Monday, May 1, 2017

In honor of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce’s 100th anniversary, the Greenwich Library Oral History Project will be sharing blog posts about Greenwich business owners. We begin by focusing on the Marks Brothers Stationery Store and the life of Jennie Marks Levine, who was interviewed by the Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project in 1974. This blog post has been prepared by guest blogger and graduating Greenwich High School senior, Olivia Luntz.

Jennie Marks was born on August 4,1895, in Greenwich after her parents immigrated to America from the town of Goris, on the border of Germany and Russia. Remarkably, her parents and grandparents were able to travel from Hamburg to America in 1875 for the sum of only five dollars per ticket. This was due to a price war among the steamship companies, which made all the difference for the Marks family. Levine confesses that if her family had had to pay any more for their tickets, they probably would not have been able to come to America. Her father and his brothers initially moved to Pemberwick and then to Port Chester, where they started a fruit business together. Around 1904 Levine’s father heard of a newspaper business in Greenwich that was for sale, and he decided to buy it. Originally, the business was intended to be a family one, as Levine’s uncle was also in need of a job, so her father took him on as a partner. “They were only in partnership for three days when my father said, ‘It’s not going to work out.’ In a year’s time they separated. My father bought him out.” However, the business still kept the name, “Marks Brothers.”

Levine stresses that running a newspaper route was far from easy work, especially due to the lack of modern conveniences at the start of the twentieth century. “I remember my father, on a Sunday morning, getting up at two o’clock in the morning, going to the station and getting the papers, bringing them up to the store—we all folded the papers—he delivered in a couple of cars, or a couple of wagons. They delivered papers in Greenwich and came home at twelve o’clock, changed horses, and went out to Round Hill to deliver some more papers, and way up on North Street. Worked from two o’clock in the morning until six o’clock the next night. And that’s the way people worked to make a few dollars. Just to make a living.”

Since her family knew near poverty, barely able to afford their passage to this country, Levine remembers her family’s generosity when other Jewish families—those who came to America in dire circumstances—would show up on their doorstep in need of food and shelter. Eventually, her family and others established a Hebrew Institute where the families could go for help in getting established in their new homeland. In those early days, the Marks home was a refuge for those in need. Levine remembers her mother cooking meals for twenty people at a time, describing their home as “sort of” a headquarters for Jewish people.

In spite of these added responsibilities, her father continued to grow the business, but new technologies that one might expect would help Marks with his grueling work were not always met with open arms. The family was eventually able to buy a car for their business but, as Ms. Levine remarks about her father, “He always used to say that the horse was better than the car. The horse knew when to stop, when we had to deliver a paper, but a car never knew. He often said that, particularly when we had heavy wintry storms. The horse would know where to go. He’d know where the road was even though you couldn’t find it.”

Not only did the Marks family trust their horse more than their new Ford, they often relied on walking. A devout Jewish family, during the High Holy Days and other important holidays, the family walked from their home in Greenwich to Port Chester in order to attend services. Here Levine comments on her “healthy walks”:

...”I remember there are a few holidays that are not so strict, you could buy the tickets ahead of time, and use them, but Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or anything like that, you walked. There was no question about it. I used to walk from here [Cos Cob] to Greenwich with Harriet when she was a baby. Push her in the baby carriage. Wouldn’t think of riding. But you’re exposed to that, and it just stays, I guess. That’s all.”

Jennie Marks Levine was born and bred to contribute to her faith as well as to the family business. Hard work, then, was not just limited to Levine’s father. Levine herself also worked full time for her family after she finished eighth grade. By that time the business had grown from just being a newspaper route to also including a stationary store on Greenwich Avenue. Levine describes, “I used to open up at six o’clock in the morning, stay there until nine o’clock every night. Got so that when I went up for lunch, I was interrupted so often, they put a telephone in from the store upstairs so I could answer questions.”

Levine further recalls a day that she will never forget, that not only affected the history of the world, but also institutions as small and simple as a local stationary store. “You know, there were two dates that the First World War was over. One was the sixth of November and the other was the eleventh. And the date of the sixth was the false armistice report. The papers came in from New York by train…all around the corner people were waiting for the papers to come in. And they brought the papers in through the back door. I was behind the counter, and they pushed the counter over on top of me. Everybody tried to get the papers. I nearly got killed that day. But the second day, they weren’t excited about. See, the first day, the sixth, they thought was a real armistice, and when the eleventh came nobody was excited.”

In spite of the chaos brought by news of the armistice, Levine describes a very different Greenwich Avenue from the bustling shopping destination we know now. In the previous century, she says, “It was a lovely, quiet street. The only time it was busy was when the wealthy people used to go to the train to New York to go to work, and when they used to come home at night. Otherwise it was quiet. There wasn’t much doing.” She does, however, recall one day in which Greenwich Avenue was filled with people. During World War I, the Twelfth Company was made up of over a hundred enlisted men from Greenwich, and on the day they were reporting for duty, “They had a military band that walked down Greenwich Avenue with flags flying and everybody standing on the street crying and letting them go.”

Levine and her family’s hard work on the newspaper route and in the stationery business paid off when they were able to buy the building that they had been living and working in for the previous ten years. Levine credits her father with being very farsighted. The business also “sent the boys [Levine’s brothers] to school.” She continues, “There was never a question of the boys earning a salary or anything like that. I worked for twenty years, and I didn’t get a nickel. There wasn’t anything I wanted that I couldn’t have, but there was no time to want anything!”

Chamber of Commerce photo of upper Greenwich Avenue
After Levine got married in 1922, her father sold the newspaper route and moved the stationary store to another location he owned higher on the avenue, which was carried on by two of her brothers. Many in Greenwich still remember that store where one could buy stationery, a newspaper, or send a fax. The times may have changed, but the hard work and acumen required to build a successful business are as important today as they were when an immigrant family from Goris built theirs here in Greenwich.

This interview, “Early Life in Greenwich. Establishment of Marks Bros. Stationary Store, and the Jewish Community of Greenwich” (Oral History Project interviewer, Mildred Rosenberg, May 20, 1974), may be read in the library’s reference area on the first floor or in the Oral History Project office on the library’s lower level.

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