When Joseph and Mary Greenberg opened their ladies’ clothing store in Stratford in 1929, times were tough. With the Depression beginning, there was little money to spend on clothing, and many women still made their own clothes. But the newly-married couple, who both had experience in the clothing business, could see the possibility of a good livelihood in Stratford.
“It was a difficult time," said Mary. "Things were very lean. So we tightened our belts. You don’t go spending what you don’t have. And no one had too much in those days.”
Through careful management and hard work, the family business survived for 60 years: through the Depression, several location changes, and in 1978 a devastating fire burned the store to the ground.
When the store closed in January 1989, Mr. and Mrs. Greenberg, each 87, and their son Harvey, 58, all retired. Harvey had come on board in 1949 and gradually took over management of the store. "It’s been a good life in Stratford," he said. "We’ll continue to live here.”
Joseph Greenberg worked in Toronto as a cutter in a ladies clothing factory, and then as a travelling salesman for the Jell-O company while he was single. He met Mary during stops in Sudbury, where she was managing her father’s clothing store, Gluckstein’s.
The couple married in 1928 and in 1929 came to Stratford after deciding to buy the the women's wear store at 101 Downie St. from a friend, John Straus. That store was part of the Majestic Theatre (97 Downie St.) building at the time and is now the Avon Theatre.
During the 1930s, there was a big demand for payment plans and most women would pay $5 down on a dress, which ranged from $10.95 to $14.95, and pay the rest off on credit over time. The store employed two women were to do alterations at the back of the shop. In 1933, the business moved to 103 Ontario St., a larger store.
By 1938, the economy was picking up and the Greenbergs were able to afford their first vacation, a 10-day trip to Montreal. Their two sons, Harvey and Sidney, worked at the shop after school, making boxes and delivering parcels. After he graduated from secondary school at age 19, Harvey joined the business, in the office and accompanying his parents on buying trips to Toronto and Montreal.
Sidney returned to Stratford in 1961 from university in Toronto to run Young Fashions, at 93 Ontario St. Business continued to improve gradually, especially as “ready-made" became more popular. When more women began working outside the home, many of them chose to buy clothes instead of making them.
The start of the Stratford Festival in 1953 was also a boost to business, attracting people from all over the world as the theatre gained international acclaim.
In April 1978, fire destroyed Greenberg’s Ladies Fashions as well as three other businesses along Ontario Street, namely the Commodore Restaurant and Tavern, Rickert Shoes and Ted Keane Photography. The fire, which began at the back of the Greenberg store after a steam iron had been left on overnight, was discovered at 3:20 a.m. by two delivery men. They noticed smoke coming out of a basement window at Greenberg’s. The Greenbergs were notified of the fire by phone and could see it from their apartment window at Park Towers.
“It was terrible," said Joseph. "We could see the smoke and flames from our window. It had been burning all night, and soon burned to the ground.” Harvey’s wife, Lorraine, said the family lost most of its history in old photographs and newspaper clippings in the fire. “It was a very traumatic and devastating event," she said. "There wasn’t even a pin left after that fire.
Family history is now referred to as happening ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire.” Three months later, the business re-opened down the street, at 87 Ontario St., and brought the ladies' wear store and Young Fashions under one roof. “We had to start all over again," said Harvey. "We had to reorder the stock, including everything down to the pencils, because nothing was left.”
Young Fashions closed and Sidney moved to Toronto. Because none of the Greenbergs’ six grandchildren was interested in carrying on the business, the stock was sold and the store was closed permanently in January 1989. Source: Stratford-Perth Archives, Stratford Beacon Herald, Dec. 2, 1988