . . . .?”
I said, “You want to reward me? I already have my reward. I had the dream of what would happen. I had intuition. It’s an accomplishment.”
I got my accomplishment. When I get my accomplishment, I don’t need any rewards. I was making good money in those days, believe me. Sylvan Froehlich saw to it and I saw to it that I was going to get a combined salary at that particular point of $45,000 and $5,000 in expenses, which was a lot of money. It would be worth today about $150,000. At any rate, I said I didn’t need it because, to me, I had the gratification that I was successful in doing what we had to do. That’s how Ludwig Baumann Spear came about. That’s it.
Then he ruined the company through his fights with the banks, his ineptitude. I’ll give you one instance. He was very smart but in a shylock-type of fashion, a very narrow fashion. I told you we were number one USA with Simmons. There was a guy by the name of Reitzen who was second in control to the Simmons family. He was the number one man. I only did number one business with the number one guys, and we were very friendly. I wouldn’t say good friends, but we were together. We went to the Daily News fights at the time. I’d go with him or he would call me and say, “Let’s go together,” and that kind of stuff.
The guy who succeeded him was named Kominsky.
He said, “I have an idea. We have 180,000 square feet of showroom. If the guys from the South – the factories – don’t have a place to show it, why shouldn’t they pay for square footage to have their merchandise shown?” I could understand that. That’s a very smart idea. From his point of view, it was a very smart idea.
I said to him, “I don’t think you can do it. I think it’s a great idea on your part, because we are acting as the showroom. If we were the only showroom available, your idea would be great. But if they don’t want to spend money for you to show it, for us to show it, there are other guys. There’s Macy’s, Gimbels, A&S, Loeser’s. All the other furniture stores will be glad to show it. You’re not going to change that whole thing, make a revolution in the industry. You’ll never accomplish it.”
He said, “I’d like to try it.”
I said, “I think the ideal situation would be, since I can’t get manufacturers up here to be able to talk to you, if you could sell the idea, because I certainly won’t try to sell it, because it’s ridiculous. It’s good thinking on your part, but it’s also impractical.”
I must say he had respect for my opinion, but he was very convinced that it was a good purpose. I said, “The Simmons Company is really our number one USA; why should I start with anybody else? They have their main office right around the corner on Number 2 Park Avenue. There’d be no problem for them to come over to see us. I’ll call them up and I’ll make an appointment to have you see them, but I’m not going to be present, because I told you I don’t agree with your philosophy.
“I think you had a good thought on it. It would be good if you could do it, but you’re not living in a vacuum.” So Doc Reitzen and two other guys came in. Our offices, our whole executive area was up on the 7th floor. Mine was on one end and the chairman of the board and our boardroom was at the other end. It was a big building – 180,000 square feet on the floor.
Morris Lapidis, who is a famous architect and a very, very dear friend of mine to this very day, did things for me that were ahead of our time. I’ll go back to that. I do want to tell you about that and his involvement with us. He’s the guy that built the Fontainebleau Hotel, Eden Roc and the Americana. Very wonderful, a big guy.
At any rate, I brought them to his office and left them. I walked back to my office, which was like half a block away practically, and I just sat there doing whatever I was doing. I had a big office with couches and everything; we were living high.
Doc Reitzen and the other two guys, number one and number two, came into my office, shut the door and laughed. I said, “What the hell is all the laughing about? What are you doing?”
He said, “Irving, the guy you brought in is either a quack or a dope.”
I said, “Tell me what happened. Don’t you like the idea?” I didn’t play it contrary. “The guy’s got a very good point: We’re showing your merchandise, we’re displaying your merchandise and selling your merchandise, and it doesn’t cost you a damn penny for showing it.”
He said, “Yes, that’s his attitude.” He said that he was very adamant about it, very strong about it.
I said, “So what happened? What was the final thing?”
He said, “We listened to him very quietly for a long time and he held forth very strongly. He said, ‘This has got to be done.’”
That’s the way he was with everybody. “It’s got to be done this way. That’s the only way we’re going to do it. Otherwise, we won’t do it.”
Doc Reitzen said, “This is what happened after he laid the law down to us that it was either-or: Our truck will be around to your stores to pick up the samples. If you’ll arrange with Mr. Sherman when this could happen, we’ll be glad to do that. We’ll pick up our samples and that’s it. If that’s your idea and this has to be done that way, fine. We will not do anything like that.” And they walked out of that office and came over to my office. I played it the same way. I listened to him. He said, “When do you want me to pick up all your merchandise?”
I said, “You go f--- yourself.” They walked out after awhile. I said, “Look, just let this cool. Nothing is going to happen, so forget it. We’re still number one USA.”
