A Gainesville Magazine feature article: In 1935, Joe Silverman opened the Collegiate Men’s Shop on the south side of University Avenue, two blocks off the courthouse square.

The origins of Gainesville’s retail industry can be traced to the town’s earliest days. Originally, Gainesville’s humble city grid consisted of the courthouse square and eight surrounding blocks.

The first downtown stores were made of wood, including the Matheson dry goods store. In the 1880s, most of these stores were replaced by brick buildings after fire destroyed the wooden ones. Quite a few of these early brick buildings remain today, including the 1885 Dutton Bank, which is now the Bank Bar and Lounge, and the 1884 Endel Brothers Store, which later housed Woolworth’s and is now home to The Wooly event space.

Downtown Gainesville shoppers used to arrive by horse and carriage, on foot or by train. By the 1930s, when Faye Safer Silverman arrived in town, automobiles had taken control of the streets. At the time, Gainesville was so small that she and her husband, Joe, could walk anywhere they needed to go. In 2001, Faye told oral history interviewer Mary Ann Cofrin that Gainesville’s small size came as a shock to her when she moved there from Jacksonville.

Faye Safer eloped with Joe Silverman in 1933, after she had completed a two-year teaching degree at Florida State College for Women. At the time, Joe was working at Brownstein’s Department Store across from the courthouse square. Unable to find a teaching position in Gainesville, Faye became the manager of the Fashion Shop.

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In 1935, Joe Silverman opened the Collegiate Men’s Shop on the south side of University Avenue, two blocks off the courthouse square, recalled his son, Gene.

“Everyone told him he couldn’t survive so far from the square,” Gene said during an interview at his sister Ilene Silverman’s store, Ilene’s for Fashion, in Thornebrook Village. But when the students walked downtown to shop, Ilene pointed out, “They would have to see our store first.”

Joe stood out front and greeted people as they walked by. Faye served as the store’s bookkeeper and helped in other ways. Her parents loaned Joe $1,500 to start the store.

“Mother was quite a strong, determined woman,” Ilene remembered. “They were true partners in this business.”

The Silvermans had a stroke of good luck when Joe visited New York for the first time to buy clothing for the new store. He got on the train to New York City at Waldo with no clue whom he should meet with or what he should buy for his new store.

“He knew nothing,” Gene said “He had no credit rating. Then he met Mrs. Green by luck.”

Green was a credit manager for a New York City merchandiser. Joe told her he was opening a store in Gainesville. When Green asked where Gainesville was, Joe said it was near Miami. Green gave him a limited amount of credit to purchase merchandise that he could pay back as he made sales at his new store. She also convinced several other manufacturers to do the same thing. This gave Joe the boost he needed to get his new business off the ground. The Collegiate Men’s Shop offered tailor-made suits for University of Florida students to wear to fraternity parties and other formal occasions. In the store’s early years, Joe and Faye were only a little older than the students, but Faye served as a required chaperone at the fraternity parties. They made friends with and hired students, which helped their business.

One of the most successful strategies Joe utilized from the beginning was to extend credit to students. It helped the store thrive and was a good way for students and recent graduates to build credit and purchase their first interview suit.

During World War II, when civilian clothing became difficult for retailers to acquire, Joe transformed the men’s shop into a military store to overcome rationing on civilian materials. Joe relied upon his personal connections to keep the store stocked with hard-to-find items such as white boxers, Coca-Cola and chocolate bars.

In 1946, the store moved to the north side of University Avenue, across from the Florida Theater and became Silverman’s — The Man’s Store. In 1960, Silverman’s moved across the street to 225 W. University Ave. and added women’s clothing. During the move, West University Avenue was closed to traffic while Silverman’s staff moved all the merchandise across the street on dollies over the weekend.

At first, a women’s section was added at the back of the store. Later, the store layout featured men’s clothing on the first floor, women’s clothing on the second and a seamstress and storage on the third floor.

“It was the coolest building,” Ilene recalled. “There was a hidden staircase in the back.”

