M. MENDEL & FAMILY, MERCHANT’S TO MONROE

By Nowell Briscoe

          For 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!

Monroe 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.

Morris 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.

Perry 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.

When 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 Monroe community.

          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.