When I was a little kid going into Pat & Matt’s to pick out my penny candy, I sometimes overhead the men talking about a celebrity sighting in Kensington. Of course, I didn’t really believe it because my little mind couldn’t register that a star would come to Roseland/Kensington/Bumtown. That, of course, was before I’d heard of the legendary Raymond Levine.
He ran a store that bore his name at 340 E. Kensington from the1920s until the 1960s, before the store was moved to its now-shuttered suburban location. The name of the store was “Raymond Levine” because he wanted people to trust his name personally and not to think of his store as another “company” to deal with. I asked around at Spaghetti-Os about the store, the service, and Raymond Levine, and it wasn’t long before I found myself surrounded by a group of people all trying to give me their stories, thoughts and experiences.
By all accounts Raymond Levine was a vital member of the Kensington community while gaining widespread fame as a clothier who knew his clients and catered to the finer values in quality. You knew you would be spending money when you went to his store, but you knew you were receiving the best possible value for your money. There was also never a concern that the suit might be outgrown widthwise and lose its value because all suits were offered with lifetime tailoring guaranteed.
What was typical about the Raymond Levine experience begins with a capital “G,” as in generosity. The Pullman Company employee and the Sherwin-Williams employee, along with the other Raymond Levine customers, were treated with kindness and courtesy. The traits extended to the famous Raymond Levine payment plan. A factory worker could walk into Raymond Levine, put five dollars down on a suit and pay one dollar a week on payday until the suit was paid off. When I asked people, “So, Raymond Levine’s had layaway?”, their answer was a definite “No.” because the customer walked out of the store wearing that brand new suit, the day the tailoring was complete — not when the suit was paid in full.
Back in the day, St. Anthony’s Holy Name Society had bowling teams and golf outings while the kids had Little League and Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Each of these teams and organizations had sponsorship that was represented by Raymond Levine. In fact, from what I understand, Raymond Levine even sponsored a complete golf tournament.
One of the trademarks at Raymond Levine was the example he set for his salesmen: when you walked into the store you felt as if they knew you as a friend. I recently was at the Taste of Melrose Park, where I ran into Len Chiaro, who spotted my Roseland t-shirt and stopped to say hello. Shortly after Len left, I sat down to eat some of my tiramisu, arancini, beef sandwich, stuffed mushrooms, and sfingi when I noticed a couple looking for seats and invited them to take the two available at my table.
They couldn’t believe it when they spotted my Roseland shirt, the first thing out of their mouths was “We’re from Roseland, too!” Gilbert (104th and Vernon) and his wife Anne have lived in their home in Elk Grove Village since they moved from Blue Island in the late 1960s. Gilbert mentioned the fact that his Aunt Ruth Fogle would buy him a Raymond Levine sweater every year at Christmas time. Aunt Ruth was fond of telling the story of walking into the store for Gilbert’s annual gift, saying hello to a salesman, and Raymond Levine calling out his greetings to her by name, from the backroom. That was Raymond Levine, the man.
Raymond Levine was Jewish and was one of St. Anthony’s biggest supporters. Throughout the years, he gave generously to fundraisers such as the annual carnival. When the new church was built, he donated to the building fund and when it was decided to have white sport coats for the ushers, he donated those also. There’s a story that one of the ushers became frustrated when he went to put on his usher’s coat and couldn’t find it. He put a note on the jacket the next opportunity he had, that said, “Don’t let me catch you wearing my jacket.” The following Sunday, when he went for his jacket he found the following note, “I didn’t let you catch me!”
The location at 340 E. Kensington was on the small side but there were plenty of salesmen, as Raymond Levine’s client list included customers from the surrounding states and even Hollywood stars such as Caesar Romero. Among the sales staff were Art Baffa, Rich Sembinini, John Sember, Joe Grigoletti and George Gatto, with his sister Frances behind the counter, as well as top salesman Jack Foran.
Art Baffa, who worked at the Kensington store for 12 years and then four more years at the Flossmoor location, related many stories, including the fact that Caesar Romero would come to the South Side just to buy Raymond Levine’s Petrocelli suits. Joe Pesavento mentioned that, while he’d be bartending at Pesavento’s, occasionally he’d spot a big black limo outside. It was always Caesar Romero’s driver killing time as he waited for Caesar to get his suit tailored.
Throughout the years, all of the clients looked forward to the semi-annual clearance sales. That would give everyone a chance to get some fantastic bargains on suits that, generally, could only be found downtown on Michigan Avenue. One of the sales techniques that Raymond Levine impressed upon his salesmen was to show the customer three suits.
The first suit was always below the standards and price range of the client. The second suit was the top of the line and out of the client’s price range. The third suit would be the suit to sell to the client. Art Baffa related the story of how one man came in with his future wife and her mother. When the salesman concluded his three-suit presentation, the couple began discussing their options when the future mother-in-law ended all discussion by declaring, “He’ll take all three.” Art told me that the salesmen laughed about that one for years.
NOTE E NOTIZIE
The All Roseland/All Ages Reunion Dinner Dance will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13. If you’re going to make one reunion, due to this economy, this is it. It’s probably the one and only All Roseland/All Ages Reunion you’ll ever have the opportunity to attend. Make it a point to contact 10 old friends, classmates, neighbors or relatives, and sit at the same table. Contact Bonny Sandona at 773-646-1415.