The American dream comes in many sizes. For the late Sam Shaheen, founder of Shaheen’s Department Store, it also came in lots of colors and fabrics.
A Catholic immigrant from Lebanon, he arrived in Louisville around 1915 and made a modest living by peddling clothes. The Seelbach Hotel hired him to work in its restaurant; and by 1922, he had saved enough money to open a dry-goods store in the Portland neighborhood. So determined was he to be a good citizen and a benevolent businessman, he extended credit to customers even during the Great Depression.
In 1945, Eli Shaheen joined his father in the business. Now in his mid-80s, he is still on hand, along with his wife, Afaf.
Today, Shaheen’s Department Store’s main location is in St. Matthews (994 Breckenridge Lane) with additional stores in Portland and on Outer Loop. The chain always has sold clothing of all kinds for men, women and children. Over time, however, it has earned a reputation as the go-to place for school uniforms.
“Around 1954, a few ladies in Portland wanted to make skirts for students, but found that it wasn’t easy,” said Sam Shaheen Sr., who owns and manages Shaheen’s with his brother, Kevin. “They asked my dad to order some for them, and his uniform business soon exploded.”
Louisville Collegiate School, Barret Traditional Middle School and Assumption High School are among the local institutions that buy uniforms from Shaheen’s. The clothing ranges from polo shirts and plaid skirts to shorts that have pockets for cell phones. The store’s website receives orders from as far away as Oklahoma. (There are also corporate clients, including the Louisville Water Co.)
Work clothes are another Shaheen’s specialty, including heavy-duty jackets, caps and pants by Carhartt and Dickies. Quilt-lined Extremes Arctic hoods, lined deerskin gloves and cotton union suits (for ankle-to-neck warmth) are bought not only by utility employees, but also by people who simply loathe sub-zero temperatures.
“Every store is known for something. For us, it’s school uniforms and Carhartts, but we’re trying to get people to know us for fashion, too,” Sam Sr. said. “When they see that we have Levi’s, Nike, Spanx and Tribal, they say, “˜I didn’t know you had this.’ ”
Sherry Shaheen, Sam Sr.’s wife, is the chain’s buyer; son Sam Jr. is the bookkeeper and “general guy,” as he described himself. His brother Mike works at the Outer Loop location. Each Shaheen’s store follows the founder’s example of good customer service.
“Another store might have a Nike item for $35, then take off 30 percent, but we start with that. So instead of waiting for a sale price elsewhere, people can find a sale here every day,” Sam Sr. said. “And if you want to buy one Carhartt jacket, we want you to get the same deal as someone who buys 10.”
There are fourth- and fifth-generation Shaheens who may eventually join the team: Sam Sr. has two additional children who are in school; Kevin has two sons; Sam Jr. has a pair of very young kids; and Mike’s daughter is about to enjoy her second Christmas.
“Right now, our business is strong,” Sam Sr. said. “And with Sam Jr. and Mike already working here, I’d say Shaheen’s is going to be around for another 40 years, at least. One way or another, we’ll be here as long as people keep coming in.”
For information, visit www.shaheens.com or call, (502) 899-1550.
photos by MARY ALAN WOODWARD | contributing photographer
Category: Business Profile