Sure enough, a half an hour passed. They had already gone. They said, “Do you want to go to lunch with us?”
I said, “No, I want to sit here because I heard your end of the story. I want to hear his end of the story.” So he came marching in and he said, “Those bastards, they don’t want to do business with us.”
I said, “What did they think of your idea? They told me that it was ridiculous, that if Ludwig Baumann didn’t want Simmons merchandise on the floor, we don’t have to have it and we’ll put it wherever. We sell everybody.”
He then finally had to admit it to himself. I didn’t have to go any further. He appreciated the fact that I told him that it was a good idea on his part, but it didn’t work.
Anyway, the banks insisted that he get out of it. They didn’t want to do business with him. They turned it over to the next guy in charge who made a lot of money. He had been in the rubber business. There were three other people that were connected with him. All of them had very successful businesses of their own. They made money together, but had gotten together, and they followed his lead because they made additional money outside of their businesses through ventures that he had.
There was a guy who got sucked into it. He said, “I didn’t want to go into Ludwig Baumann. I don’t want to be in the retail business.” The other guy had said the same thing. “We’ve been successful with them. If you’re rolling your dice and you’re making money – you’re coming through with your numbers all the time, why dump it?” So he went into the Ludwig Baumann thing. The only guy that could take it over would be Bremery Kominsky, who was a sweetheart of a guy. He became the chairman of the board. He was a real, decent, wonderful, straight guy, and that’s how Ludwig Baumann was.
When I left Ludwig Baumann, it was on the sliding scale down because what happened was, all that Macy’s had at one particular point was what they called a DA account. Then they started getting into budget payments – not time payment or anything; they called a budget payment something that you could spread your time over. First it started with six months to pay; then it went up to nine months; then it went up to a year.
When I saw that happening, I saw the doom of the installment business, because given the choice of buying the same quality merchandise, the same stuff, the same service – wouldn’t any customer rather have a Macy’s truck or a Gimbels’ truck (Gimbels followed immediately after Macy’s) – roll up to the house rather than an LB Spear or a Ludwig Baumann truck. I said so to people who came to me, like a guy who was working for A&S in Brooklyn, which was part of the Federated chain.
I want to go back a little bit. I said I saw the handwriting on the wall about what would happen with the type of stores like Ludwig Baumann, Spears, Michaels and all with the advent of credit given by the department stores. Remember Kominsky was the chairman of the board. He and I were very, very close and very friendly. He appreciated the work that we were doing. He was very compassionate to problems that arose. He realized what was happening. When we got to meeting with the consortium of bankers one day, things were not going so well and the economics were a little bad. They called a meeting and they wanted to get out of this 80-percent thing. One way or the other, they wanted to cut down on the amount of money that they were advancing to us.
We sat around the table listening to that. I had given my forecast again of what was happening and how much money we would need to be able to sustain the amount of volume that we wanted and the advertising programs that we had. They said that no, they didn’t want to go along with it and they wanted to cut back. I said, “Is this what you want to do eventually?” Kominsky was sitting with me. He was the chairman of the board, but there was nothing much that he could help me with; it was my job to carry the figures and stuff. I said, “Is this something that you plan to do over time?”
“No,” he said. “We want to do it as of right now.”
I said, “What the hell are you talking about? We make our plans in advance, our commitments to buy merchandise, our commitments to make these big advertising plays to get the volumes that we are planning for, which you have on your figures. If you stop it right now, we can’t do it.”
I said, “Have you thought of being able to do this over a period of time, of cutting down the amount of money you want to give us? Then I could see being able to do the planning. But what you’re saying right now is you might just as well call us.”
And I’m not kidding you – I took the keys out of my pocket. Now remember that we’re sitting around a very large conference table with Kominsky sitting to my right. I took the keys out of my pocket and I threw them on the table and I said, “You might as well close up the stores right now because you can’t operate with what you’re talking about doing – on something where our plans have already been committed.” Knowing that doomsday had come for this type of operation, plus the fact that the banks were going to have this kind of a problem with cutting back, I decided that eventually I would have to listen to my friend from Lit Brothers and get out of it.
A furniture buyer at A&S came to see me and said that he would like to make a change; he would like to come to Ludwig Baumann. I said to him, “I think your reputation is excellent. I’ve seen you at the Market. You’ve done, I think, a wonderful job at A&S.” I got up and shut the door. “I want to tell you something in privacy. I think this is a benefit that you’ll remember. Stay with A&S. This type of business …” I was telling him my forecast as I saw it. “Stay with them.” He stayed with them, was transferred to Bloomingdale’s and started rising and rising.
