Here are a few facts about me: 1) Despite growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t step foot on a working farm until I was in my 20’s; 2) I can recite the entire movie “Singing in the Rain” by heart; and 3) If I am out at the type of public gathering that would require a suit or a sport coat, chances are one of those suit or sport coat wearers will come up to me and open said jacket to show me the label on the inside pocket. I absolutely love when this happens, not because I have a thing for pockets, but because the label is from my family’s former clothing store – a haberdashery named Silverman’s.
My little sister and I were born (figuratively) and raised (literally) at Silverman’s.
Silverman’s was jump-started by my great-grandfather, Herman, and later owned and managed by my parents, Steve and Robin, and my grandfather, Sam. By the time I arrived on the scene Silverman’s was located on South Third Street in downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota, and my mom was interviewed by the local news station for being one of the new wave of mothers who not only chose to work, but brought their babies along for the ride. Her office was at the bottom of the stairs – all of the enterprise staff worked in the basement at Silverman’s – and the film crew captured me crawling up said stairs to the sales floor. Everyone applauded when I reached the top. Never one to pass up an opportunity for potential accolades, I took it upon myself to crawl, and later walk, up those stairs every chance I got after that.
Once I managed to slip away long enough to toddle from the basement to the checkout desk. Having yet to receive any applause, I decided to practice my newest trick of opening the cash register. My father found me stopping customers with a “Here you go!” and handing them money from the till. Fortunately, this was North Dakota, and all of the customers waited around to give the money back.
My parents were so impressed with my initiative and customer service skills that they gave me an actual job of picking up straight pins from the floor. I’m not sure what was going on in the 1980s, but apparently straight pins flowed like cocaine. There were only two workspaces not in the basement at Silverman’s: my grandfather’s office, and the tailoring “department,” a tiny closet off the Tux Shop where three women and a mountain of thread whirred away the day. What the seamstresses lacked in square footage they made up for in pins, which were liberally applied by the sales staff to garments in need of tailoring. I became so good at picking up pins and delivering them by the boxful to the tailors that I can still spot a straight pin on the street, in a snowstorm, walking uphill.
For this work, I received $1. Not $1 per hour, or per week, or per box of pins; after several years of dedicated pin service, I got a check for $1. And, because I was so great with money (“Here you go!”), I never cashed it.
In the 1970s malls had become all the rage, and my Grandpa Sam had stuck a roof over the top of South Third Street and created The City Center Mall. The Mall boasted all sorts of business-friendly amenities like waterbugs, but was best-known for its cave-like darkness and its sunken center. I have to assume my grandfather was given a screamin’ discount on an unfilled swimming pool and decided to install it in the middle of the Mall instead of his backyard. In this swimming pool was located A Taste of Norway, a magical food stand run by what my childhood memory tells me were the oldest Norwegians to ever exist. My guess is my $1 paycheck was the balance after my parents took into account the thousands of dollars I spent, ten cents at a time, on rommegrot and kuchen from A Taste of Norway.
But you can’t pick up pins and eat pudding all day, and so the rest (vast majority) of my time was spent playing Barbies with my sister in the middle of the square pants racks, closing up the three-way mirror to make an infinite world of Amandas, and hugging the suits.
All of the suits at Silverman’s were stored on a long wall system made up of a series of upper and lower hangar sections. What looked to be one section of suits was actually two: one facing forward and one facing backwards. Each section of the system would pull out and rotate around to showcase the other side. If you pulled out all of the sections, you created a two-foot tunnel behind the suits, perfect for two little girls looking for pins and buttons. Once I found a nickel, which my sister ate. It was cozy and quiet in that tunnel, and I loved to sit in the dark and wrap my arms around as many suits as I could reach and breathe in the smell of wool fabric and wooden hangars. If you bought a suit from Silverman’s between 1985 and 1990, chances are I hugged it.
The sales staff were blessedly and remarkably kind about the fact that these two children were always underfoot. I repaid this kindness by turning into an insufferable pre-teen. My parents made the decision to protect the sales staff took notice at how great I was at picking up pins and promoted me to hangar sorting. Hangar sorting took place in the back section of the shipping-receiving area in the bowels of the basement, as far away from other humans as physically possible. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’d really like a job where I get to untangle the equivalent of frozen Christmas lights and have my hands smell like metal for all eternity,” then hangar sorting is for you.
