Davidsons celebrates 100th anniversary
CAVE SPRING – Joseph Davidson saw his store through two World Wars and the Great Depression. Now it is his grandson’s job to carry Davidsons men’s clothing store through the current recession unscathed. That leaves big shoes for his grandson to fill.
Joseph Davidson was an immigrant from Lithuania, with big dreams and even bigger ambition. He grew up in a small village, which his grandson, Larry Davidson, parallels to the town in “Fiddler on the Roof.” His family wanted to come to the New World, to start new lives here.
In 1900, after earning enough money for the trip, 18-year-old Joseph entered at Ellis Island on his way to Rhode Island, where much of his family had settled. Before long, a distant relative offered him a job in Roanoke.
“A lot of things were going from dusty saloon town to a small city,” Larry Davidson said about Roanoke in the early 1910s.
Joseph Davidson eventually ended up in a local clothing store owned by Simon Silverman. Despite his success at the upscale men’s clothing store, however, he was still unsatisfied. So in 1910, he and his bride Daisy, who was Simon Silverman’s daughter, began their own upscale men’s clothing store on Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke.
But why did Joseph Davidson start an upscale men’s clothing store?
“As a family, we have asked that,” Larry Davison said.
All they can really do is speculate.
First of all, when Joseph Davidson was trying to earn money for his passage to the United States, he worked with a German family who sold soft goods. He was exposed to the big city, and the finer things in life.
“He became enamored with things that are a little nicer,” Larry Davidson said.
Further, Joseph Davidson’s arrival in Roanoke coincided with a shift in how people obtained clothing.
“They weren’t making their own clothes any more, they were buying them,” Larry Davidson said.
Joseph Davidson, a sharp businessman, recognized the potential in men’s clothing, and decided to get in on the industry himself.
As for upscale clothing, Larry Davidson can explain that one more readily. In the 1900s, men wore dress clothes, such as suits, on a daily basis, whether they were working or socializing.
Because of his sharp business sense, Davidsons survived in spite of war and economic downturns. At times, he struggled to find merchandise, and men to buy it.
“He had to work very hard to maintain his business,” Larry Davidson said about his grandfather.
Joseph Davidson kept his store alive with his personable nature, and his tendency to foster relationships rather than sales.
When his son, Sigmund, came home from serving in World War II, Joseph Davidson was understandably exhausted. He handed the reins over to his son, who shared his entrepreneurial spirit.
Since then, the business has waxed and waned, opening and closing numerous branches as far away as Blacksburg and Lynchburg. Recently, though, the store has downsized to just two locations: downtown Roanoke and Grand Pavilion in Cave Spring.
Larry Davidson has been part of Davidsons since 1972, and is currently president. He is hard on himself about so many of his branches closing.
“I’m not sure how you measure success,” Larry Davidson said. “In ways, we’re smaller.”
The truth, though, is that the clothing industry has seen much change in the 100 years since Davidsons began. Large chains, a move away from formal clothing, and economic turmoil have all affected upscale men’s clothing stores such as Davidsons.
The store has had to change with the tide.
“Everybody’s got to evolve,” Larry Davidson said. “We certainly aren’t the same business that my grandfather started. We aren’t even the same store as 20 years ago. The focus of our store has changed as men’s dress has changed.”
Larry Davidson has had to fight for his store. Maybe not the way his grandfather did, but in a way which his grandfather, a great entrepreneur, would surely recognize. And that is something Larry Davidson can be happy with as he ushers his store into its second century.