I used to be embarrassed every once in a while when there would be a big shindig that Bloomingdale’s was handling and I was invited to come, because he would always tell these people, “I owe my being a president of Bloomingdale’s to Irving Sherman because the son-of-a-bitch refused to hire me many, many years ago.”
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good story. Describe your involvement in industry trade associations.
SHERMAN: My involvement in the industry trade association came from the fact that I was president of the New York Home Furnishings Association, which later became the Greater New York Home Furnishings Association. I worked very closely with the people in Chicago at that time, in ’56. Other than that, I have five or six things that my secretary saved and said, “Please, Mr. Sherman, take these home with you. Someday your kids would like to have them, even though you don’t like to keep account of what you did.” As I told you, I felt what I did, I knew that I did. That’s all I was interested in. I have nothing more than that. I’m not much more involved with them.
INTERVIEWER: You were very active in the Greater New York Home Furnishings Association.
SHERMAN: Oh, yes. I was president of it.
INTERVIEWER: For how long? Put some years on that.
SHERMAN: I put in a couple of years as the president and kept working with them for a while. I got out of the furniture end of it when I finished with Lit Brothers and I came back to New York. I told you that I was with two companies.
I was home doing nothing, living on 57th Street, when I got a call from a guy who was one of the big headhunters, he had been my personnel man at Ludwig Baumann. He had grown into his own stature. One day he called me and said, “I need a favor. I want to meet with you because I have a client known as the Brass Rail. They have engaged me to hire somebody from outside the food business from a management and promotional point of view to come into the business to build them.”
His name was Max Harper. I said, “What would I be doing with a food business?”
He said, “Well, I’d appreciate your coming just because. I have shown them the guy who was the president of Saks-34th Street as one of the men.” He mentioned another man whom I didn’t know. He said they were very pleased with the two guys, but they still wanted another man just to make sure. So I said, “OK, fine. Where do you want to meet?”
He said, “They have their businesses, but they don’t want to have it where their business is.” The president, Mr. Levine, had an apartment in the city at 80 Park Avenue. (Incidentally, I moved from 57th Street to 80 Park Avenue, but not because of that. That was later – a little disparity in years.)
I went with him. I met them and we sat up there in their living room. I said, “Who else? Whom did you have?” They told me about this guy, Richard whatever-his-name-was. He was the president of Saks-34th Street. I listened to all of that and I said, “These are very good men.”
He said, “Do you know them?”
I said, “Yes, I know them quite well. These are very good men. But if you want my honest opinion, you should be looking for somebody who has a little bit more diversification than a unilateral setup in one store. As I understand it from Max Harper, you have multiple stores. You have a commissary that manufactures your product and delivers it to the stores. It’s a whole lot different than running a unilateral setup. It’s like running a newsstand: A guy has what he has, he sells it and that’s the end of it. The distribution, without going into all the details, is a different story. So and so is a very, very good man. There’s no question in my mind that, given time, he could absorb the difference between one type of operation and this multidivisional operation.”
Brass Rail at that time had four or five stores and good-sized operations. It was successful.
I said goodbye and I went home. This was at 80 Park Avenue at 39th Street. I lived at 57th Street. I took a cab, went home and was ready to have dinner with my wife when I got a phone call. It was Max. I said, “I’m just sitting down to dinner. Is it important, Max, or can I call you back? Are you at home?”
He said, “No, I’m still at 80 Park Avenue. We had quite a long discussion. They want you very much.”
I said, “Oh, come on. Cut it out. What the hell do I know about food?”
He said, “They don’t expect you to be cooking. They want you for your organizational ability and promotional ability.”
I said, “They’ll never pay my salary.”
He says, “No, Irving. I told them what your requirements were and they not only met it, they put $5,000 above what I told them would be the minimum that you would require.”
They asked him and he said, “I can only tell you this: I know what he made. I know that he’s not going to make that any more at Ludwig Baumann, but $35,000 would be good.”
He said, “I think it’s a good thing, Irving.”
I said, “Let me think about it. I’ll think about it overnight. I want to talk to my wife about it,” because we did everything together, ever since we knew each other. We knew each other since we graduated from high school. She’s my first love, my only love. We lived and grew together.
She said, “Irving, whatever you want to do is fine.” We were enjoying going to the theater. I was retired, which I was much too young a person to be. Whatever would come up would come up.
That’s how I got into the Brass Rail as vice president. I was with them for seven years, working on it. I was able to accomplish some things in the promotional kind of stuff. One of the things – you know the advertising that is done on the back of buses today?
SHERMAN: One day I was looking at that and I said, “What a hell of a place to be able to advertise something, but I have nothing to advertise.” As I was talking to the guys, I said, “I have an idea.” I had food men who knew what the hell it was all about. I said, “I would like to make up a package.” I was back to those “packages” again.
