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Murray Goldman working at his desk.
Murray Goldman working at his desk.

Obituary

Clothier Murray Goldman kept Vancouver in stitches Add to ...

Murray Goldman combined borscht-belt humour with savvy marketing to become Vancouver’s best-known menswear retailer. The wisecracking haberdasher, who has died at 92, was a man of the cloth.

A dapper presence in a city not known to have placed an emphasis on elegant attire, Mr. Goldman became a familiar figure through radio and television commercials, as well as newspaper advertisements in which he featured prominently. He was proud to have written his own ad copy.

One of his famous lines was that not a single suit was for sale – all were available in 2-for-1 deals. Another ad promised customers a free bonus. “I got stuck with 150 of the ugliest suits you ever saw but if you buy one,” he wrote, “I’ll throw in a really rotten tie.”

In yet another promotion, he promised a price reduction on neckwear for any customer who brought in an old tie. Unfortunately, a typographic error in the newspaper led dozens of customers to show up with old car and truck tires. Mr. Goldman duly appeared in a newspaper photo kicking an old tire across the shop floor.

The clothier appeared regularly in Vancouver newspapers for a half century, his quips enlivening columns by the likes of Jack Wasserman, Denny Boyd and Malcolm Perry. (“It’s family,” he once told a columnist about his prized Jaguar. “The rabbi cut a piece off the back of the muffler to bless it.”) For a time, he wrote his own column of items and one-liners, called I’ve Heard It Said, for the Vancouver News-Herald. He was also co-host of Just for Fun, a 30-minute humour program on radio station CKNW.

As the old joke goes, Mr. Goldman liked to leave his customers in stitches.

“That’s how he got attention,” said David Goldman, a son who succeeded him in the business. “When he started, he had just one store amidst a sea of competitors. The way to sell his business was to sell himself.”

His rags-to-britches story began on Aug. 24, 1920, when he was born in Opatów, Poland, a community known in Yiddish as Apt.

Moishe was the second child and first son born to Ida (née Adelstein) and Reuben Goldman. His father and grandfather were labourers and brick makers. When the boy was 3, the family immigrated to Canada, settling into a $12-per-month, third-floor tenement apartment on Clark Street in Montreal.

His father worked as a steam presser in a ladies’ coat factory, while his mother made sheitels, the wigs worn by married Orthodox Jewish women. The family also took in boarders for an extra $1.50 per week.

At age 13, Moishe, known as Moe, quit school to help support his family as a button maker for the Goldstein Dress Co. He then became a Fuller Brush salesman, building a homemade cart from discarded orange crates. He pushed this jerry-rigged contraption through a neighbourhood later to be chronicled in the novels of Mordecai Richler, the poetry of Irving Layton and the songs of Leonard Cohen.

His introduction to storefront retailing came as a clerk for a menswear shop, for which he ran errands, washed floors and was allowed on occasion to sell ties and shirts, though not full suits.

Mr. Goldman enlisted after the outbreak of war in Europe. He trained at Camp Borden in Ontario and competed in military boxing events as a welterweight. He was nicknamed the Kosher Kid. Contemporary newspaper accounts describe the private as being attached to the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, though his family believes he served as a military policeman.

Stationed for a time at Comox, on Vancouver Island, he visited Vancouver while on leave. There he met Shirley Lapides, the teenaged daughter of a local milliner. They married in 1944. After the war, Mr. Goldman, who by then had taken the first name Murray, helped fellow veterans move from khakis to civvies as a seller with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in downtown Vancouver.

He bought a store called Boston Clothing in 1947 after negotiating a $3,000 bank loan. Within two years, he launched his own label through an eponymous store opened next door to the Province newspaper building on West Hastings Street, a landmark location near Victory Square in what was then the commercial heart of the city. He offered blue or brown, double-breasted gabardine suits for $55. He also introduced his first promotion – a draw for a free made-to-measure suit.

When U.S. President Harry Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his duties, Mr. Goldman gained attention by offering the military man a free civilian wardrobe. “Please wire measurements,” the retailer urged.

