By Shelley A. Sackett
Note: This article originally appeared in the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association’s publication “Notes”, Vol. 17, Number 1, November 2015
In April 1882, a month after a revolutionary assassin had killed Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg, a wave of pogroms spread throughout the Russian empire’s southwestern region. Hundreds of Jewish communities were attacked, including some in the Rechitsa district of southeastern Belarus, where some of my ancestors lived. Like most of the approximately 2.3 million Jews who left Russia between 1881 and 1930, they never saw their native land again.
What’s in a Name?
When my paternal great-grandfather, Israel Sacofsky, and his wife, Ettie, landed in Boston on July 15, 1882, they were literally in the same boat as many Jewish passengers who had also fled Czarist Russia. He was 23 and she was 24, and they sought the promise of new lives in America.
When Israel applied for United States citizenship on December 29, 1885, he renounced allegiance to “every foreign Prince, Potentate, State and Sovereignty whatever,” but particularly to Czar Alexander III. On October 31, 1891, he became a naturalized citizen in Providence’s district court.
The young couple made Providence their new hometown. Over the course of 17 years, they had eleven children, nine of whom survived. Only my grandfather, Morris, the fifth surviving child, was not born in Providence. Instead, he was born on August 9, 1889 at 176 Clinton Street in New York City.
Having returned to Providence in 1890, the city directory shows that Israel worked as a tailor and lived at 201 North Main Street. This was in the lower reaches of the Jewish neighborhood known as the “North End.” The following year he moved his business to 305 North Main. In 1892 his new home was located at 52 Charles Street.
By 1895, however, Israel was back in New York for a visit. As reported in the November 9 issue of The New York Times, he told Officer John Croughan that a stranger had tried to steal his watch near Delancey and Eldridge Streets. The suspect, arrested hours later, turned out to be Raymond Elroy of Boston, the leader of a masked band of thieves who had shot and killed a man during a holdup at a nearby bar a few nights earlier. Elroy had a gun in his pocket when he tried to rob Israel.
It may have been a coincidence, but thereafter the Sacofskys never resided anywhere but Providence. Israel worked as a tailor or sold tailor’s trimmings.
Uncle Meyer and Uncle Nathan’s Influence
Of all the Sacofsky children, Meyer and Nathan, the first and second born, had the most lasting impact upon their family. This assessment was made by my father, Herbert Sackett (born in 1928), who, as the son of Morris, was their nephew.
There is a family story that in the fall of 1899, when Meyer and Nathan were seniors at English High School and applied for admission to Brown, they used their given name, Sacofsky. They were refused admission. Although Jews had always been welcome under the university’s colonial charter, the first identifiable Jew, Israel Strauss, had not graduated until 1894. So, in order to improve their chances for admission, Meyer and Nathan decided to change their surname to Sackett and their father’s first name to James. A few Sacketts lived in Providence. Frederic was Rhode Island’s adjutant general. There was also a Sackett Street (between Elmwood and Broad) in South Providence. The family submitted a change-of-name application to the State Legislature in January 1900, and Meyer and Nathan reapplied to Brown in the fall.
Again, according to our family’s story, this time both boys were accepted, and they commuted from their family’s home at 22 Wheaton Street. Meyer and Nathan were born more than 18 months apart. Meyer was originally a member of the Class of 1905, but both young men, known as Sackett, earned bachelor of philosophy degrees with the Class of 1906. The “Sackett” seed of the family tree was sown, and next came the family business.
It Was in the Cards
Prior to attending Brown or even while they were students, Nathan and Meyer opened a small store or newsstand at 449 Westminster Street, on the fringe of downtown Providence. They may have also sold postcards, a word that had not come into existence until 1870. Because they could not devote full time to the store, they persuaded their younger brother, Morris, to tend to the business. Herbert explained, “Apparently my father took a liking to it and, upon their graduation, he somehow ended up becoming the proprietor and operated the store at that location until 1910.” Providence directories suggest, however, that at least one of Morris’s siblings, Lillian, continued selling postcards in the Union Street store through 1915.