INTERVIEWER: Back to Cannon again.
SHERMAN: That’s right. “Make up a package and tell me what the cost would be to have a complete meal, soup to nuts, in addition to which I would like to be able to serve champagne with the dinner. Call it a champagne dinner at a price. The price will be determined when you tell me what the items are, what the cost is, what the breakdown is, and then I will add what I think our overhead and profit margin should be.” They came up with that figure. I said, “That sounds good. Now where am I going to get a wine person?”
I met a guy when I was in Philadelphia and he was working as the advertising man for Gimbels right across the street. We used to see each other and we knew each other.
INTERVIEWER: When you were at Lit’s?
SHERMAN: When I was with Lit’s. He was right across the street at Gimbels. Then he opened up his own advertising agency. He was the only single person I could think of to get a hold of. I said, “I need some help.”
He said, “One of the accounts that I have is Monsieur Henri.” Monsieur Henri was a very big importer of wines and champagnes.
I told him to get a hold of Mr. Feinberg, who was the head of Monsieur Henri. We got together and I told him what the situation was.
I said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about because I don’t know the prices of champagne. I don’t want domestic champagne.” I showed him the sheet and said, “These are my costs. This is my idea of what I want to do. I want to have a complete champagne dinner for $4.95.” I had the prices, and I said, “I have this much margin left, having put my markup on it and all. If you can supply me with the wine, I will promise you that I will sell a hell of a lot of wine because we’re going to give it away. I figured out that I could afford this much and I could also afford figuring that everybody would like a glass of champagne. Whether they like champagne or not, they are going to get free champagne, so why not have it?”
I said, “The most that could ever happen is the worst that could happen: If a person wants a second drink or even if they don’t want it, they will just because it’s free. It’s going to be two drinks a person. Some people have nothing. It’s just a matter of guesswork. I figured two drinks a person. This is as much as I could afford for two glasses for each person for the dinner.”
Mr. Feinberg walked out with my very good friend and I got a phone call a few minutes later and he said, “Feinberg thinks you’re one of the smartest guys he’s ever met and that you’re very, very honest and very straightforward.
“But he also thinks that you’re full of shit; that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Where the hell are you going to get French champagne for the price you want?”
I said, “Hey, if he can’t do it, my idea falls apart. I don’t know anybody else to go to because I don’t know any other people in the wine business that I could try to work with.”
He said, “I’m not giving up on it.”
I said, “Mike, all I can tell you, very honestly, is that if this thing is successful, it will be done. Now, it’s your job, incidentally, since you’re the advertising guy, if it works. Do you think that we could get a thing drawn up to go in the back of the buses to advertise this whole big thing?”
He said, “Let me investigate it and I’ll get back to you because I would love to be able to do it. That’s a novel approach to have the thing advertised on the city buses. How far would you go?”
I said, “The city buses and the Queens buses. I don’t want to go any further than that.”
He said, “Irving, as soon as I draw this up for you and get it right, I will get back to the Feinbergs and tell them what your plan is in promoting this – that there’s not going to be just people off the street who are going to come, but many others.”
Anyway, we sold the idea and got into it. It was very successful. They had to cut the prices on the stuff, so we worked out a deal. They would ship us merchandise and, to give you an idea, if we bought 10 cases and gave it away in order to get even with it, they would ship us three additional cases. We knew by proportion that we needed the three extra cases for free in order to be able to get our cost down.
That happened and one day after the second time that it happened, Mr. Feinberg came in and said, “I know you’re an honest guy and I know that Mike says you’re straight, but how the hell do I know that when you call up and you say, ‘We need five cases FOB (free on board)’?”
I said, “It’s easy. Let me get the young lady who keeps the records.” So I called her up and said, “Sarah, will you bring your records in on Monsieur Henri?” She brought the records in and she showed him. “There are the sales we made, what was used, and this was what was needed to bring the price down.” He looked at that and I said, “Explain to Mr. Feinberg how you keep this record.” She did and he said, “Thank you.”
I said, “Thank you very much.”
Frank got up and he said, “Irving, never again will I even question you.”
I said, “I don’t play it any other way. You can only screw a person once; then you get screwed twice. I don’t play that way and our people don’t. This is the record that’s kept. I have nothing to do with it. When the girl calls up and says this is what you owe us, that’s it. I don’t want to worry about it. I can’t worry about the detail of bookkeeping.” That’s how I got into that.
INTERVIEWER: Can you put some numbers on how many of these $4.95 champagne dinners you sold?
SHERMAN: No, I can’t. I don’t remember that. That was one of the promotions that we did.
