Mr. T hangs up his boots

The legendary Jerusalem T-shirt store closes its doors after nearly 30 years in operation.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Iconic Jerusalem T-shirt and army surplus shop Mr. T closed its doors this week after nearly 30 years in operation. Mr. T was well known to locals and tourists alike as both a retail shop and as a hangout with a cool, rock and roll vibe. It was opened in the late-70s on Ben-Yehuda by San Francisco native Jerry Stevenson, who is retiring. "I was working for the Israel Broadcasting Authority for about 10 years," he recalls, "but the money wasn't that great, so I bought this T-shirt shop and expanded it. My uncle had a pawn shop where I used to work in the Skid Row area of San Francisco, and that gave me the idea to open an army/navy surplus shop in Israel, of which we were the first. Then it just snowballed." Stevenson proved himself to be an adept businessman and marketer as he forged connections with youth organizations in Israel and abroad, ensuring that a stop at Mr. T would be on the agenda for any visit to Jerusalem. He also drew on his broadcasting experience by creating a series of custom music programs, broadcast in-house, which featured the latest rock as well as jazz and classical music. His shop soon became a destination and hangout for synagogue and tour groups from abroad, Golani soldiers, followers of the Grateful Dead, bikers, celebrities and more. "There was nothing like a summer at Mr. T," he says. "It was just amazing. There was a line of people around the block who wanted to get in; we had to have someone at the door." Mr. T was successful, but it also drew its share of visitors from what Stevenson calls the "weirdness magnet" of downtown Jerusalem. "The bums and homeless would come in and just hang out. All sorts of things happened… maybe it was the music or people just got excited in the summertime. We had a lot of fights in the store," he admits. As Mr. T became well known, visiting politicians and dignitaries began frequenting the shop. Stevenson recalls a visit by Laura Bush (during the time when George Bush was governor of Texas), who perplexed him by insisting on bargaining for a "$6 T-shirt" even though she was a "super-millionaire." During his presidency, Yitzhak Navon and his young son were frequent visitors, and Menachem Begin's granddaughter worked at Mr. T for a time. During a visit to Israel by then-US president Bill Clinton, Stevenson was asked by White House officials to design a T-shirt to commemorate the trip; a framed copy of that shirt, signed by Clinton, hung in Mr. T for many years. Stevenson's most difficult moment was in 1997, when a coordinated series of suicide bombings on Ben-Yehuda completely destroyed Mr. T, along with some neighboring businesses. "That happened in the afternoon," he remembers. "I had gone home to take a break, and there were two young men working in the store. We never watch television in the afternoon, but for some reason my daughter had turned on the TV. I was resting, but I looked, not really paying attention, and I saw my store, blown up on television! I asked myself if I was dreaming this thing." At the time, Mr. T was decorated with camouflage netting in the front window, which blocked the flying glass from the explosion and probably saved the lives of the two workers. Five people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in the explosions. "It was not so pleasant," he recalls. "Because of the security, I didn't get back into the store until after three hours had passed. We worked all night to clean up the store and fixed the glass. We were the only store to reopen the next day. I wanted to make a personal effort, and statement, that we could open up after the bombings. That was an experience. "I have to say, the city was fantastic. They had sociologists and psychologists there, and people from Bituah Leumi [the National Insurance Institute]. This was when [prime minister Ehud] Olmert was mayor, and I am not an Olmert lover, but he and the city were wonderful during this period." More recently during the second intifada, tourism dropped to nearly zero and those tour groups that did come avoided Ben-Yehuda, so Stevenson took the difficult step of relocating Mr. T to a more secure location inside the Inbal Hotel. He says business there has been good (and improving) and that economic factors did not weigh in on his decision to close the shop and retire, only that "it was time." "Well, the first two weeks I'll be at the beach until I get bored," he says when asked about his future plans. "I've become a member of the amateur theater company in Tel Aviv, and I'll be doing a monologue on the ninth of June. I'll probably do some volunteering as well." Even though he is closing his shop and donating some of the remaining merchandise to charity, Stevenson says he is considering selling the Mr. T operation to the right person.