By this time, according to the Providence directory, Meyer had moved to Detroit. In fact, he relocated to Cambridge and then Somerville, Massachusetts, where he became a wholesaler of cotton goods. By the 1940s, he and his wife, Minnie, lived in Winthrop, where he died in 1949.
According to Providence directories, Nathan sold postcards at 449 Westminster Street. In 1918, he moved to New York City and became a publisher of postcards. Herbert remembers that he ran a company on Long Island that manufactured high-quality, engraved cards. Nathan, who married Helen, died in New York in 1967.
Morris opened the small store at 203 Union Street in the center of downtown in 1910. “This became one of the first stores selling only postcards and greeting cards in the Northeast,” Herbert explained. He elaborated, “My father maintained the Union Street store for the balance of his career, and it was there I was raised into the retail business.”
Coincidentally, 1910 was the same year that another business pioneer, 18-year-old Joyce Clyde (J.C.) Hall, traveled from his home in Nebraska to Kansas City, Missouri. He brought two shoeboxes of picture postcards (the only form of greeting card at that time) and an entrepreneurial fire in his belly. Hall set up a wholesale distribution center at the Kansas City YMCA where he was lodging. The postcards were a huge success and soon his brother, Rollie, joined him in the business that became Hall Brothers. It was later known as Hallmark Cards.
J.C. Hall’s Midwest success and pioneering spirit brought him and his shoebox full of cards to the East in search of greater distribution. One of his first stops was 203 Union Street. Morris Sackett liked Hall’s product and decided to retail it. Little could either man suspect that that transaction was the start of a 75-year business relationship. It would culminate in 1985, when J.C.’s son, Don, invited Morris’s son, Herbert, to a lavish weekend celebration at Hallmark’s Kansas City headquarters to celebrate another milestone of their business relationship. In 1910 neither J. C. Hall nor Morris Sackett could have imagined that the 203 Union Street store would someday become the oldest Hallmark account in its original location.
It is of course ironic that Rhode Island became home to another of America’s manufacturers of greeting cards. Founded in 1906 by Samuel and Charles Markoff, also Jewish entrepreneurs, Paramount was headquartered in Pawtucket after a start in Providence. It remained a highly successful family business until its sale to new owners in 1983. After relocating to Canada, the company folded in 2006.
Morris Sackett, like J.C. Hall, was an innovator. He developed solid oak, continuous-run greeting card racks so customers could see cards full-face. His store, among the first to use fluorescent lighting and air conditioning, set industry standards. Max Abrams and Son, Cabinetmakers, in Providence, was the contractor who built these fixtures. Morris wanted to create a pleasant, comfortable place where customers would linger as they selected cards. When postcard sales declined and the Hall brothers recognized the public’s desire for more private communication, Morris carried their new greeting cards, which were sold with envelopes.
By 1930, Morris was living at 23 Methyl Street with his Providence-born wife, Evelyn (Sergy) Sackett, and their three children, Shirley (then ten), Edna (then six) and Herbert (then two). Morris and his wife, Evelyn, were charter members of Temple Emanu-El.
In 1934, James died in a tragic accident. When returning home from synagogue during a snowfall, he did not realize that he was walking along snow-covered trolley tracks on North Main Street. He also did not hear a silent electric trolley coming from behind. In the snowfall, its conductor did not see him either, and James was killed. Herbert recalled that his grandfather was 74 years old and in very good health. Herbert added, “I was only six, but I remember it clearly.”
The War Years
During World War II, manufacturers of all kinds faced strict quotas. The same was of course true for paper. Greeting cards became a popular way to communicate with troops stationed all over the world. Because mail took weeks or even months to reach its destination, customers had to send cards very early to arrive on time. Christmas cards were sold out weeks before the holiday, and Valentine’s Day cards were on sale before Christmas. “It was probably a never-to-be-repeated situation in the industry,” he reflected.