From the Brass Rail, we expanded. I didn’t have a good deal more to do with it, other than helping to change the service attitude of the people in the place, which is what I felt was important at Ludwig Baumann – our treatment of our customers and the salesmen’s treatment of the people. I felt the same way about it. We started teaching people in the stores. That was a very, very prime job as far as I was concerned; they were salespeople. I would sit in each of the stores (and we had plenty of branches), with the manager and I’d tell him, “I don’t want you to think that you’re a bunch of waitresses and waiters. You are salespeople. I could have a 12-year-old who knows how to write down an order from a customer who’s reading a menu. I think the important thing is for you to suggest something to go with it, whether it would be a glass of wine or whether it would be a dessert.” These are the kind of things that I was able to contribute, aside from organizational things that happened, like the distribution.
Like for instance, did you ever have Brass Rail cheesecake? Everybody in the damn universe did. Anybody who ever came to New York had to go to the Brass Rail for their cheesecake. The cheesecakes were sold by little portions. I said, “If this is so popular all over, why the hell can’t I … ,” and I got a hold of my bake shop out on the commissary. I said, “Can you make me up a 6-inch cheesecake? Will it taste any good, a 6-inch cheesecake?”
He said, “Could you make it 7 ½ inches, close to 8?” I said, “You tell me what you can make that would be representative of our Brass Rail cheesecake.” And they did.
I called in my purchasing agent and said, “I want you to do this: We’re going to have a carton made up, a fancy carton with labels. Get a price on it. What would it cost if we gave it to them to package and ship?”
It would be the same idea all over again. We advertised the cheesecake at a price. We advertised it and it went all over because everybody who had traveled into New York had to go – I mean they had to go to the Brass Rail. Our cheesecake was very famous. I was very pleased. I was very, very proud.
We had a big commissary. Our commissary, aside from preparing the big merchandise for each of the stores, was where we had all of our food come from. It was not my origination; it was done by David Burge who was the president. I was a vice president. I was in charge of that area. Dave, who was well before me, originated this idea of opening up this commissary in Long Island. Part of the commissary was to service airlines, to provide the food that went on to them. That was a very successful thing.
Aside from this whole big thing of the assembly plant, of putting stuff on the planes, we had a bake shop where we did all of our cooking for Brass Rail – cheesecakes and stuff like that.
One day I said, “The sales are going so very, very well.” They had given me the original cost so I could figure out our markup on it and what our price would be. One day something happened on some other merchandise. I said, “Gee, maybe something like this could be done.” I asked the guy to give me some costs. He gave me the costs on that kind of thing. (It was a meat product that we were also famous for.) I looked at the cost figures, and said to my accountants, “How about the amortization and the rent of this damn building that Dave Burge had to finance to be able to build it? We have to pay it off. Didn’t you put in anything for overhead?”
They said no, they didn’t think about it. They said, “You wanted the cost.”
I said, “I didn’t want the cost of raw stuff. Thank God, at least you added the material costs, the labor costs. But how about rent? Where are you doing this – out on the street?”
I said, “Wait a minute. If these guys are that stupid about it, I’d better go back and ask the head of my bake shop.” It turned out to be exactly the same thing. It turned out that actually, we were just about lucky because of the markup that I had added, we were breaking even. Otherwise, we would have lost on every damn cheesecake that we sold.
People approached Brass Rail, also the Levines, again with this acquisition. The guys who do this kind of acquisition and putting people together sold out to Interstate. Interstate was a very large company based in Chicago. They wanted Brass Rail because their own big product was the machines – machines that sold merchandise, drinks and stuff like that. They also were very big in all the big places, whether it was General Motors or the other companies. They were the giants in the coin-operated business. They wanted food. They had already worked with food and it was very profitable to them. But they wanted a name that meant something. They wanted the products.
They wanted Brass Rail because Brass Rail had a name that everybody seemed to know all over the country because they came to New York, all these big shots and others. So we were sold to Interstate, who then asked me, naturally, to transfer out to Chicago. I went back again to Fanny, my wife, and said, “Hey, this is what’s happening.”
She said, “Any place you go, I go – doesn’t make any difference.” I said, “I don’t want to live in Chicago.” She said, “We won’t go to Chicago.” So we never went to Chicago.
In the interim, we were sold out by it. I had gotten into business with Frank Feinberg. He and his two brothers had Monsieur Henri, and the venture on the champagne was very good and they had a great deal of trust in me. They came to me. Frank said he wanted to speak to me, again through the advertising guy that I knew from Gimbels who was handling Monsieur Henri’s wine advertising and doing a hell of a big job promoting new products like Sangria and things like that. (That was one that was very popular. It was a big job getting the American people to start drinking it instead of French wine.) Frank asked me to have dinner with him one night and I said, “By all means.”
