Sam’s Fine Men’s Clothing in Livingston is so well established as the go-to place for dapper bar mitzvah boys that at the celebration of Rabbi Clifford Kulwin’s 13th anniversary at Temple B’nai Abraham in 2012, he referenced it in his opening remarks.
“I understand there are some present who do not consider this a ‘real’ bar mitzvah; to them I have just one word: Sam’s!” he said, before opening up his suit jacket and pointing to the Sam’s label sewn into the lining. “Eight hundred people there, utterly brought down the house,” he recounted in an email to NJJN.
After fashioning generations of 13-year-old boys for their big day, the store, in business since at least 1899, will fade into memory when it closes its doors for the last time at the end of October.
Of course, Sam’s, on the corner of Northfield and Livingston avenues, sells more than boys’ bar mitzvah apparel. Made-to-measure suits for men make up a big part of the current business, and it also sells fine men’s sportswear, although not as much as in decades’ past, before the age of online shopping.
Over the years, the store has been frequented by celebrities, models, even mobsters. This last group always came after the store was closed, so they could shop without anyone else in the store, recalled Maurice Cohen, third-generation owner with his cousin, Jeffrey Cohen.
Shortly after announcing their retirement in an early September letter mailed to the community, the Cohen cousins met with NJJN in an office above the store and reminisced about their lives in the business.
Among the oddest items they remember selling, even until 1975, were white parade gloves and men’s garters. “Did we sell the gloves at regular price or on sale?” Jeffrey asked Maurice in an impromptu quiz. “Regular price!” was the answer.
Maurice fondly recalled their 1970s inventory of velvet suits adorned with frilly shirts underneath. “I’m a peacock,” he acknowledged about his fashion sense. On this day he wore an orange-and-white checked button-down shirt with jeans, while Jeffrey was dressed more conservatively in an understated blue suit, complete with handkerchief in the front pocket.
The clothing business began with their grandfather Hyman Cohen’s pushcart, which sold bolts of fabric. It morphed into men’s and women’s ready-to-wear clothing and, circa 1920, Cohen opened the storefront at 79 Prince Street in Newark.
Maurice and Jeffrey remembered playing with large cardboard boxes in the back of the H. Cohen & Sons, Inc. location, but they were also put to work. “Our fathers would give us the cutoffs from pants that had been tailored to put in a box and sell to the ragman,” said Maurice. Added Jeffrey, “Then we’d go to Sidney’s Deli for corned beef and pastrami on rye, and then for cookies from Wigler’s Bakery. That was a good day.”
Asked what they’ll miss most after the closing, Maurice said “The camaraderie.” Maybe that stems from the early days of the store, when it really was a place people went to socialize. In fact, Maurice recalled that around 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoons, an hour before closing, his parents put out a tray of cheese and salami and poured whiskey and bourbon for customers.
The Newark business was destroyed during the 1967 riots — it was looted and burned, with nothing left but a vendor’s pencil that the cousins saved all these years later, and the fireproof lockbox with all the installment purchase papers (installment purchases made up a large portion of the business at that time). In 1968, the family bought Sam’s in Livingston, then an army-navy store, from Sam Winkler, for whom it was named. Jeffrey remembered selling hip boots for fishing, hockey sticks, even ammunition.
By the time the cousins took over the business in the early 1980s from their fathers, Louis (Maurice) and Edward (Jeffrey), the community was ready for higher fashion, higher quality merchandise, and higher price tags.
The business adjusted by adding European suits, first made at mills in France, later in Italy, along with fine sportswear. Jeffrey, not a natural gambler, recalled all the risks the cousins had to take. “You can’t be in the fashion industry looking in the rearview mirror,” he said. “You’ve got to always be looking ahead.”
Some bets paid off, others less so. “The only thing we’re married to is our wives,” said Maurice. “If it sells, great. If not, get rid of it.” That was their philosophy. If people didn’t understand a fashion trend, there was no point explaining. “When you buy clothes, only two things matter: One, that it looks good, and two, that it feels comfortable. Buying clothes should not be a cerebral experience.”
They also transformed the store windows from a place to push merchandise and sales to somewhere they could express a point of view (and push merchandise). The windows became iconic for their artistic expression. Besides featuring clothes for sale, the displays were much more than that, like their award-winning window that featured a revision of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; the Creation in their version included a high-fashion button-down men’s shirt.
And the same care that went into adorning Sam’s windows was put toward fostering local causes, like Cycle for Survival, a cycling fund-raiser for rare cancers started by Livingston native Jennifer Goodman Linn. “It was important for us to support the community that supported us,” said Jeffrey.
The cousins, both 68, said they are ready to close the shop and spend more time with their families. Although their four children each pursued careers that didn’t include Sam’s, they have no regrets about not passing the family business to the next generation.
“We had a pretty good run,” said Jeffrey.
There was one common thread that ran through all the incarnations of the business, what Jeffrey calls “the human touch.”
“We were always staffed up and ready to help our customers,” he said.
That’s what kept families coming back through generations. Jordan Odette of Springfield grew up in Livingston and shopped at Sam’s, just like his father and uncle. Before he got married in 2012, there was only one place for him and his groomsmen to get their outfits for the wedding.
“I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else,” he said. “I knew they would take care of us and the suits would fit well and they’d be ready on time. And I like giving business to the store I grew up with.”
Now that it’s closing, Odette said, “It will live on in our memories as the best place to suit up.”