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Lebo’s Celebrates 100 Years

A Family-owned Retail Institution in North Carolina Since 1923.

This year marks 100 years in business for Lebo’s, a retail stalwart with multiple stores in the Carolinas. Where to start in telling the century-long success story of this family-owned business? Let’s start at the beginning…

In 1923 when Sidney Levin opened the first Lebo’s store in Charlotte, NC, the first issue of Time magazine was published; the original Yankee Stadium was opened; and Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. Women wore high and wide heels on pumps and loafers.

Levin had left behind his family’s four-door department store business in Gastonia, NC to go 25 miles east in the Tar Heel State’s Piedmont region to strike out on his own with a family shoe store business on Charlotte’s East Trade Street. That original Lebo’s store would remain there for 53 years until an urban renewal project forced it to relocate.

Two decades after that first store opened, in the 1940s, Sidney’s son Jerome (Jerry) would also officially join the business. (And Jerry still serves as chairman today.)

In 1943, Jerry, a recent high school graduate who had spent several years as a salesclerk in the family business, was off to Italy and a military run as a flight engineer on a B-24 bomber where he would fly 35 combat missions over Italy during World War II. Upon his return to the States, he would enroll in business school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But Jerry’s higher-education path ceased in his junior year when an ill Dad called him home with the words he remembers to this day. “I need you in the business. I’ll be your professor, quit Carolina.”

Jerry would leave the campus behind to immediately take over the children’s department of Lebo’s Shoe Store and formally commence a 74-year career in the family business that today, at age 99, largely involves him visiting stores weekly and pointing out merchandising or other elements that could be done differently by current store personnel. A consummate merchandiser and self-proclaimed “customer pleaser,” Jerry Levin’s longheld approach to the family business that is now helmed by his son-in-law Mark Goldsmith, president, and grandchildren Brian Goldsmith and Tracy Goldsmith Lisk as a VP and e-commerce director, respectively, has been to provide the customers with what they want.

Family Ties (left to right): Brian Goldsmith, Mark Goldsmith, Jerry Levin, Tracy Goldsmith Lisk.

Specialize and Adapt to Survive

That methodology, in many ways, has helped Lebo’s maintain its vitality and relevance for a century. Over the years, the family operation, currently with six freestanding stores averaging 6,000 to 10,000-sq.-ft. in size, has ventured into dancewear, work footwear, English riding boots, square dance apparel and cowboy boots, always maintaining an assortment of hard-to-find sizes and widths for its customers. When the foray into English riding boots, apparel and equipment commenced, Lebo’s proudly proclaimed, “We sell everything but the horse,” in advertising.

“In order to survive, you need to specialize,” opines Levin, who served as Chairman of the National Shoe Retailers Association from 1995 to 1997 and created the Barbette Footwear and Dancewear collection of ballet, tap, jazz, clogging, square-dancing shoes, and tights. Besides Lebo’s, the line was sold elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally. Levin also created and launched Colorama Dance Costumes by Lebo’s to distribute in local dance studios. With appeal for the dance products stretching to Atlanta and Savannah in nearby Georgia, Lebo’s printed and distributed 5,000 dancewear catalogs for distribution throughout the U.S. and took booth space at national dance trade shows to increase interest in the products.

Brian Goldsmith, Jerry’s grandson who began his Lebo’s career in its warehouse, agrees with his grandfather about specialization but also believes “adaptability” is a key to survival for a fourth-generation family business. In recent months and years that malleability has shifted to becoming more of a “comfort footwear” business and removing “hot items” off its website for sale only in brick-and-mortar locations.

“We always listen to our customers. It matters what they want,” says Brian, a North Carolina State graduate and former Northwestern Mutual employee who left the insurance business to join the family operation in 2008. Today, his son and daughter, Jonah and Sydney, and Tracy’s daughter, Sadie, would be the fifth generation to work in the family business. Brian’s education and knowledge of the footwear business accelerated when his grandfather decided to send him to New York to learn and become a certified pedorthist to better address the foot ailments of customers with orthotics and foot lifts.

While Lebo’s has a large multi-generational customer base in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Brian says it’s difficult to pinpoint a single target customer for the banner given its specialized assortments in dancewear, western boots, and work. In footwear only, Lebo’s has modified its approach from strictly an all-encompassing size and width specialist to more of a comfort footwear store. The range today includes everything from athletic and comfort sandals to work and western offerings. Hot brands today include On, Hoka, Brooks, Ariat, Timberland, Wolverine, Durango, Dan Post and Laredo.

Photos in Lebo’s archives are a time capsule of American history.

Evolving Strategy Over Time

Along with the changing times, the traditional newspaper advertising the store used to do has given way to direct mail pieces, radio, digital and events, including a four-day extravaganza from Oct. 17 to 21 to celebrate Lebo’s 100th anniversary.

When Jerry Levin began his long reign leading Lebo’s in 1949, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was published and the first Polaroid camera was sold for $89.95, the internet was decades from becoming a real thing, much less a vital component of a retail operation.

Lebo’s ecommerce segment emerged in 2013 after more than a decade of preparing for it. Brian and Tracy spearheaded the arduous task of deconstructing and re-assembling the retailer’s methods and products, which involved merging systems and converting SKUs to UPC codes. Ironically, perhaps, Lebo’s new operation went “live” two weeks before the pandemic began in March 2020. The ecommerce business has grown steadily over the last three years. Customers can make purchases and use a product locator to determine which of the chain’s locations have the size and color needed or call a store for additional assistance. Lebo’s ships orders all over the U.S. from its Charlotte warehouse.

Brian says the business was “very lucky” during Covid-19 given it only had to shut down for six weeks and was supported by its customers throughout.

That subsistence and many others over the past century at Lebo’s, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession of 2008, can be traced to a few things, suggests Mark Goldsmith, who has worked in the family business full-time for four decades, serving as president for the last 25 years.

“You survive by adapting to changes and never giving up,” he recommends. “Treat your customers as they are guests in your home. They have choices and you hope they choose you… We have attracted a wide range of customers as we have learned to adapt and find our niche.

“We have competition all around, big box stores, strip malls, Amazon and the internet, we just focus on what we do best and do it better than anyone else,” Mark adds. “…If a family-owned businesses expects to succeed, I would suggest, roll up your sleeves, put on your listening ears, and be aware of what’s going on around you. Have an understanding spouse who keeps you on track and is your biggest cheerleader. Surround yourself with good people and you will succeed for the next 100 years.”

Lebo’s At a Glance

What: Lebo’s, a fourth-generation family-owned chain based in Piedmont region of North Carolina.  

When: Founded in 1923 by Sidney Levin.

Who: Jerome L. Levin, chairman; Mark Goldsmith, president; Linda Goldsmith, secretary; Brian Goldsmith, VP; and Tracy Goldsmith Lisk, e-commerce director.

Employees: 46 full-time, 18 part-time.

Where: Six stores in North Carolina and South Carolina — Monroe, NC; Charlotte, NC; Kannapolis, NC; Charlotte/Pineville, NC; Gastonia, NC; and Rock Hill, SC.

Store Size: Average 6,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. with largest, 30,000-sq.-ft. store in Charlotte.

Hot Brands: On, Hoka, Brooks, Ariat, Timberland, Wolverine, Durango, Dan Post.

Known For: Lebo’s has been known over the decades for a full-service experience and for carrying hard-to-find sizes and an extensive selection of comfort brand shoes, sandals,
boots, western wear, cowboy boots, equestrian gear, work wear, apparel and dancewear.