We went up to the Sign of the Dove, right here on 64th Street, and we had dinner. He said, “Murray is my older brother. He is the president of the company. I am the second guy; I’m the promotional guy, and we have a third, younger brother and we’re not getting along. My third, younger brother is supposed to be handling the inside operations, accounting and finance.” He said, “We have a relationship with you. Murray has met you several times. I have dealt with you very directly.”
(My friend, the advertising guy, told them that I was definitely not going to Chicago because I didn’t want to live in Chicago. I’d lived all my life in New York. Why did I want to go to Chicago? I didn’t mind visiting there and going to the Chez Paree on my visits.)
He said, “This is off the record, but we disagree with my brother. My brother and I can’t get along with Herbert,” who was the younger brother. “We can’t keep him in line and do what we would like to do.”
I said, “Wait. From what I know about your family, your father is dead, and you all grew up in the wine business as kids. Your mother is still alive and you respect her. You cannot fall apart.”
They wanted me to replace Herbert. I said I would not lend my hand to that at all. I said, “If you require breaking down Herbert’s work and you don’t think that he’s performing up to your expectations and you bring me in to do whatever, that’s a different story. But to replace him … I am not a financial wizard; I am not going to be. (Herbert was a Wharton School graduate.) I think that he has the brains to do it. If he hasn’t got the desire to and he likes to mess around, that’s another story.”
Because of my connection with the champagne thing, I got into the wine business. We were in the wine business for years and years, and I had my own group of sales. We divided the sales force and we did whatever we could on the promotions.
For instance, we had Fu-Ki plum wine, which was a Japanese import that they had just acquired the rights to sell in the United States. What did we do with it? How do you go to all your stores and promote so they get into Fu-Ki wine? It was thrown in my lap so I came up with the idea. I went to somebody who was renting out one of the floors in our Brass Rail building. I said, “I’m looking for some Japanese girls.” It was a meeting ground for people from other countries who wanted to be with people of their own ilk so that they could become Americanized.
He said to come on a certain night and there’d be a group coming up there that he thought I’d like. So, I went there. It was in our old building on 7th Avenue. He introduced me to a young lady by the name of Raco Asumi. We’ve known each other 20 years now!
She had been in New York for a year and a half. Her father was a professor of English in Tokyo. She had grown up there and decided that she wanted to come to America.
I told Raco what I thought. My plan was to get her dressed in Japanese cloaks.
SHERMAN: Kimonos and sandals and all that kind of stuff. I sent her out to a place in New York, a well-known place, and she selected what she wanted. I told her what her job would be: She would be accompanied by the salesman on the account in Queens and he would take her to the stores. The introduction would be that she would be there in full dress, pouring samples of Fu-Ki wine. This kind of thing would encourage the guys – to see people wanting it, to taste it, like they do all over today. I didn’t know that they did that. To me, it was an original way of being introduced and now everybody does that. “Welcome to Bloomingdale’s.” No matter where you go, there’s somebody spraying you with something to smell.
It got to a point where we’d have the things catching up, so we hired a flat truck, an open truck, and we had some Japanese guys playing with stuff in front of each of the stores. That traveled around.
One of the things I insisted on was that Raco was treated well because my treatment of people is the most important in my book. That’s my philosophy. I’m Jewish. My feeling about religion is to treat people as you want to be treated. I’ve lived up to that as far as I know. I said to them, “She lives at 83rd Street, on the East side. You guys will pick her up in your car and bring her to the stores that you want. Take her from one store to the other as you work out your schedule. Remember she’s in costume.
“You have to take her back home, into her house on East 83rd Street between York Avenue and East End Avenue. See her safely there. If you cannot do it because you’re out on Long Island or you’re in Queens and you live further out, then you put her in a taxicab. Give her the money for it. I will reimburse you for it, but make sure that she can go home in a taxicab to the house.”
That’s why if you ever speak to Raco, you’ll hear what Eddie Schrotter said about me. You can speak to Raco Asumi and she will tell you the same.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the Greater New York Home Furnishings Association, about how it’s different from other associations.
SHERMAN: The Association started off strictly with people who were salesmen and retailers. The reason the salesmen were interested in joining the Association and being part of the Association, is because they wanted to rub shoulders with the retailers. One hand washes the other. That was expanded to the delivery people, to the service people. Anybody connected with the manufacture, distribution, or delivery started to get involved – like all the big companies.
INTERVIEWER: Showroom people included?
