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Urban businesses soar past the half-century mark
July 16th, 2004
About the time that Mike Kassof became a man under Jewish law that is, at age 13 he began working at Jakes Delicatessen, bussing dishes.
He not only kept it up through high school; today he is managing owner of a business that still occupies its original home at 1634 W. North Ave.
And Jakes is one of many Jewish-owned urban businesses that have been part of Milwaukee for more than 50 years.
Once the heart of a bustling Jewish neighborhood, the area is now a dilapidated though commercially viable and predominately African-American section of the city.
Crossing the threshold into Jakes is stepping back into a sepia world of cream sodas and hand-carved corned beef and pastrami. The interior of the deli is classic almost the same as it was 50 years ago.
Wooden booths, art deco light fixtures and a counter with red leather stools evoke the days of the old Jewish neighborhood when residents ate traditional meat dishes daily.
As far as Kassof knows, the building dates from 1918 and was originally a butcher shop.
Sometime in the 1930s, Reuben Cohen opened Cohens Delicatessen there. Then in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Jake Levin bought it from Cohen and continued operating it as a deli.
In the late 1960s, the deli found its way into the hands of Irv Kassof, Mikes father, who had worked for Levin. Though the 1967 race riots made it difficult to secure a bank loan, Kassof finally found four Jewish investors and bought the deli. Allan (Bud) Selig and Julius Atkins are the two surviving partners.
Irv had a heart attack at 62 and never fully recovered. He threw me the keys [to Jakes Deli] and said, Dont screw up, said Mike, who has been running the business since he was 18.
I never took over Jakes; it took me over. My dad got sick. He needed me and that was it, he said.
Kassof, now 47, emphasized that he does not work half as hard as [his] dad did. As the clientele has changed (98 percent of the customers are African-American), so has the menu, Kassof said. Once popular items like short rib and brisket dinners are no longer available. Todays top sellers include corned beef, pastrami and Reuben sandwiches.
Kassof makes soups daily, using the old recipes and those too are very popular. Even during the blistering summer of 1988 his customers continued ordering chicken soup at the usual rate, he said.
Kassofs daughter Lena, 24, and son Jared, 21, will likely not be taking over Jakes Deli as they are pursuing other work.
On good days I love [Jakes] and on bad days I hate it, Mike said. Right now Im just taking it one day at a time.
Goldmanns Department Store on Milwaukees South Side houses one of the few lunch counters still found in an American department store.
Every day we have loyal customers who use it as a meeting place. They want to sit on the same stool and have the same thing [to eat] every day, said Milt Pivar, co-owner with his brother-in-law, Jerry Lewis.
The store was founded in a 35-square-foot building in 1896 by Abraham Goldmann, who originally sold from a wagon in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
And the store, though now occupying a much larger building at 930 W. Mitchell St., stills reflects its original character. It has an old-fashioned candy counter, sells housecoats and specializes in large sizes (up to 72 waists in mens trousers and 56F bra sizes).
We have an old building but we still have stylish clothes, Pivar said. The colors, now brighter, have changed with the neighborhood.
Pivar began working at about age 10 in the mens clothing department that his father, Sam Pivar, leased at Goldmanns. (Sam and his brother, Joe, established two Pivar Brothers Mens Stores and split after opening the department in Goldmanns.)
Pivar, Lewis and a silent partner, Ed Cohen of California, purchased the store in July 1988. My main goal was to keep Goldmanns open, said Pivar.
Another goal of Pivar and Lewis is to remove the façade that was added in the 1950s to make the store look more modern, and restore the buildings original classic look.
I didnt want to see the store close. I know a lot of [our customers]. Ive been to their weddings and their kids weddings. I enjoy what I do; I dont consider it work, said Pivar.
About two blocks west of Goldmanns, Conrad (Connie) Holzman sells fur and leather coats in a business that his father started in 1925.
I was a runner at the fur auction in Milwaukee from the time I was eight or 10 years old. When the auction was moved to Polar, Wisconsin, outside of Wausau, closer to the majority of the mink ranches, I went on the road with my father to buy raw skins.
Sometimes we stretched and dried them in the basement, said Holzman, owner of Holzman Furs, now at 1111 W. Mitchell St.
When work was finished, Holzman would climb the stairs to the apartment he shared with his sister and parents, who ran the business together. He moved to the current store 20 years ago.
Like everything else in life, the fur trade has changed. At one time there were over 60 furriers in Milwaukee. Everyone wore furs to keep warm in those days. Then people got cars and went to warmer climates in winter, Holzman said. In the 1980s, animal rights groups further depressed the sales of fur coats, he said.
Holzman graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked full time in the family business since 1953. He stopped sewing his own coats about 15 years ago and now buys most of them in New York City.
Today, many fur coats are made in Asia, but Holzman prefers to buy U.S.-made coats for their higher quality. Ive got people Ive worked with for 30 to 35 years he said.
Unlike the owners of Jakes Deli and Goldmanns Department Store, Holzman Furs has pulled in the next generation of the Holzman family; Connie Holzmans daughter, Sue Sennett, opened Holzmans Furworks in Mequon in November.
Sennett values her connection to her family and the business her grandfather started.
She remembers living above the store on Mitchell Street, where the streetcar wires once crackled overhead, she said in a recent telephone interview.
But she is mostly looking forward rather than back. Describing the styles at Holzman Furworks as a little more edgy, than those at her fathers store, she said, We can bring a lot of new things to Milwaukee and we do.