While it’s a real laugh-a-minute to shake a hangar loose from a mountain of other hangars, put it in a box with other hangars of its ilk, and then repeat those actions a billion more times, I created an expansive and exciting storyline to help pass the time. In this storyline all of my friends had been KIDNAPPED by a NEFARIOUS gang, who would only free them if I could find the MAGICAL GOLDEN HANGAR. The only way to get the MAGICAL GOLDEN HANGAR was to trade a box of ordinary hangars to a DARK SHADOWMAN for a clue to the whereabouts of the MAGICAL GOLDEN HANGAR. The clock was ticking; if I didn’t make the trade as soon as possible, the DARK SHADOWMAN would move to a new location and I’d have to start the process all over again. Needless to say, all of my friends were rescued daily and I was lauded again and again as both the greatest friend and the greatest hangar sorter in the universe.
I earned $20 at random for these momentous efforts. I spent the money on Archie Comics from Osco Drug. My sister and I would sit in the square pants racks and read the comics and daydream about opening a futuristic ice cream shop across the Mall from Silverman’s that would shoot ice cream through the Mall via a Jetsons-style tube system for customers to eat while they shopped. This is still a million-dollar idea.
Hangar mountain was replenished once a year on Crazy Day. My Grandpa Sam was the king of the deal – which is probably why he was one of the business owners to launch Crazy Day: a one-day summer sales orgy where all of the back stock was sold off for pennies on the dollar. To promote the very first Crazy Day in the 1960’s, my grandfather hitchhiked for 30 miles wearing only a barrel. It must have worked, because by the time I showed up Crazy Day was basically the world’s greatest garage sale.
Crazy Day was not only a chance to clear out some space for the winter merchandise, it was also our opportunity to rehome some of the hoards and hoards of flotsam and jetsam my grandfather squirreled away. A product of both the Great Depression and my great-grandfather’s business struggles, my Grandpa Sam never threw anything away because absolutely anything could be for sale.
My sister’s Crazy Day job was to assist the sales staff. When she was really little, like 6 or 7, she would run around after my dad, carrying a mountain of clothing as if she were presenting a tray of champagne. She had (and still has) a sweet smile and an even sweeter disposition, so she would make quiet comments like, “I think green looks nice on you,” and people would buy up every green object they could get their hands on. Once she turned 8, my parents put her in charge of actual sales. Her first year out she took in $5,000 using a cigar box as a cash register.
My job, on the other hand, was to bag up purchased items and run interference on my grandfather. All of the merchandise was laid out on long tables across the Mall. My grandfather would walk up and down the aisles, make jolly small-talk with the customers, and have whispered conversations with me like this:
Grandpa: “This tie clip is too cheap!”
The tie clip in question had clearly been worn for several years before being returned. It was marked fifty-cents, which was probably forty-cents more than its original 1930’s purchase price.
Me: “Grandma said to throw it out.”
Grandpa: “It’s jewelry! Jewelry should be sold for jewelry prices!”
Me: “I think we have nicer jewelry for sale. Look.” I would dig around on the tables for another tie clip – a $4.99 tie clip, down from $30 – that was about 50 years newer and without a previous owner.
Grandpa: “Bah. There’s nothing the matter with this tie clip. Just you see!”
By the end of the day, he would have sold the 50-cent tie clip. My sister would have sold the $4.99 tie clip. My dad would have sold a tie to go with both. And I would be happy because none of those items required me to later sort a hangar.
My payment for working Crazy Days was to pick out a new outfit from Quicksilver.
Quicksilver was one of sister stores to Silverman’s (the other was the Big & Tall) and sold the raddest children’s clothes. My favorite Quicksilver sweatshirt had a series of monkeys doing fun activities like talking on the telephone and dancing, and each situation had an actual object sewn into it: the telephone monkey had a little curly cable, and the dancing monkey had a tu-tu. If I had that sweatshirt now, I would wear it to business meetings. Quicksilver was decorated with a black checkerboard floor, a funhouse mirror, and an Apple IIe for kids to play on while their mothers shopped, and once a year this absolute mood was projected into the middle of the Mall for a Fashion Show.
For a couple of hours once a year, the Mall’s interior was transformed from “kind of a bummer” into “a hot mall-based nightclub.” There was a DJ, and strobe lights, and a big t-shaped stage. Local kids did the modeling. As one of said local kids, I waited all year for my 30 seconds of glory. I would practice posing in my bedroom mirror months before the actual show, and felt it was crucial to my celebrite to up the jazz hands and campiness more and more every year. Never once did anyone comment on my performance in these fashion shows, so I can only assume they were so overwhelmed by my frizzy-haired-braced-faced razzle-dazzle that words wouldn’t express their emotions.
