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Memories of Working at the Original Smoky Joe's Clothing in the 1960's

Posted by Beth Stern on 9th Nov 2022


As the owner and designer of Smoky Joe’s Clothing, I am responsible for all facets of running a business. One major difference from the original Smoky Joe’s Clothing, is retail stores versus on-line shopping. Smoky Joe’s Clothing currently is an online brand with no retail presence.

The reason that inspired me to rebrand a 30-year dormant retail brand was hearing amazing stories throughout Chicagoland about an era long gone. I married into the family by way of the first grandson and rebranded the name with a different twist, smoking jackets and accessories for men, women, and dogs.

I love a good story. Being part of the fabric of Chicago and meeting new people with memories of a city that has been changing over the years. While I didn’t grow up in Chicago, I have lived here for twenty years and call it home. The history and stories are what keeps this city jumping. A facet of owning a former family business is the history. I keep asking for stories from those I meet as it provides me with a rear view mirror of how the stores were ran and to continue the family legacy.

During a recent interaction with a former employee of Smoky Joe’s Clothing, I asked if he had any memories that he would like to share with us. This is his response about working in the original Smoky Joe’s retail stores in the 1960’s.

Indeed, I have memories. Working at Smoky Joe’s was the finest education I ever had. At 16, I started working at the store on State St. as a runner. I’d put in miles running up and down the back stairs retrieving merchandise, lay-a-ways, and delivering clothing to the onsite tailors. The manger there at the time was Howard Levin. I also had the opportunity to work with Mr. Bublick, Dave Holland, and Morry, Mr. Smoky Joe himself at the time. I was very familiar with all the sales staff, Margie at the register, her husband Danny who occasionally trimmed the window displays. One of popular salesmen was Eddie Feinstein, Irving was the shoe salesman. I also met some of the Goldberg boys that worked on a part-time basis.
By the way, my name is Ralph. In the time I worked there, I was able to get two of my brothers hired, Tony was the printer of signs for stock displays.  My little brother, was also a runner and wrapper (of clothing) like myself. We were expert folders at bagging and boxing customers merchandise using the automatic stringer.

I worked with a great mix of people…white, black, Latinos. My brothers and I were Puerto Ricans, born and raised in Chicago, but the best education was from working at Smoky Joe’s. Smoky’s catered mostly to the super-fly, hi-fashion generation. Their clothing was considered “hip.” I learned about pimps, players and even met some celebrities while working there. One who stood out was Herb Kent, “the cool gent.” He was a well known DJ in the Chicago area. On special days he set up inside the store and brought in the crowds by giving away top 45 vinyl music.

Holiday’s we’re always a blast especially at Christmas. The store would become so packed, they would have to close the front doors. Never a dull moment as sales were almost perpetual. There was barely walking room. Two great guys I met there were Mark and Barry Goldberg. They were close to my age. I learned a lot from those two. The real educator there was also Howard Levin. I always wondered how he could smoke so much, but I think his position was very high-pressured.
I did get to work on Halsted with Boobi. He was a real treat to work with. I only covered there for 2 weeks, and that was quite an experience.
1972. I was asked to work at the store on Milwaukee and Ashland. I was working with a veteran from the Halsted store, Celso Rivera, and Sal Garland, the manager. Under their tutelage I learned technic on selling to customers. I learned not to just sell the suit, but to also sell the shirt, tie, underwear, and sox as well. I learned also how to turn over difficult customers to other salesmen before they walked out without buying something. My favorite time there was when the Milwaukee Ave. store had their yearly sidewalk sale. That gave the owners the opportunity to get rid of old stock or stuff that didn’t sell well. Heck, I sold at least 4 Nero jackets in the time I worked there.
I just turned 68 Monday and I had fun reminiscing those delightful years of priceless education from the Smoky Joe Institute of higher learning. It was truly a pleasure sharing with people that understand.
Regards, Ralph.