Sunday, May 26, 2024

“Leinwand’s is Elizabethtown to me”

There used to be many department stores in small towns throughout North Carolina. Many of them closed, either because of competition from discounters or because succeeding generations wanted to do something else.

Leinwand’s, in Elizabethtown, is still in business after 86 years. It continues to anchor a vibrant downtown in Bladen County because Ricky Leinwand, after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s, came home to help his father, Wallace, run the store. That was a lucky break for Elizabethtown.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Leinwand has been active in civic affairs – a long-time member of the community college board, a town council member, a booster of local teams, and a leader in organizing good works.

The Leinwands’ story is a familiar one to those of you who grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina. Jewish immigrants from Germany to the Russian Empire settled in the 19th and early 20th centuries in places like Elizabethtown, Whiteville, Clinton, Tarboro and Lumberton and opened stores. North Carolina’s population mostly lived in and around small towns, farming and working in mills.

Ricky Leinwand, owner of Leinwand’s in Elizabethtown

Isaac Leinwand grew up in the Galicia region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and emigrated in 1907, when he was around 20. In the 1920s, he opened up a store in Branchville, S.C., a little railroad town.  And that’s where he might have stayed, but the Depression hit and “granddaddy just lost everything” when the banks shut down, says Ricky Leinwand.

Isaac had a brother in Whiteville who helped him start over again in Elizabethtown in 1935. Four years later, Isaac’s store burned in a fire that might have consumed much of downtown Elizabethtown if fire companies from Lumberton, Whiteville and Fayetteville hadn’t arrived quickly.

“It’s a miracle we’re even in business,” says Ricky. But Leinwand’s reopened, and in 1947, Isaac’s son Wallace – Ricky’s father – took over the business in a partnership with his wife, Shirley (Just as Ricky and his wife, Eileen Silvers Leinwand, now run the store together).

Wallace Leinwand, who passed away in 2012, became one of the most prominent citizens of Bladen County. He was the town’s mayor, president of the Rotary Club, president of the Jaycees, on a bank board, and organizer of youth baseball, one reason a local ballfield is named for him.  In the statewide drive 60 years ago to raise money to save the USS North Carolina from the scrapyard and turn it into a museum in Wilmington, Wallace Leinwand led the highly successful Bladen County effort.

He was typical of Jewish merchants in small Eastern North Carolina towns – the Weinsteins in Lumberton, the Leders and Manns in Whiteville, the Baers in Dunn, the Sugars in St. Pauls, and the Kramers in Wallace.  A 2007 study of Eastern North Carolina Jewish families by Campbell University historian James I. Martin Sr. documented how involved these families were in their communities.

“. . .[W]herever Jews went, their sense of civic obligation was very strong,” Martin wrote.

Ricky Leinwand has carried on the tradition, not just as a member of the town council, but as a Rotarian, as a leader of the Optimists and the Jaycees, and as a radio broadcaster of local high school sports for more than 30 years. For decades, Leinwand’s has hosted a Christmas shopping trip for residents of the Kiwanis cottage at the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina.

“Instead of just keeping to ourselves and just hanging around Jewish people, we became mayors of our towns, or [state] senators,” says Leinwand. “David Weinstein in Lumberton. Terry Mann, the mayor in Whiteville. Wallace Leinwand was the mayor of Elizabethtown. We became the presidents of Jaycees and the Kiwanis Club and the Rotary Club and the chamber of commerce. We became [members of] the boards of trustees of colleges. We didn’t hide. We gave back to the community.  The story is not just me and my family. It’s the story of Jewish people in the South.”

But to carry on his family’s civic tradition, he had to stay in Elizabethtown. And he knew, when he graduated from UNC more than 45 years ago, that the family business needed to change.

The retail that he saw while attending UNC made an impression. “I saw all those nice stores in Chapel Hill – Julian’s, Milton’s, The Hub. And, I said, “Daddy, I really want to come back but we need to upgrade our business.

“I said ‘We need to buy this $30 shirt, the Lacoste shirt, the alligator shirt.’  We were used to selling $14.95 shirts. He said ‘Nobody in Bladen County’s gonna buy that. They can’t afford it.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we can attract from Lumberton and Clinton and Fayetteville.’”

And that’s what they did.  In the mid-70s, nearly all of the store’s business was from Bladen County. That was a problem, because like many Eastern North Carolina counties, Bladen was working hard to keep its population from declining (It has accomplished that, no small feat).

“We’re now over 80 percent outside of Bladen County customers.” He now draws customers from Cumberland, Sampson, Robeson and Columbus counties. “Those four counties are our top four counties volume-wise, which is amazing”

“I still depend on my good old farmer. The farmers are my best customers. But these are not overall, dirt farmers anymore. They’re sophisticated masters-degree-type farmers in the swine industry. And even though I’m Jewish and I don’t eat pork, we definitely support the swine industry,” Leinwand says.

Leinwand’s has a digital enterprise, operated by his son, Michael, and uses social media to expand the reach of its 6,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar business. “We just started this a year ago with the virus and everything going on,” Leinwand says. “My son’s smart.  I’m 68 years old. I don’t know much about that stuff.”

The store carries more than 300 brands, and shoppers found it online during the pandemic. “We’ve sent things to 15 states already. Every day we send something somewhere.”

“People love our brands, and we get permission from the manufacturers to sell it online, and that’s what we do. It’s a very small part of our business right now, but we’re impressed by the fact that people are finding out about us in Oregon and Washington and California.”

He has been Mr. Ricky for years to young men who got their prom tuxes because Leinwand came to their high school to take their order. That’s how he met Brent Underwood, one of many Bladen residents who have worked at the store in their teens.

“I went to measure these kids at Tar Heel High School – the principal was a good friend of mine and he let me into the school, to give everybody a deal on tuxedo rentals for junior-senior prom. There were like 25 kids in line and I was by myself. The kid, he was about 16 years old, he said, ‘Mr. Ricky, would you like me to write down the names for you and help you out there?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what a wonderful suggestion’ and I hired him on the spot in the store right after that.”

Underwood, who now tours the state with his band 87&Pine, says Leinwand’s was – and is – “extremely important to guys like me coming up. Mr. Ricky kind of told us how to dress.”

The store, said Underwood, is “Elizabethtown to me.”

When Elizabethtown native Larrell Murchison signed a big contract with the Tennessee Titans last year, the former N.C. State star wanted to donate winter coats to local kids. His agent had been all set to buy $5,000 to $10,000 of merchandise in the Raleigh area, but Murchison said to get it from Leinwand’s.

“And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what.  I’ll go in half with him,’” says  Leinwand. “And we clothed about 40 kids.” He also put on a red N.C. State sweatshirt at Murchison’s request and posed for a picture with the 300-pound defensive lineman, who had visited the store since elementary school.

“I love my Tar Heels, but I also love my local people that have been successful,” Leinwand says.

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