During this era, Evelyn Sackett was actively involved in U.S.O. Herbert, who was a young teen at Nathan Bishop Junior High and already working after school hours at the family store, liked visiting the headquarters of card factories with his father, Morris. For example, they traveled to Rust Craft’s in Boston and Norcross’s in New York City. Morris was treated “kind of special” by vendors who recognized him as the retailing pioneer he was. “I used to tag along and got to meet the heads of the companies and many of the executives,” Herbert said, noting that companies in those early years presented their card lines through samples that buyers would choose from, one card at a time. “I gained knowledge of the products and learned to identify those which contained quality and salability,” he observed. Herbert also learned many intangibles from his father. “The major things he taught me were the importance of accurate record-keeping and financial discipline,” he added. Such lessons would stick with Herbert throughout his 41-year career.
The Suburbs and Beyond
In July 1950, having graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in business administration, Herbert went to work full-time for Sackett’s Greeting Cards. Given his full-time job and his engagement to Jane Lee Cohen, he also gave up his ROTC membership. I was born in 1952 and my brother Richard in 1955. Our family lived in a two-family house at 98 Dexterdale Road in Providence before moving to 287 Rochambeau Avenue in 1958.
From the Providence store, he saw firsthand what was happening to downtowns throughout New England during the 1950s. “Downtowns were no longer the retail vehicle,” he said, referring to the development of suburbs and those residents’ desire to shop closer to their homes. He knew intuitively that this was where the retailing action of the future would be. Shopping centers were also the perfect vehicle for an ambitious young entrepreneur who already knew he wanted to be “an operator of stores, not a store operator.” But the suburbs were not the kind of place where a store that sold only greeting cards could thrive. He needed a plan.
Over the next four years, Herbert researched product mixes and store formats that could be duplicated as a multi-store operation. By 1960, he was ready to open a 1,400 square foot store at 742 Hope Street, around the corner from his Rochambeau Avenue residence.
This “Sackett’s” carried party goods, candles, and stationery items in addition to greeting cards, a “social expression” resource that would become the prototype for future development. Because no single company carried all of these products, he had to put together his own mix of vendors, including greeting card vendors.
In 1962, Herbert brought this new diversified product approach to the store he opened on Westminster Mall, around the corner from the flagship Union Street location. He named it “Richley’s” after my brother and me- “Rich”-ard and Shel- “ley”- to avoid competition with the Union Street store. Although greeting cards were still the dominant product, Richley’s also had a paperback book department, an entire area devoted to party goods, and a candy department. Evidently, Herbert still believed that downtowns had a future.
Over the next few years, he paid careful attention to which products worked and which didn’t. Candy and paperback books were in the latter category.
Herbert opened his first two stores outside Rhode Island in 1967 in downtown New Bedford and downtown Taunton, Massachusetts. They were also the first step toward affiliation with an all-Hallmark product presentation. He then sold the Hope Street “laboratory” location.
Toward the end of the 1960s, when new highways connected suburban shoppers to destination retail areas, there was also an explosive growth of shopping centers. For Herbert, this was a perfect retail storm. “The major positive thing that happened to me in my career was timing,” he said. “Being able to be involved just about the time the suburbs, shopping centers, and malls caught on provided the biggest momentum for my career. I saw this as the wave of the future. It was obvious to me that Main Street, U.S.A. was not going to be the retailing future.”
In 1968, Morris, who had retired in 1963, died at age 79, leaving his son to continue his legacy. While Herbert did just that, he was poised on a very different trajectory. “For my father’s time and personality,” he explained, “functioning basically as a single-store owner was the right thing for him to do. I was much more oriented toward the idea that you take your knowledge and package it.” Unfortunately, Morris did not live long enough to witness a Sackett’s store in a mall location.
