Fashionable and old-fashioned

Ma'ayan Stub, J'lem's first department store, is still in its 1939 location and going strong.

maayan stub 88.298 (photo credit: )
maayan stub 88.298
(photo credit: )
Enter Ma'ayan Stub on the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street and you step into a slightly adapted version of Jerusalem's past. Warm cotton nightgowns hang near the entrance, alongside a copious display of underwear - both the sensible and frivolous kind. Competing for space in the tightly packed store is a row of robes, some the traditional styles preferred by haredi women, others in fluorescent colors with hoods and thick zippers. Maternal saleswomen smile at you the minute you enter, ready and eager to help you choose just the right nightie for the occasion. Are you in the mood for a thick flannel gown that looks like something out of Little House on the Prairie? Or perhaps a Winnie-the-Pooh pajama set is more your speed? The mix of old and new makes for a fascinating assortment of clothes. And it also tells the latest chapter in the story of this familiar Jerusalem landmark. According to Racheli Cantor, who now manages the store with her sister-in-law, Ma'ayan Stub originated in Mainz, Germany, in the 1930s when Cantor's great-grandfather, a peddler named Stub, dreamed that he saw a fountain springing forth from the ground. Puzzled about the meaning of his dream, he consulted a rabbi. The rabbi advised him to open a store, which would be blessed with success that would be abundant and flow like water. But the first store in Germany was forced to close hastily after Kristallnacht. The family escaped to Palestine before the war and managed to reopen the store in 1939 at its current Jerusalem location. At the time, the center of town was largely empty and local residents were pleased to welcome the new general store which offered a variety of products under one roof including kitchen utensils, sewing products and clothes. "This was in an era before malls, before the Mashbir [department store], before all the discount stores that there are now," explains Tamar Cohen, the head of the nightgown department and an employee of the store for some 30 years. Over the years, despite changes in the cityscape, the store remained popular and became synonymous with reliability and quality products unaffected by passing trends. Gradually, the store began to concentrate on clothes, underwear and sleepwear, earning a reputation as the best place for young brides to purchase their pre-wedding necessities. "Jerusalem consumers are largely conservative, whether they are religious or secular. They don't want to waste money and they want quality products that last. That's what we have always understood," says Cantor. In its glory days, during the '60s, '70s and '80s, the store employed 48 full-time staff and had to bring in extra help during the holidays. Popular with Jerusalem figures like former MK Benny Begin (son of prime minister Menachem Begin) and Uri Orbach (a publicist and commentator), it was also known for its generous distribution of sucking candies, intended to occupy the kids so their parents could shop. Recalls Cohen, "I remember when so many people were waiting to enter the store that they would line up outside the doors and we would only let five in at a time." Today, the store employs a fraction of its former staff and even during busy times does not draw the kind of crowds it once did. "Economically, we were hit hard by the bombings in the area. People just stopped coming. We used to have a lot of tourists and Arab customers too, but few come now," says Cohen. Yet Cantor and her family, the heirs to the Stub tradition, are working overtime to carve out a new niche for the old legend. She tries to balance the needs of her old customers with the desires of the younger clientele, mostly brides-to-be in the religious community, shopping for their "nedunia" (trousseau). To that end, Cantor has retained the tried-and-true inventory, including quality men's underwear designed by an Israeli company that distributes only to the army and to hospitals, as well as no-frills nightgowns by brands like Triumph. At the same time, subtle changes are in the works. Two years ago, in an effort to provide modest sleepwear for the religious community, the store began designing its own line of nightgowns, called PJS, which is now distributed overseas as well. Also new is the wider selection of trendy brands of lingerie, now displayed fashionably, instead of folded on the shelves as they once were. The store has even developed its own club card, so that committed customers can get discounts and gifts on holidays and their birthdays. A casual visit to the store on any weekday provides an opportunity to meet the devoted clientele, who come for the comfort of the familiar as well as for service by staff who know their customers personally and have a sense for what they want. "Here, Sarah, I have just the kind of nightgown you like," says Cohen, showing a pretty knee-length nightshirt to a customer who has been shopping at the store for the last 25 years. Meanwhile at the register, Cantor greets a mother and daughter who have just entered and are looking for some newlywed gear. "Tell her what kind of nightgown she should wear," says the mother, solemnly. "She should wear whatever she is most comfortable in," answers Cantor, smiling at the new bride. "Here, let me show you the options." B.K., a Beit Hakerem resident who has been shopping at Ma'ayan Stub for 50 years, stops in with her husband for a look around and a chat with the sales staff. She recalls coming to the store shortly after her family came to Jerusalem from the United States in the 1930's. "I bought the sweater that my husband is wearing here at the store. And the shirt he has on under it," she says. "I come for the service as well as the clothes," B.K. continues. "The owners and staff were like family to me. I used to shop for my kids here and now I shop for my great-grandkids here," she adds. "You see, I told you we are like a family," says Cohen, glowing with pride.