He put rabbits in his window at Easter, offered pants at 50 per cent off (“Buy nothing and save 100 per cent!”), and aired television ads in which he memorably offered half-off ties by scissoring his own tie in half. He gave away portable radios and football season tickets. One offer came with the hummable jingle, “Free, free, free with your Murray Goldman suit/ A Kodak movie camera/ That you load, aim and shoot.”

In 1956, he bought an advertising spot on the outfield fence at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium. It featured a caricature of the clothier with a hole between his lips and offered a $100,000 to any home-team player who drove the ball through the hole on the fly during a game. Mr. Goldman quipped that the lucky player would have to collect the prize from his estate. In the end, he did not have to pay out. In any case, he was insured.

That same year, Mr. Goldman was an impresario with disc jockey Jack Cullen for what is regarded as the first rock ’n’ roll concert held in Vancouver, as he put up the money for a raucous performance by Bill Haley and the Comets at Kerrisdale Arena. (The Vancouver Sun’s critic dismissed the show as the “ultimate in musical depravity.”)

The rise in youth culture attracted the notice of the retailer, who opened The Ivy Room to sell clothes to young men, specializing in button-down Oxford shirts and Levi jeans.

A rare bit of unwanted publicity arose during an inquiry into police corruption in Vancouver. The clothier’s name came up when reporter Ray Munro testified that on-duty police attended a drinking party at Mr. Goldman’s residence. The retailer was not accused of any wrongdoing.

Many celebrities joined with Mr. Goldman in promotions, including the entertainers Joey Bishop and Ginger Rogers, as well as many local athletes.

In 1982, when the Vancouver Canucks reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time, Mr. Goldman offered $25 off every suit for each goal scored by the home team. The promotion earned him notice in The New York Times.

That was a recession year and Mr. Goldman offered a unique insight. “Business is so bad,” he joked, “that even people who don’t pay their bills have stopped buying.”

He suffered a million-dollar loss in stock and an antique furniture collection in 1983 when an arson attack aimed at a Maoist bookstore destroyed several neighbouring businesses, including an antiquarian bookseller and a restaurant known as The House of Corned Beef, as well as the haberdashery’s offices and stock room.

In time, the family’s umbrella company would count 14 retail outlets under a variety of names. The downtown outlet moved to Granville Street, where it thrived until the city banned street parking in favour of a bus-and-pedestrian mall. The move drove away shoppers.

“Business would start slow in the morning,” Mr. Goldman complained, “then taper off through the rest of the day.”

He moved the outlet indoors and underground at the nearby Pacific Centre Mall, where it would later become Goldman and Son. He had introduced a son, David, to the business when he was 14. The family business is now best known for its Boys’ Co. stores.

The menswear business has never been for the fainthearted. Mr. Goldman bought 10,000 suits when Rubin Bros. of Montreal went into receivership in 1982. He sold half within a fortnight at his own discount retailer. The purchase was a good business decision, but one also motivated by sentiment – the Rubin brothers had owned the shop in Montreal where he had been given his start, selling shirts and ties.

On the patriarch’s 70th birthday, his family had a plaque placed on a bench overlooking English Bay. It read, in part: “Open 9 to 5.”

Mr. Goldman hung up his tape measure in 1999, though he continued to do charitable work, most notably for Big Brothers of British Columbia, as well as for the Schara Tzedeck orthodox synagogue and the Louis Brier Home and Hospital for Jewish seniors. He was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 2000.

Mr. Goldman suffered a heart attack on June 1 and died on June 10. He leaves a son, a daughter, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased in 2008 by his wife, Shirley.

Not all of Mr. Goldman’s promotional gimmicks were entirely successful. Fred Asher stores, a local rival, decided to rename its outlets Asher’s. This rebranding was promoted with billboards carrying the line, “Forget Fred.”

Mr. Goldman responded with billboards of his own reading, “Remember Murray.” What he thought was a cheeky rejoinder was misread by his own customers, who sent bags of condolence cards to the company thinking the founder had died.

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