By 1970, Hallmark was retooling in a similar way, diversifying its product line from just greeting cards and gift wrap to include other products like party goods, photo albums, candles, and some gift items. This shift made Hallmark a more attractive vehicle through which Herbert could accomplish his goal of expansion. So Sackett’s became an official Hallmark retail outlet and changed its name to “Sackett’s Hallmark.”
The relationship between the companies remained that of independent manufacturer and retailer (as opposed to franchisor and franchisee). This proved to be a winning combination.
In 1971, the first Sackett’s Hallmark store within an enclosed mall opened in Wampanoag Mall in East Providence. At 2,500 square feet, it included a book department, an expanded gift department, and a cutting-edge, brightly colored saw-toothed ceiling decorated with reproductions of silk-screened poster banners.
Over the next 20 years, Sackett’s Hallmark, driven by a philosophy of “controlled growth,” expanded to locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and upstate New York. In 1978, to accommodate the management infrastructure needed to support the rapid growth, Sackett’s moved its headquarters from an upstairs balcony alcove in its downtown, Union Street location to a 13,000-square-foot building in East Providence that housed both corporate offices and a warehouse. Herbert also concentrated on fine-tuning his mix of “allied” (or non-Hallmark) products to achieve an identity that would distinguish Sackett’s Hallmark stores from other Hallmark retailers.
He explained, “Our growth was a conservative one, which gave me a certain amount of comfort, but once you’re committed to that kind of expansion and growth, you’re in all the way. In order to attract and keep the right personnel to make it grow, you need to provide career opportunities for them. We were successful in attracting and keeping our key managerial and supervisory staff because they always knew there was the possibility for future promotion. That was always a challenge and responsibility for me.”
In 1980, I joined Sackett’s as area retail coordinator. Thus, I became the third generation Sackett to be part of the business. My duties included merchandising, writing a company newsletter, and learning the art of gift buying from my father. Only his sharp eye for spotting the next hot seller eclipsed his love for its hunt. In the fiercely competitive gift industry, his merchandising prowess was renowned among vendors and fellow retailers alike.
When I started accompanying him to gift shows in New York and Los Angeles, I was amused and amazed by the effect his lingering in a vendor’s booth could create. I could not have asked for a better mentor.
I remained with the company until 1989 when I relocated to Cheyenne, Wyoming. My brother, Richard, had and still maintains a psychotherapy practice in Manhattan.
By 1985, Herbert was again noticing a new trend in retailing, the “trendy, young-at-heart-oriented” shop. He wanted to take that concept, remove the off-color humor some companies emphasized, and package it in a 1,200-square-foot store that could go into the same malls as Sackett’s Hallmark stores. These new stores, which would carry no Hallmark products, would have a mix of 70 percent gifts and 30 percent cards and were named “Be Dazzled!”. This would be the reverse of the Sackett’s chain merchandising formula.
This was also at the height of mall expansions, when developers were seeking to maximize their attraction by offering the most interesting mix of stores to their customers. The two-store Sackett’s approach had two goals: to differentiate Sackett’s Hallmark from other Hallmark retailers who were competing for the same locations, and to appeal to mall developers who were interested in an additional concept to add to their store mix. Such a move would also maximize Sackett’s management and administrative efficiencies.
Be Dazzled! was birthed on Thayer Street that year, and I was its project director. Over the next few years, it grew to its own chain of seven stores with additional locations in Dedham, Hadley, and Swansea, Massachusetts, as well as in upstate New York.
By the time the 1990s arrived, there were 60 stores under the Sackett’s, Inc. umbrella in six states with over 1,000 employees. Retail competition had become more intense and demanding than ever and Herbert, now in his sixties (who had been receiving a number of overtures from would-be buyers), decided it was time for a change of lifestyle. An opportunity soon arose. In September of 1991, and after so many decades in the industry, he elected to say “yes” to an offer, agreeing to sell the retail division to a longtime acquaintance who was in the same industry but whose locations were primarily in the Middle Atlantic states.
