“I remember when I was a kid, and I was selling some shoes,” said Robbie Silverman, one of the officers at Jerry’s Bargains Inc. and the son of its owner, Jerry Silverman. He recalled that he had told his father, a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, that the shoes smelled terrible. “He told me, ‘Robbie, don’t smell them. Sell them.’”
It was this kind of business instinct that made Jerry’s Bargains a successful fixture of the Baltimore community for more than 50 years, since its founding in 1963. However, the children’s clothing store, located at 605-607 West Lexington St., will be permanently closing its doors at a to-be-determined point in the future, due in part to Jerry Silverman’s health.
Jerry Silverman’s father, Bob Silverman, was a businessman as well, running his store, Bob’s Bargains, and instilling in his son a sense of business acumen, Robbie Silverman said. Jerry Silverman lost his father at age 14. He played football while in high school and joined the Coast Guard. When his son was born in 1963, he needed a way to support his growing family, and so he founded Jerry’s Bargains that same year.
“It was a pretty exciting time,” Jerry Silverman said. “I must’ve spent $200 in store fixtures … bought some old add machines, $25, and I was in business.”
Primarily serving an African American clientele, Jerry Silverman sold items such as shirts, jeans, socks, baby shoes and sportswear. He got by through his resilience, his eye for a bargain and his relationship with his customers, Robbie Silverman said. While they initially centered on general merchandise, Jerry Silverman said, after Baltimore City public schools began using uniforms, the store evolved over time to focus on school uniforms. Being among the first to carry school uniforms, he soon had lines extending out his door, and he had to hire security guards to serve as crowd control.
“He’s a very good businessman,” Robbie Silverman said of his father. “He went to New York practically every other month to buy fashion, to bring it back to the store and to keep his customers interested. And he worked very, very hard, even to this day.” In addition to the long drives to New York, Jerry Silverman also acquired stock by purchasing closeout and overrun merchandise from Walmart and Target, he said.
Jerry Silverman focused on being budget oriented, affordable for families and providing customers with friendly, personalized service, Robbie Silverman said, and didn’t mind it if a customer was a bit short of money. Apparently, it was an attitude that was rewarded with a customer loyalty that would span not years, but generations.
“Every day,” Robbie Silverman said, “somebody comes in and says, ‘You know, my mother used to bring me in here. Now I’m bringing in my children and grandchildren.”
In a similar vein, Jerry Silverman recounted one incident with a shoplifter who attempted to abscond with an armful of pants. Giving chase, Jerry Silverman watched as the thief slipped, dropped the pants and dashed off. Jerry Silverman picked up most of the pants and brought them back to his store. “Fifteen minutes later,” he said, “a customer comes back into my store with a pair of pants. She said, ‘Mr. Jerry, I found one of your pants under the car, where you chased this guy.’”
It was an attitude that was just as applicable to the store’s employees as it was to its customers. “We’ve had people that worked here 20 and 30 years, because they were treated like gold, just like our customers,” Robbie Silverman said. “And that’s what my father taught me, just to treat people like you’re treating yourself.”
Jerry Silverman began putting his son to work on Saturdays when he reached 10, paying him a dollar an hour while teaching him the importance of good credit, how to arrange window displays and how to be a buyer, Robbie Silverman said.
“He always told me, ‘Everybody wants to start out on top,’” Robbie Silverman said. “‘So if you want to start out on top, I’ll put you on the roof, you can tar it for me. That’s the only way you’re going to start out on top.’”
Perhaps one of the more unique aspects of Jerry’s Bargains was its old-fashioned manner of doing business. Eschewing modern-day computers and any type of business software applications, inventory is done by hand with pen and paper, said Robbie Silverman. In place of any type of scanning equipment to process a purchase, orders are instead rung up on the cash registers of a bygone era.
“We’re still kind of prehistoric,” Robbie Silverman said. “We did things the long and hard way, but it worked for us.”
Currently at 85 years old, Jerry Silverman has been diagnosed with orthostatic hypotension, said Robbie Silverman, and is also a fall risk. “I think everything in its time,” Robbie Silverman said. “And I think maybe he’ll feel a lot better if [the store is] sold.”
Robbie Silverman estimates that the store’s final closure may not come for another few months, but in preparation, they are currently holding a 50% off sale on everything except baby shoes.
For his part, Jerry Silverman hoped his community would remember him as a “merchant who treated his customers with honesty, with sincerity, with actually love, because that’s the way they treated me.”