Ken is no socks and no tie. J.L. is full suit.
J.L. plans, organizes and can measure to perfection.
Ken is a self-proclaimed spontaneous nonconformist.
Both are pocket square- or handkerchief-in-the-jacket-pocket kind of guys.
Like the merchandise they carry in their store, they have impeccable style and generational appeal with an international flair.
They trace their roots and their family business to a Lebanese peddler who moved to Alabama in the early 1900s.
How it began
In 1905, with a 100-pound pack on his back, S.G. Shaia began peddling notions and household goods in Jefferson, Shelby and Walker counties.
In 1922, he moved his family from the Southside of Birmingham to a dirt road in the “boondocks,” where he built a home and a store next door, and established a garden of figs and grapevines. Four years later, the dirt road became part of the incorporated city of Homewood.
S.G.’s wife, Badia, ran the store while S.G. continued to peddle. The original store sold “everything from toothpaste to work clothes” to a community that at the time had no grocery or drug store. “Our first business license says cigarettes and bottle drinks,” said J.L. Shaia, the founders’ grandson.
In 1933, Alexander “A.J.” Shaia, the second generation, took over from his mother and father. By then, the store’s name and focus shifted to Shaia’s Dry Goods. Under A.J.’s leadership, the store eventually became “more like a junior department store, because he saw that need in the community. Each generation has added to the store,” J.L. said.
The third generation – J.L. and his brother, Leo – began working full time in the store in the mid to late 1950s. In 1955, Shaia’s moved into the space that originally was the Shaia garden and on which Lane Rexall Drug Co. had built a store in 1941.
“We had visions to improve the store, change it,” a relaxed, fully suited J.L. said, sitting on a leather couch resting his feet on the same rich hardwood floors put there by Rexall. “Dad never stopped us.”
“(Leo and I) felt that there was a strong need to specialize in one area of retail,” J.L. said. “So in 1964, we closed the store for two weeks and totally remodeled the interior and opened back up as a men’s store.”
The brothers stocked their business with the top brands in the world. Leo retired in 2015 at age 75. J.L. remained active in the day-to-day until 2020. Now, J.L. comes in as he wishes, doing some office work and assisting when needed in the made-to-measure portion of the international menswear store.
In mid-July, MR Magazine, a trade publication for men’s retail, will honor J.L. Shaia with its Lifetime Achievement Award during New York menswear market week – a fitting culmination to a career spanning more than six decades.
When you enter Shaia’s at 2818 18th St. S. in Homewood, a sculpted metal grapevine winds around the door handle, paying homage to the family garden that once occupied that plot of land. Ken had the idea to include that detail in a 1996 renovation.
Ken Shaia, J.L.’s son, joined the family business in 1986, adding even more European designers and, with his father and uncle, bringing recognition to the store as one of the “Most Exciting Menswear Stores in America (2004-2005),” a decade-long streak of Esquire “Gold Standard” awards and the Gold Alabama Retailer of the Year Award (2009).
“Our business has never been better than it is today,” Ken said, sitting beside his father on the store couch. From his father, Ken learned to value those he works with and allow everyone to bring their strengths to each sale.
Shaia’s employs 10, which is a consistent staffing level. The typical employee has about a decade of experience with Shaia’s. “We would hire another tailor, if we could find the right person,” Ken said, adding that he plans to find a place for a young man “interested in the clothing business. If somebody is interested, we will orient them to the business and what being in front of the customer is.”
For 100 years, Shaia’s focus has been the customer.
“If you’re truly in the service business, and you’re truly listening to your customers, then you can use that information as a tool to evolve,” Ken said.
This story originally was published by Alabama Retailer.