I also made it my duty to stand out on a runway in the hopes that one day I’d be welcomed on stage for Everything for Weddings. Back in the days before Instagram, weddings consisted of flowers, a dress, a cake, a groom, music, and a lot of booze, and so my parents and some other businesspeople created this event so brides could get all of these items knocked off the list in a single day. My job was dress in a tuxedo and hand out Hershey’s Kisses on a silver platter. I agreed to do this because 1) I thought I looked like Marlene Dietrich in a tux (never in a billion years), and 2) I wanted to see Kristen.
The Everything for Weddings bridal gowns were provided by Kristen’s Bridal, named after their owners’ daughter, Kristen. Every few hours, our best-looking Silverman’s staff would dress up and play wedding with the equally-good-looking staff from Kristen’s Bridal. Arm in arm they’d walk down the runway modeling bridesmaid dresses and wedding gowns, until it was time for the final bride: Kristen. I’d stand there sweating away in my tux, the Kisses melting from the heat of my hands, and think about the day when I’d be one of those girls – so full of pizzazz that they’d end the show with me, and not ol’ Kristen. It’s important to note that not only did this never happen for me, I forgot to do jazz hands at my own wedding and totally wasted all of those years of practice.
What did happen, though, was that I was finally promoted out of hangar sorting and into gift wrapping. Silverman’s provided free gift wrapping for all of its customers – and not just on items purchased at the store. If you bought something at Silverman’s, we’d wrap all of your gifts for free.
For free, with three pieces of tape.
Grandpa Sam hated wasting tape. He may have hated wasting other things, but he put all of that energy into preserving the longevity of a single roll Scotch tape. If you wrapped presents at Silverman’s, the Number One Rule was to smile and do a good job. The Number Two Rule was to use no more than three pieces of tape, with each piece of tape being no more than 1” long. (The Number Three Rule, if you’re interested, was to crease all of the edges.)
Wrapping a calf-length 4XL wool coat with three pieces of tape was like competing on an obstacle course, where the surprise twist is that you have to finish it wearing a blindfold and everything is on fire.
Here are some things I wrapped with three pieces of tape: a tube TV; a bathrobe, a pair of slippers, and a basketball, no box; and a suit box – roughly the size of a small refrigerator – which I had to double-wrap with brown paper because it was being checked as luggage on an airplane. I also wrapped about a thousand suits, sportscoats, pants, button-up shirts, and sweaters, but after you’ve scaled Mount Bathrobe-Slippers-Basketball, anything else is a walk in the park.
Every now and then, while staring down a gift box the shape and weight of a small race car, I’d think, “Maybe one more small piece wouldn’t hurt.” With those words, my grandfather would materialize out of thin air, waggle his “three pieces of tape” finger, and disappear into the ether – and I’d figure out a way to summon the forces of nature to hand over a three-piece-of-tape masterpiece that could be delivered to the Queen of England. I gift wrapped for five years of my life, and used up two rolls of tape.
In 1996, Silverman’s moved to the South end of town to get closer to the shopping district. That same year, I started working in the Tux Shop during prom season. My job was to put teenage boys into tuxedos.
Outfitting a tuxedo happened in four steps. One: measure the wearer and help them pick out a tux and related accessories. Two: order tuxedo. Three: fit rented tuxedo onto wearer, and alter as necessary. Four: Package up tuxedo, accessories, and free black socks (very important), with instructions to return everything but the socks in one week.
My sister, dad, and grandfather were all blessed with the Silverman gene of being able to perfectly size and style an individual with only a passing glance. I was not. In the time my little sister could pin three tuxedos for alterations, I would have measured a customer using the wrong side of the tape measure. To compensate for my ineptitude, I spent an inordinate amount of effort trying to get a stack of quiet North Dakota boys to rent a powder blue or orange tux a la Dumb and Dumber, a movie that was all the rage at the time. I rented exactly zero of these tuxes. By the time I was ready to graduate, I passed 99% of the customers off to my sister and stayed busy by picking up pins and sorting hangars. It was a beautiful end to an 18-year career.
Thank you to everyone who shopped at Silverman’s. Thank you to everyone who worked at Silverman’s. I look forward to seeing your suitcoat labels, and never having to sort another wire hangar again as long as I live.
by Amanda Silverman Kosior, (c) 2020