SHERMAN: Very few. At the beginning there were some showroom people, yes. They were entitled to be in. We wanted them in. Some of them didn’t want to be associated with being part of retail. It was their preference to stay out of it because they didn’t want that kind of connotation. That’s why we were a little different than most of the other organizations around the country. It was much more inclusive of people who were in what I call the total furniture industry. I was not doing anything at the time.
INTERVIEWER: This was after the Brass Rail and after the wine.
SHERMAN: After the Brass Rail. I forgot to tell you that what happened was, I stayed with the Feinbergs and Monsieur Henri for several years.
I forgot to mention the other part of it. I had nothing to do with it at all; it was way over my head. They had the rights for Stolichnaya, the Russian vodka. They had the rights to distribute it and sell it in the entire West – in the United States and South America. They were just starting with the stuff and the arrangements were made. That was done by Herbert, whom they didn’t think too much of, and Murray, the oldest brother; but I give Herbert credit for it because he knew how to work with the Russian people, and they finally arranged to sell it. We had the total distribution. My only part on the Stolichnaya thing is that everybody said it would be wonderful. How do you sell this into the stores – aside from what we were selling in Brass Rail? How do you make this good? Everybody knew that it would be wonderful.
I took a bottle of vodka and went up to a guy on Third Avenue and Harlem who was a tinsmith. I wanted to get it [the bottle]] frozen. How the hell do you have frozen stuff out on a table and make it look really good? I had tea wagons and one of the first places we tried it was out at our Park Avenue store at 40th Street and Park Avenue. That was a little classier store than Fifth Avenue, but it had multiple levels so that was a problem.
I told this guy what our problem was: I wanted to be able to make a chamber in which this Stolichnaya would sit and we could have ice all around it and the whole thing would be iced; it wouldn’t touch the bottle, but the bottle would be chilled. That was one of my original things. Then we started selling it around to the various stores, The Russian Tea Room, and all the other Russian places. It eventually got around. That was my contribution to the Stolichnaya thing.
Then Pepsi-Cola bought us. The only reason for buying Monsieur Henri wines was because they wanted to work out a deal to get Pepsi behind the Iron Curtain. Coca-Cola already had gotten into the German end of it. They were defeated there, so they wanted to get into that vast population. This was one of the cheapest ways they could do it. They overpaid, there’s no question in my mind. But they could well afford to do it. They had the vision to see what would happen.
They were sold out to Pepsi-Cola. I went up to the couple of board meetings, like everybody else – we all did a few. The brothers and the management, including me, were given a short term – a year or something like that – where we would still be participating but not able to go into a competing business.
They got their big money; we didn’t get anything more than that. So I was out of work. I was finished. I didn’t know what the hell it was all about. I got a little payoff from the Feinberg end of it because it was a very good deal for the brothers. They were millionaires overnight.
The guy who was running the Association approached me. I know him like my brother but can’t think of his name. Forgive me. He was not feeling well and “the powers that be” were very much concerned (the past presidents). They asked me whether I would be able to be helpful to them. But they had no money. I figured out a sum – whatever they could afford to pay – and I would work with the guy. Eventually he died, which they knew would happen. That’s how I took over coming back in. I was president of the Association for two years and always kept in touch with the guys.
INTERVIEWER: That’s when you were still at Ludwig Baumann.
SHERMAN: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: What about your activity with the Greater New York Home Furnishings Association?
SHERMAN: I ran it. We expanded it. We were doing very well. We had an annual affair. We could have seminars for people. We could have outside speakers come in to be of help.
We were able to raise money. We started a fund at one particular point where we had guys like Appaselli, who was a big Italian upholstery manufacturer. We had certain functions that existed even before I was there. We would have functions like “Man of the Year.” One year Appaselli was one of the guys that we got into it. Peragusi was a wonderful Italian guy and he became “Man of the Year” one year. When Peragusi was ill at one particular point, we talked about things that should happen. We started a fund that grew by contributions, so that we were able to run a fund for people in need in the industry. If they needed help sending the kids off to college, we could help. We established a fund for that kind of thing. We had the annual dance, at which we selected the “Man of the Year.” We had all different types of functions that were running.
It went along very, very successfully for a long time. What happened in the furniture industry in retail was slowly and disastrously diminishing the people that were around, diminishing their participation in it. There were no big leaders, like Sol Edelmann or Charlie Seidenmann. Charlie Seidenmann was president. Sure he was a wonderful guy, sure he was a good man, but remember that he had a lot of influence. He had a lot of political power. Salesmen who wanted to sell Charlie Seidenmann naturally wanted to be around him, so we had a big attendance. When Sol Edelmann was president, he was the big man at Saks Furniture, which was the big company, the same thing happened. He became, really, the center of attention to make sure the salesmen were there.