At the time, downtown was where everybody in Gainesville went to shop. Many stores stayed open for evening shopping on Friday and Saturday. Silverman’s shoppers parked behind Wise’s and walked through the drugstore to access Silverman’s.

Silverman’s and other downtown shops focused on building relationships with customers. “Silverman’s for men and women: worth coming downtown for” was one of the many catchy slogans Joe came up with over the years to market the unique shopping experience his store offered. Even when fashion trends switched from tailor-made to readymade outfits, Silverman’s excelled at customer service.

Although the Silverman family is Jewish, each Christmas they decorated the store windows with a tree and offered special shopping experiences with apple cider. Customers could take advantage of layaway and other credit options as the holidays approached.

Husbands could sit in a viewing area to wait for their wives to emerge from the dressing room, stand on a pedestal, and show off their new fashions in front of a three-way mirror. Ilene still has the mirror at her shop in Thornebrook Village.

Silverman’s strove to provide the finest in men’s and women’s fashions. The store tended to favor the conservative look over faddish styles. In 1966, Joe was quoted in a New York Times article titled “Retailers Split on Mod Fashion.” During a trip to New York to see the manufacturers’ fall lines, Joe noted that Mod fashion was all the rage.

“They’re calling anything kooky ‘Mod’ and I think that’s going to be the downfall of it,” Joe told the New York Times reporter. “The university students don’t buy Mod, but it’s what the high school boys want.”

“We didn’t buy it because it was crazy,” Gene reflected.

Gainesville was still a small town then, and the downtown shopping district was filled with activity. Silverman’s and other stores used to stay open until midnight on weekends to accommodate shoppers from the rural areas.

“This was before the Gainesville Shopping Center, which was the first slice against downtown, before the mall,” Ilene explained.

By the late 1950s, downtown Gainesville started to undergo a dramatic transformation. The 1885 Alachua County Court House that had been the center of town was slated for demolition, and the Gainesville Shopping Center opened at Northwest 10th Avenue and North Main Street. Some retailers started to relocate from the courthouse square to the Gainesville Shopping Center.

A decade later, when the Gainesville Mall opened at Northwest 13th Street and Northwest 23rd Avenue, Sears left the courthouse square and anchored the new mall. Gainesville’s westward expansion continued apace, and in 1978, the Oaks Mall opened on Newberry Road.

Throughout all of these shifting patterns in Gainesville’s growth as a retail center, Silverman’s remained a constant in downtown Gainesville. When Oaks Mall developer Alan Squitieri arrived in Gainesville, he purchased his first suit from Silverman’s.

Gene said the family discussed moving the store to the Oaks Mall, but they decided against relocating.

“But competition was coming,” Gene said. “It’s very tough on an independent store.”

On Nov. 17, 1986, Ilene was working late with a customer at Silverman’s. She remembers her father closing the door after the customer left. The family rushed to a party and then ate dinner together at Mr. Han’s, one of their favorite restaurants. Joe, who was a natural comedian like Danny Thomas, Ilene recalls, looked handsome and healthy. He was 75.

The next morning, Joe fell at home. He was taken to Alachua General Hospital, where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

“The sad thing is he never got to retire,” Ilene said.

Silverman’s rallied and stayed in business until 1989. The Gainesville Sun ran an article at the time of the store’s closure with the headline, “End of an Era: Silverman’s is Closing.”

Ilene carried the baton, however, and is still in business today. Her store, Ilene’s for Fashion, recently moved into a larger unit at Thornebrook Village and is now called Ilene’s Gator Store.

“I feel like the last woman standing,” she said.

Ilene said there is still a need today for the level of service and intimacy that customers felt at her family’s store in downtown Gainesville.

“It’s the driving force of why I have a store,” she explained. “It is the legacy of our family.”

In recent years, the shopping centers that changed the face of downtown Gainesville from a retail hub to an entertainment district have undergone their own transition. The Silverman’s legacy lives on outside the old store, where Gene reports the store’s name can still be seen on the sidewalk.