Four Generations, 120 Years
Cecile Corral -- Home Textiles Today, January 8, 2014
Lucky for legacy, Bob and Meryl Levy make the perfect team. Married for 34 years, the Levys work together to keep alive a long family tradition while finding time to make personal dreams come true - hers to run the business, his to work by day as a paramedic.
"Ours is definitely an interesting story, a very unique story," he told H&TT. "I bet you've never heard a story like ours."
He is probably right.
Levy said his parents never pressured him to pursue the family business. "They wanted me to do what I was happy doing. But I'm happy doing both. I put the pressure on myself to follow my calling - paramedics - and keep up the family business. I'm lucky it all worked out that, with my wife, I can do both."
Like so many stories, this one starts way back, with roots running deep into Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood.
Levy's great-grandparents, Esther and Harris Levy, immigrated to the United States in the late 1880's, settling in New York City. They had experience selling yard goods, so they worked and saved money until they put together enough to rent a pushcart and a spot on Orchard Street selling fine quality tapestries and yard goods in 1894.
By 1899, now raising seven children, the couple rented a roomy basement at 72 Hester Street, not far from their pushcart location. The family moved into the back, living behind the storefront.
The store would move three more times, but never straying beyond a six-block radius, and the rest - as they say - is history.
"I think that what makes our store unique is that we have survived many difficult times, starting with the Great Depression in 1929. I talk to my [89-year-old] father about what that was like, and he remembers in those days when they would sit in the store and not have a sale all day," Levy said.
The store marked the days from World War I to World War II. The World Trade Center attack in September 2001 provided the family's fourth generation with its own calamity.
In the first six months after 9/11, Harris Levy lost about 80% of its business. The store managed to survive on just 20% of its normal volume.
"When you think about it, over the course of 120 years, we've lived through many recessions. Put them all together, and I believe that all of these traumas helped us survive and be stronger today," said Levy.
One secret to Harris Levy's impressive survival skills, he noted: diversity in portfolio.
A broadened product offering puts adult and baby linens at the core but also includes gift and personal items like pet fashions, scarves, candles, picture frames, bath and body toiletries, and similar items.
"I realized many years ago that luxury linens last too long. The types of linens we sell, if you take care of them, can last many, many years, which makes it hard to attract repeat customers who come in more than once a year," Levy said. "So we've added products that fit in but are of a more consumable nature, which has in turn drawn customers back in sooner and hopefully more often and we hope this increased traffic is also encouraging them to buy more linens, too."
Another key to the strategy: real estate. Harris Levy owns the building where it is located, allowing it to rent additional space to other stores vending non-competitive goods.
Then there's Levy's multi-pronged career. "I do something completely different by day. I am a paramedic," he said. "And I will tell you it is much different than running a store."
Now 60, his career has spanned more than 30 years - first with the now-defunct St. Vincent's Hospital through today at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he supervises the transport call unit.
"When the store's business is slow, I am able to work more on my job and help make up for the difference, plus it has allowed me to provide health insurance for my family," he noted.
But he could not manage a two-career life without Meryl. It's thanks to her dedication to the family business that the couple is able to keep Harris Levy running.
As the face of the store - and everything else - Meryl Levy finds her daily work as co-owner and manager of Harris Levy rewarding, not to mention the store holds a special place in her heart.
"Before I even met my husband, I used to come in here as a girl with my parents," she said. "When I got a little older, I came to work in the shop, not knowing anything about linens. But I slowly learned because I love the business and I love working with the high-quality product we carry."
Her favorite part is working one-on-one with customers to help them put a look together.
"I love the creative part of what I do and helping our customers find the right look for their homes," she said.
Another distinctive facet is that Harris Levy carries its own line of house-branded luxury linen, which Levy believes was first added to the store's assortment as early as the 1920s.
"For our Harris Levy line, we have bed linens, pillows, and comforters - all made to our specifications," he said. "We send our specifics to workshops and they make for us exactly what we want. They use the cotton we request, the finish, the thread count, the print or design work, and we sell it under our own label."
The Harris Levy line accounts for about 25% of total linen sales; the bulk stems from the store's many other brands in the mix - including Sferra, Matouk, Home Treasure, John Robshaw, Schlossberg, Stamattina, Yves Delorme and others.
"We go back many years with a lot of these brands," Levy noted. "My father used to deal with George Matouk for business, and now I work with his son. We have many stories like that, and I feel very proud."
Harris Levy also offers custom work "of any kind" for linens, which is possible via its close relationships with various manufacturers and up to six workshops around the world for embroidery, prints and special sizes for yachts, round beds and other atypical needs, Levy said.
For its 120th anniversary this year, the ever modest Harris Levy has no big celebrations planned. "Maybe at 125 we'll have a big party," he said, half jokingly.
So will there be a fifth generation for Harris Levy?
The Levys have three children - Jason, Andrew and Jillian - and any or all are welcome to get involved, he said.
But keeping to family tradition: "No pressure," he insisted. "We'll just wait and see."
Accessories and giftables help drive up frequency of visits. Luxury linens, Levy noted, “can last many, many years.”
Harris Levy has offered house branded linens made to its own specifi cations since the 1920s.
Real estate is one key to the store’s success. The Levys own the building, and rent out extra space to non-competing businesses.
Bob and Meryl Levy own and operate Harry Levy, a fi ne linens and gifts shop originally founded by his great-grandparents in a basement space.
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