Then Irving Sherman came along. Not because Sol was any better or that I was anybody, but we had political pull, power. They wanted to be associated with me, and my buyers naturally would be there. Sol’s buyers would be there because of Sol being there. There is no such thing any more. There is very little any more. This was happening over a period of years – that diminution of retail people, top people, at all associations. Whether it was here or happened in other places, it was the same thing.
They finally came to me and said, “We haven’t got much money to pay you and the secretary.” My secretary was very, very good. There’s no question about it. I didn’t keep any secrets – we worked together.
We were an all-inclusive setup. The reason we became that is that there was an association of what they called IHFRA, the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association. This was a group of people independent of our original association; they were all salesmen, strictly salesmen. They were not doing too well. They thought they were, but eventually they realized that they weren’t doing too well in keeping together. We came up with an idea of combining into one organization. I spearheaded with one other guy, who was very instrumental, and he was a retailer, very well-known and very well liked. We worked out a deal that was a new charter for the combined.
INTERVIEWER: Was this after your retirement from all the others?
SHERMAN: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: While you were still at Ludwig Baumann?
SHERMAN: No, no. I was working at the Association. This is when I was finished with the wine business and I came back to the Association.
Things were not going too well for the others and we were likewise having troubles. We were almost divided. I said, “Why don’t we get together?” There was one other guy; he was president of the organization at that time, and between him and me working with the other people from the salesmen group, we were able to work up a deal. We had to write up a whole new charter. My legal training helped a little bit in formulating that.
That’s how we became one group. Before that, we were the other kind of people, the people from the trucking and all. The IHFRA group was strictly furniture salesmen. We brought them in. That’s how we became the Greater New York Home Furnishings Association; it included them all.
There came a time of decline of the big retailers. The kind of things that we were doing, courageously and boldly, in expanding really became a routine performance. We knew that we published an annual book, from which we made money, because we did the selling of the pages to these guys. It would be representative for them. The book that we published was distributed at our annual dance and mailed out to all the retailers so they had the resources, the names of the people that they could get in touch with, all the information that they required if they had to get a hold of the salesman or the factory representative. We did that and made a lot of money, which was enough to carry the Association.
As that declined, it got to a point where I was – call it whatever you want – I call it “fired.” It came to a point where the thing was getting to be very routine. There was no expanding; there was no promotion on the stuff. My secretary worked with me hand-in-hand and as I said, there was nothing withheld from her as was done with my predecessor, Morris, who was the big shot. Everything had to be “he did,” “he did,” “he did.” I was not “he did.” It was “we” did.
When they came to me, they didn’t have the money. The better thing to do would be that if she could do the job, she should do the job, which is perfectly all right. It was a routine-type of thing. That’s how I got out of the business. At the same time, my current wife, my second wife, was ill. When we determined that it was foregone conclusion – it was terminal – I decided, “I’m not going to look for anything else to do.” I said, “This is fine. I’m still interested. I am still very cooperative with them.” I came to all the meetings. I did whatever I could. I would be of any help, guidance that they asked for. And I still do it.
I’m still on the board and I have been a very big help to them in this period of transition. I also was one of the trustees of the funds. There were only two other people that were on it. One is not even around any more. So there is only one person and me who controlled the fund and were able to make advances of it to the Association to help them stay in business.
I’ve been constantly with them. In some of the thinking that went behind it, some of the things that we’re doing, I made my contribution and still do. I’m happy that I do.
I think that we are about at a time when I have talked myself blind despite the fact that I didn’t think I should go back. I didn’t think I could do it. I know I missed a lot of things. If it weren’t for you, your suggestions and your thoughts of what I should be talking about and the questions that you asked, I don’t think I could have brought this out from the depths of my soul and my understanding. To me, it is going to be a very rewarding experience as I look back on it, because I couldn’t imagine myself revealing – to myself – all the things that happened in my life. You just asked me to write an autobiography for myself, which I don’t think I’d ever have had the courage to do.
I want to thank you so much, particularly when you told me in our conversation what was going to happen, that this was going to be typed up. I want to thank you very much. I want to tell you that to me it was an enlightening experience. I’m very, very thankful, Roy Briggs, that you came up to interview me, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’ve never done it before in my life. I’m ready to do the next one if anybody wants it, because I know what it’s about. Self-revelation and introspection are some things that I never have really thought of doing. Thank you very much for the way you handled it and encouraged me to do it.
INTERVIEWER: You did it.
SHERMAN: No, no. Now come on, don’t be bashful about it.
INTERVIEWER: All right, then we did it. How about that?
SHERMAN: We did it; that’s fine. We could never have done it without you being able to lead this thing for me and I appreciate it very much. I thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for taking so much time today for this important contribution to our furniture industry. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.