MENDEL & FAMILY, MERCHANT’S TO MONROE
85 years there was a store in downtown Monroe that was one of the most
well-known, well-loved and respected businesses on Broad Street.
You only needed to say one name that brought to mind courtesy, quality
and a long standing tradition of customer satisfaction and pride among its
patrons. The name?
Why, “Mendel’s” of course!
was still a “young” town in1891 when a 26 year-old Jewish man and his wife
landed in Monroe, fresh from New York where he arrived in 1883 from Russia.
Morris Mendel came from the small Russian country town of Riga where he was born
in 1865. He lived in Russia with his
parents, helping them run the small trading post they owned. At the age of 18,
being industrious, intelligent and full of ambition and purpose, Morris decided
the time was right to make his way across the ocean to America. He knew America
was the place to be for one with vision, determination and stamina in which to
make a name, a living and to raise a family.
In 1884 Morris began a modest pants manufacturing business in New York
which did quite well for six years. During
this time he was introduced to Esther Bartel, a beautiful Jewish Russian by one
of his friends. The friendship
warmed into a romance and Esther soon became Morris’ wife. Not long after
their marriage disaster struck many of the early businesses in New York in 1890,
wiping out the careers and savings of many small businesses, Morris’s
included. It was then he decided to
make his way to the South in hopes of finding a city and job that fitted his
enthusiasm, personality and courage.
With little money on hand but a mind full of ideas and dreams, Morris
began his career in Monroe as a door-to door peddler, a pack on his back full of
novelties and cloth for the houses of the town. In a Tribune article from the
1930’s, Sanders Camp said of Morris Mendel’s character: “Industry,
scrupulous personal economy and a reputation for honesty among his customers
soon brought Morris a few dollars profit – money earned by many miles of
traveling from door to door.” With
his continued determination to make a name for himself, Morris yearned to open
his own store, so with some of the hard earned profits from the miles and miles
of traveling he logged, five years after his arrival in Monroe, in 1896 he
opened M. Mendel’s Mercantile Store, on the corner which was later occupied by
Monroe Drug Company.
Having little capital to run on but ideas bursting from his mind, Morris
made every attempt to make his store a success. But like his earlier job in New
York, difficulty and hardships plagued his tiny store. While his spirits flagged
every so often, his determination to make his store profitable was the fuel
which forged him onward despite the financial woes which beset him.
The Spanish American War was in progress and financial resources were
readily available only to those who had security; Morris did not. It
seemed once again Morris was about to lose everything he had hoped for; the
success he prayed for and the opportunity to become a successful businessman in
this new hamlet he called home.
It has been said we all have a “guardian angel” watching over us and
Morris Mendel was no exception. Word
of Morris’s financial troubles reached the ear of Monroe banker B. S. (Buck)
Walker who immediately loaned him $500. This
began a friendship between the two men that lasted until Mr. Walker’s death in
1924. The money Morris received from
Mr. Walker helped carry the business over lean times until his store again
became profitable. Ever diligent with his obligations, he repaid that loan in
full as he did with all the other loans he made over the years with promptness.
Through the years, Mr. & Mrs. Mendel prospered in Monroe, not only
from a business operation but as a family as well.
The Mendel’s were parents to ten children: Celia Mendel (Mrs. I Block),
Sylvia Mendel (Mrs. Ben Millender), Ida Mendel (Mrs. Sam Sigman), Sarah, Hyman,
Perry, Simon, Nathan, Henry and David. In
1899 Morris moved his store across the street to the building that faced the
Monroe Drug Company. As his sons grew in age, he would bring them into the store
to learn the mercantile trade. Son
Henry and brother-in-law Ben Millender help their father run the business.
Mendel could have been quite happy with his mercantile business but as luck
would have it, opportunity shined in his favor once again and through a chance
meeting with a business associate and an auction, he went from the mercantile
business to that of Monroe’s leading grocer. Son Perry described the events
that led to his father purchasing a new business in an interview back in the
sixties: “Papa brought the grocery store almost by accident, certainly not by
intent. “One day his good friend
Willoughby Roberts observed a crowd gathering at the court house lawn.
Mr. Roberts persuaded Papa to go with him to see what the gathering was
about. It turned out to be an
auction, the selling of a bankrupt grocery store, several doors down from where
his store was. Mr. Roberts began
urging Papa to bid, mostly for the fun of it.
The upshot of it was Papa ended up owning a grocery store and he
couldn’t even read the labels on the cans.
Papa only knew Hebrew.
“After Papa bought the grocery store, he changed the name from M.
Mendel Company to Mendel Brothers Store. He brought Hyman and me in to work the
long hours that were customary in that type business in the early days. We
worked the grocery portion of the store while Henry & Ben ran the mercantile
section. Often times we were in the
store at 4 a.m., working until time for school and on the weekends we were
there, usually until midnight, until all the mullet were sold. I was 15 and
Hyman was 17 when we began working full time.” As
the grocery business grew, the mercantile portion was phased out to make more
room for the grocery area.
As the elder Mendel’s health
declined, the daily operations of the business were turned over to Perry and
Hyman during the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Monroe
sustained a great loss to the business community when Morris Mendel died in 1941
at the age of 71. His beloved wife,
Esther, died in 1943.
and Hyman operated the grocery until Hyman and his wife left Monroe in the
mid-fifties to live in Atlanta. Perry ran the store alone, aided by his
employees and his wife, Mary, who assisted part-time operating the cash
register. In 1958 Perry’s son,
Arthur, joined the business when the store was enlarged, remodeled and the space
doubled. In 1960 the name was changed again to Mendel’s Grocery.
Perry’s health began to decline, he turned over the daily operations of the
store to Arthur and his wife Bette who continued the business until 1976 when
the store rang up its last sale and closed the doors for the last time to the
Mary Mendel died in June of 1973. Two years later, Perry died in August
1975. Arthur died in March of 1977
followed by wife Bette in February of 2001.
Mendel’s was long a favorite of the Monroe community, noted for the
high quality of food and service which the family extended to its customers, a
trait instilled in them by Morris Mendel. Mr.
Mendel, ever mindful of the kindnesses that had been extended to him as a young
man new to the city, never forgot it was the customer who helped make his
business a success and he made sure all his customers were treated fairly and
honestly, even at times going the extra mile to see his customers were looked
after in both good and lean times. It
was this belief Morris Mendel began in 1891 which made his business a Monroe
landmark for 85 years.