“Needless to say it was a difficult and traumatic decision and was not made quickly or lightly,” Herbert said. “After all those years together, my organization was like family to me. Many of them had been with me from the beginning and it was important to me that I was leaving them in good hands.
“One of my most fulfilling satisfactions came from the fact that, throughout the entire building process, we were able to remain an “independent” company and succeed based on our own high standards, of which we were very proud. On a strictly personal level, it made me even more aware and grateful for the opportunities made possible for me and my family only through the courage and bravery of my grandfather Israel and grandmother Ettie and their migration to this great country,” he said pausing. “This is a message of gratitude I’ve tried to pass down to my own children and grandchildren.”
Herbert reflected on his retirement. “With such a dramatic change of lifestyle and pace, it amazed me how seamless the transition became,” he said. “The fact that I remained active was, for me, the key – and it still is.”
Sackett’s, Inc. (the corporate structure that was not part of the transaction) became an investment vehicle and still allows Herbert to keep a finger in the business world, “but only to whatever degree I choose.” He noted that suddenly, there was more time to be involved with his grandkids, volunteer work, travel, hobbies, reading for leisure and for one of his then favorite activities, skiing (which he was now able to enjoy mid-week when the slopes were less crowded). “All in all, it became a satisfying combination,” he said.
United Brothers Synagogue
Since 1987, Herbert has lived in Bristol. A couple of years before he sold the business, he ran into Jack Temkin, a fellow Temple Emanu-El member also active in the wider Jewish community. When Herbert remarked about planning to see him over the high holidays, Jack asked why he didn’t attend the synagogue in Bristol. That was the first time Herbert heard there was such a synagogue.
Having learned that United Brothers Synagogue has been located at 205 High Street since 1916, Herbert decided to attend services one Shabbat. “I was overwhelmed by the building and very impressed by the cantor, who had a beautiful voice,” he remarked. “My nickname for him was ‘the Robert Goulet of the cantorial world.’ A lot of people felt that way.”
Although to this day he remains a member of Temple Emanu-El, Herbert was so taken by United Brothers that he decided to become a member. After officially retiring from business in 1991, he decided to become further involved. In 2006, after serving many years on its board, he became treasurer. Quickly realizing that the synagogue was underfinanced and in need of many costly repairs, Herbert decided that his personal goal would be to strengthen United Brothers’ financial health. This led to a building fund campaign that paid for a restoration in 2008. After the completion of a recent 2015 capital campaign, there is now an operating surplus.
When asked if he misses being in business, Herbert quickly replied, “I don’t miss being in business at all. If I miss anything, it’s the camaraderie that I developed, the personal relationships.” At gift shows there were social engagements almost every evening. “I always looked forward to them,” he said. He served on the boards of the New York and California Gift Shows and remained an advisor to the board of the California Gift Show for a few years after his retirement. He still sees some old business friends a few times each year.
Asked what advice he would give a young person just starting out in business, he answered without hesitation. “The most important thing, no matter what kind of business- whether it’s bricks and mortar or Internet or whatever- is to have a sound business plan. A well-thought-out business plan becomes a vehicle for producing the degree of profit. Those rules never change.”
“What does change,” Herbert cautions, “are business cycles that represent shifts in consumer demands. The successful entrepreneur must respond to these, which may occur in five-year cycles.” “The Internet,” he warns, “has completely overhauled the retail arena.”
As for additional lessons learned from his family’s business launched about 110 years ago, Herbert offered this: “Don’t expect to be 100 percent right when making decisions; that’s aiming too high. Always think about the ‘what ifs.’”
Despite the phenomenal growth of the Internet with its dozens of virtual e-cards, Herbert still believes that there can be no substitute for old-fashioned, paper cards. “The concepts of art and sentiment, in the ‘touchy-feely’ greeting card, will always have its place,” he proclaims. In fact, both my dad and I are drawn to Hallmark cards and still send them to each other on every card-giving occasion. I can’t speak for him, but the ones he has sent me over the years are in a special shoebox that I look forward to adding to for many years to come.