Go South, young man/Shaia's founder put down roots in Homewood 89 years ago

Back when new businesses were building north of Red Mountain, S. J. took advice from colleague Louis Pizitz, the Polish-born department store founder, who told him to "go South," Leo Shaia says.

"What was Homewood at that time?  The hot property then was Tarrant City," he said. "Did he come for a business opportunity or just a good place to grow his flowers and grapevines?  We don't know.  I wish we had asked."

Shaia's is one of more than 100 Birmingham area companies being recognized for their longevity this year by the Birmingham History Center. Companies range from large industries to small proprietorships. Each has been in business since at least 1935, surviving depressions and recessions that swept other businesses away.

For Shaia's, success was a matter of staying on the move, and knowing the market:

Founder S. J. Shaia

When S. J. Shaia arrived in New York City in the early 1900s, he knew only enough English to count to 10. Even the name Shaia is an approximation of the name he gave officials, Leo Shaia says.

S. J. was processed through Ellis Island and with other immigrants re-located to Louisville, Ky.  From there he moved to Nashville, then married a girl from Birmingham.

Almost nothing is known about his life before coming to the United States. Very little is known about his life before landing in Homewood.

"He was a peddler and never learned to drive a car," J. L. said. "He either walked or took public transportation, sometimes going as far as Walker County to sell his goods."

In 1922, Shaia bought a house, neighboring shop space and other property along Homewood's 18th Street, which remains in family hands today.  His son and Leo's father, A.J. Shaia, continued business as a small department store in the 1950s and 1960s, doing a brisk in housewares, sewing notions, patterns and bolts of cloth. Pictures of the shop floor crammed with customers and tables of merchandise hang inside Shaia's today.

"We had a very robust business while I was in high school," J. L. said.  But, "I hated piece goods, women's wear, the Simplicity Patterns, and notions."  In 1964, as Homewood's affluence grew, Leo and J. L. gratefully converted the shop to an exclusively men's clothing store.

It was the first of four major remodelings that followed in 1982--with an expansion into neighboring Calhoun Shoes--in 1996, and in 2008.

The only artifacts that remain of the early days are a wooden cash drawer--still in use--and  wooden J. & P. Coats thread boxes used now as display ornaments. Leo has the original store safe.

When the storefront was redone, the door handles were fabricated with a grapevine design in honor of S. J. Shaia.

Why did the business survive, and thrive?

"For decades, and through the Depression, they lived frugally, living in the store and at times just eking out a living," J. L. said. Our parents and grandfather all lived together.

"But they did well. They had a knack for knowing what people wanted," he said. "They saw what the community needed and gave it to them."

S.J. Shaia died in 1976. Leo and J.L.'s father died in 2000.  Meanwhile, J.L.'s son Ken is the fourth generation Shaia to work in the business.