Ottawa Street then and now

September 2013
by Wendy Schneider

They're selling perfume and chocolate in Saul Eisenberg's former store on Ottawa Street. The one-time proprietor of Liberty House Furniture still enjoys an occasional stroll through the neighbourhood that launched him into a successful entrepreneur back in 1950s Hamilton.  

The story of how New York city native Eisenberg came to Hamilton and ended up in the furniture business begins  in 1950, when the US airforce vet came up to Canada to visit a friend in Montreal. But his plans got sidetracked when he met Hamilton girl Molly Wright at a party in Toronto, who he proceeded to marry six months later. At first they lived with Eisenberg's parents in New York, apartments being hard to come by, but moved to Hamilton within the year, when an apartment on Connaught Avenue became available.The year was 1951 and Eisenberg, who had sold cameras and sporting goods back in New York, was confident about finding a job.

His hopes were dashed time and again, however, when he found himself coming up against subtle antisemitism.

"In those days when you went to apply for a job it was name, address, and religion. Of course they all said, 'you don't have to fill in the religion part,'" recalled Eisenberg, but it wasn't in his nature to conceal his identity and a full six weeks went by before he was finally offered a job—by a fellow Jew, as it would turn out.

He was down at Netkin's fruit stand at the Hamilton market with his father-in-law, Solomon Wright, Eisenberg recalls, when someone told them that Sam Smurlick, owner of  Dominion Furniture, was looking for a furniture salesman. 

"Why don't you go over there?" asked his father-in-law, and Eisenberg, who figured he knew a thing or two about sales, went to see Smurlick.

"You came at a bad time. January." Smurlick initially told him.

But Eisenberg refused to be deterred.  

"So I said to him, you know everybody says either 'business is slow' or 'we don't hire Jews.' I think I'm going to go back to New York."

Those were attention-grabbing words for Smurlick, who just happened to be the head of the Anti-Defamation League. Eisenberg told him a few stories and then made him an offer. 

"I'll tell you what. You hire me for Friday night and Saturday. If I can't do as well as your best man, you don't pay me."

Smurlick agreed and Eisenberg headed straight over to Lou Davidson's to buy a new suit.

"It was a Wednesday and I told Lou I had to have it for Friday." He got the suit, kept the job, and ended up working there for two and a half years. 

Eisenberg first came to Ottawa Street in 1956 when he began working for Murray Yolles ("one of the nicest guys I ever worked for") at another furniture store called Home Outfitting.  

To this day, Eisenberg credits Yolles for helping him open his own store on the street two years later. "He received everything for me, had his men bring it up here."

When Eisenberg offered to pay him, Yolles would take nothing for himself, instructing Eisenberg just to give the delivery men $50. 

"What competitor does that?," he asked, but that's the way it was on Ottawa Street, where furniture stores like Adlers, Abe Cohen and Son's and Pete Rosenblatt's Ottawa Furniture co-existed by carrying different lines that appealed to different levels of consumers.

More than half of Liberty House's clientele were from the Italian community.  

"They were great people to do business with."

Furniture stores were just one category of Jewish-owned businesses that lined Ottawa Street. Others included Nadel Furs and Barne's furrier, Lou Latner's Canadian Floor-Tex, Sternberg's tile store, Syd and Marian Bennett's Dressmakers Supply, Frank Rubenstein's menswear store, Alec Shure's ladies wear shop, fruit stores owned by the Ritts and Polan families, David Levy's dental office, Eva Levy's The Yardstick, one of Ottawa Street's first fabric stores, Manny Kimel's Fabricland, opened on the site of the former Adler's Furniture and Harry and Ann Cohen's Elaine's Millinery. 

"It was such a vibrant street," said Dundas resident Elaine Miller, for whom the latter store was named. "Saturday night, people would come up to my Bubby's place and play poker."

Hershey Latner has vivid memories of the five-year period starting from1966 when he was running Canadian Floor Tex on his own.  

"We were a do-it-yourself store,"  he said, with a mostly European clientele (Italians, Portuguese, Polish, Hungarian, "all of Europe, if you will") who would do their own installations.

Latner's days were long, and not terribly nutritious. The day started at 8 o'clock when he would meet his installers, at nine he'd open the store "and at one minute to six I would always go across the road and buy three bags of  A & P Jane Parker chocolate chip cookies for 99 cents and two tins of fruit cocktail." The cookies would sustain him over the next three to four hours, while he was on the road doing estimates and the fruit cocktail would serve as supper when he finally arrived home. 

With the revitalization that's taken place on Ottawa Street over the last few years, Eisenberg is delighted to see that the street has, once again, become a destination for Hamiltonians of all backgrounds, drawn by its eclectic mix of furniture and fabric stores, boutiques, collectibles, restaurants and art galleries. It brings to mind something that Nate Adler, then recently retired, told him  when he first opened Liberty House. "I want to welcome you to Ottawa Street," he said, letting him know how good the street had been to him. It's a sentiment Eisenberg is more than willing pass on to the younger versions of himself about a street and a neighbourhood with a heart.