Legacy lives on at Shaia’s
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
“I had to walk [insert dubious number here] miles through the snow just to get to school.” This classic trope is often used by an older generation to point out to a younger generation, “You don’t know how good you’ve got, kid.” But when SG Shaia shared his story with children and grandchildren, there was no exaggeration needed to emphasize how high he rose above what many would deem hardships. Orphaned in Lebanon, he left his home country in 1896 and came to the United States at age 16. He had $10 to his name. He couldn’t speak English. He couldn’t read or write. And yet, he made his way from New York City to Kentucky, then to Nashville (where he married) and finally settled in Birmingham, where he worked hard, saved money, bought land and in May 1922, opened a store—Shaia’s—that celebrates 100 years of business this year.
Today, his name is synonymous with fine menswear in Birmingham, and his grandson JL believes every stitch that’s gone into fashioning the store’s century of success follows the same pattern SG first cut. “My grandfather was dedicated to starting this business and didn’t let his background stop him. He was committed to carrying his business forward, from the first day open,” he says. “That is the one constant: We have maintained the values my father and grandfather taught me, that hard work, love and passion are what it takes. That is why we are still around.”
For SG, called Pop Shaia by family, friends, and customers, the principles of ambition, industry, and diligence were foundational, underpinning the 15 years of labor-heavy door-to-door sales it took to afford his own business. “It was called back peddling, and he covered about three counties,” JL says. “He’d walk or take a wagon with a 100-pound pack on his back and sell his wares.” All the while, SG put away every extra dollar. He found four lots in what is now the Homewood suburb of Birmingham and was able, with his savings and some borrowed funds, to buy them for $500 each. “The area was just a dirt road coming up a mountain then,” JL says, “but in 1922, he built a home and next to it, his store.” In the other lots he planted a garden, which included a stand of grapevines, harkening back to the vineyards he’d once tended with his father in Lebanon.
The initial incarnation of Shaia’s was a general store, selling a little bit of everything that its growing community needed. Its first two business licenses listed it as a purveyor of cigarettes and bottle drinks. As drug stores popped up and took over these and other sundries, Shaia’s evolved into a dry goods store, offering fabrics and work clothes. In the 1930s, SG’s son Alexander took over running the store, while his brother George handled accounting for the business for a few years. (George also served his community as Homewood’s Building Inspector from 1950-1975.) To meet rising demand, the store increased its inventory and moved two doors down to a new spot. In 1955, JL joined the family business, followed by his brother Leo a few years later. By that time, the store had ballooned into a small department store, carrying baby goods, ladies’ lingerie, men’s and boy’s clothing, and still carrying fabrics. JL and Leo had a different vision and explained their ideas to their dad. “We wanted to be solely a men’s store, and dad supported that, so we began dropping the other things one department at a time,” he says.
In 1964, they closed the store for two weeks to transition into the menswear shop Shaia’s is today. There was only one issue. “There were already several very established men’s stores in Birmingham, and they had exclusivity on the big, popular brands of the day,” JL says. What began as a problem became the shop’s hallmark. “We had to go find the lesser-known but still high-quality brands, and that meant we were often the first to bring new lines to the city,” JL says. In the 1970s, Shaia’s introduced the men of the Magic City to Ralph Lauren’s Polo, and it was the only place in Birmingham men could get their hands on that fancy horse-and-rider logo for seven years.
Its carefully curated selection soon set Shaia’s apart, and as the business thrived, JL continued to thoughtfully choose the brands that would grace racks and shelves in the store. In 1982, Shaia’s took over the space next to it and expanded. JL points to the store’s steady growth and its ability to adapt with pride. “We’ve never been afraid of change,” he says. “In retail it is the constant: Styles change, competition changes, sales staff changes, technology changes. We’ve embraced it all.”
He also repeated the aspect that has not changed: the family half of this family business, stressing that while there are challenges to working alongside kin, the pros far outweigh the cons. “Each member, now and through the years, has brought a complementary perspective to the mix. We all feed off each other’s experience and opinions,” JL says.
Today, that includes JL’s son Ken, who’s carrying on JL’s taste-making legacy, handling the store’s operations and making the buying trips and bringing home European-made brands shown in cities like New York, Chicago and Dallas. Just as JL did, Ken’s also put his personal stamp on the store. “It’s not just our merchandise that makes Shaia’s unique,” JL says. “Ken and his wife Fonda have brought in such an interesting mix of furniture, accessories and other pieces, which they use to display the clothes,” JL says. “It doesn’t look like a usual clothing store at all.” In 2018, it was the warm, inviting style of the store, not the styles in it that put Shaia’s on Architectural Digest’s list of “America’s 50 Most Beautiful Independent Stores.”
These elements combined with customer-focused service have earned the store other national honors, including Esquire magazine’s “gold standard” ranking for 12 years in a row. “That’s their designation for the best of the best in men’s stores,” JL says. Shaia’s was also named The Alabama Retailers Association’s “Retailer of the Year” in 2009.
Not counting floor-sweeping chores as a kid, JL has worked at Shaia’s for 60 years. He’s 87 now and stays involved with the store, but he’s working less and trusting Ken, calling his son an excellent merchant and stressing the “masterful job” he did guiding the store through the pandemic. When JL reflects on the decades he’s devoted to Shaia’s, a handful of favorite moments shine bright. “I really loved going to market. It was hard work but a lot of fun to go and meet other merchants in our industry,” he says. “And I’ve always loved the full cycle: choosing the right product, getting it back to the store and putting it out and then selling it to someone who is happy to have it.”
Ken noted that Shaia’s customers deserve credit too. “We are selling European clothing that’s more expensive, but quality has no fear of time, and our customers truly get that,” he says. “We’ve been so blessed to have customers who share our mindset on this. Birmingham has a very sophisticated clientele, and we’re grateful that they’ve brought us into their closets.”
He also expressed appreciation for a loyal and like-minded group of employees, many who’ve been with the store for decades, and are also considered family, sharing and carrying on the family’s values. “We’re so thankful for those who’ve come to work alongside our family,” Ken says. “We have employees, the majority of them really, who have been with us for 10-plus years, like Greg Flowers, who has worked with us since 1997. They share our desire to serve our customers, and that’s what we’re selling—not clothes, but service to our customer. That’s why we’ve been around for a century.”
Ken is among those who’ve been with the store for decades (since 1986) and called out one other aspect that makes it special. “This is a place where we treat all our customers the same,” he says. “Whether that person is coming in to buy their first pocket square or to purchase a suit for their daughter’s wedding. Our motto is ‘tailored to the needs of our community,’ and we live by that.”
The store’s longevity means JL and his family aren’t the only ones who have fond memories of the spot. Shaia’s is now dressing second and third generation customers. “Just the other day, there was someone shopping in the store, and I helped dress their grandfather,” JL says. “That’s really rewarding.”
So, too, is knowing that something built a century ago is still thriving. “It’s quite a legacy and gratifying to see the same ideas that were instilled in me now at work in Ken, the fourth generation,” JL says. “I’m sure his great grandfather and grandfather would be very proud; I sure am.”
Shaia’s the store and the Shaia family have come a long way from a storefront facing a dirt road, but they’ve not forgotten their roots. The current store is on the same land as SG’s garden, and the bronze front-door handle is wrapped in a single metal vine with a few delicate leaves to honor the grapevines he grew there. This subtle reminder of the business’ beginnings greets every guest who shops at Shaia’s. “It was Ken’s idea to honor the store’s tradition and his great grandfather’s heritage in this way,” JL says. And it’s a tailor made tribute to the growth that continues to sprout from his initial passion.