SOUTH LOOP — One of Felice Nelson’s earliest childhood memories is playing with the empty boxes that cluttered the floor of Weinberg Hosiery as her parents and their employees tended to customers and stocked shelves.
In the early ’60s, this commercial strip of Roosevelt Road wasn’t surrounded by big-box retailers and luxury condominiums — just “mom and pop” shops like theirs. The owners all knew one another, and when you got a customer, you had them for life, Nelson said. Nearly all of them are gone now, with the exception of the haberdashery, Sid’s, two doors down.
Nelson is once again surrounded by boxes — this time, it’s as she and her husband Richard say goodbye to the family business that began 75 years ago on Maxwell Street.
Weinberg Hosiery, 632 W. Roosevelt Road, is set to close Dec. 24. The years of struggling sales, long hours, more challenges brought on by the pandemic and a community that’s largely moved on from this type of family business have taken their toll, the Nelsons said.
As the family brings everything to a close, Felice Nelson worries what will become of the independent merchants and longtime employees who have relied on their inventory to feed their families, employees like Maria Gonzalez and Anna Camacho, who became expert salespeople in the decades they’ve worked there.
“Anna does the most hilarious impression of my father. He’s influenced so many people. After he passed, some customers came to his funeral, and so many customers told me how he impacted them. I was an only child. Anna and Maria are family,” Felice Nelson said.
‘I Like Knowing The People Of Chicago’
Felice Nelson’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, launched Weinberg Hosiery in the Maxwell Street open-air flea market in 1948.
They moved their operations to Roosevelt Road in 1960 and have been located there ever since, the Nelsons said.
They sold necessities such as socks and underwear, drawing customers from all over the region. As demand increased, their business expanded.
Felice Hosiery Company opened 15 years later in Kernersville, North Carolina, a quiet suburb outside of Winston-Salem where former President George W. Bush once gave a hopeful speech on the economy to 700 workers at the Deere-Hitachi plant.
Felice and Richard Nelson met while attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Newly married, they took over the business in the ’80s after Richard Nelson finished serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, they said.
Felice Nelson, who majored in English at college, admits she was not excited to take over the family business all those years ago. Richard Nelson took to it right away, attending trade shows, learning the ins and outs of contracts and building relationships with vendors around the globe, she said.
But the prosperity of the earlier decades gave way to uncertainty as the store entered the 21st century, the owners said. The pandemic merely exacerbated matters, they said.
Products that were once “Made in the USA” were now being made in other countries, manufacturers were outsourcing labor to cut costs. While they were still able to get inventory, it’s a matter of volume.
“The Hanes socks that we sell? In the last four years, it’s down about 70 percent, the volume of what we’re able to get from [manufacturers],” Richard Nelson said. “If you buy something for $1 and sell it for $2, that’s great margins. I mean, we don’t even work on those margins, but that’s great margins. But at the end of the day, it only adds up to $1. So how many of them you sell determines whether you can actually make it work.”
Everyone was feeling the pinch, it seemed. For every small business that would leave the block, like Vogue Fabrics, which closed their doors after 29 years in 2014, a national retailer would appear in its place. Now those are slowly disappearing, too, and the effects of these departures are being felt across the city.
The couple announced in October they would close Weinberg Hosiery at the end of the year.
Making the decision was difficult but necessary, they said.
They had given so much of themselves to keep Weinberg Hosiery going, skipping vacations and personal days to keep the legacy of Felice Nelson’s parents alive. Even the children did their part, sometimes reluctantly, to help. While some have held fast to their anticapitalist beliefs, they see the store as an anomaly, a place where relationships aren’t just transactional, the owners said.
“Our staff is really hard working, and they also see the person they’re working with every day being hard working, you know? Our kids saw that, too. They’re freaking out a little now about where they’re going to buy socks,” Felice Nelson said.
The Nelsons have built a community here, from the unhoused customers who’d stop by the store to exchange the change they’d collected — “We never had to go to the bank for coins,” said Felice Nelson — to the cast of colorful characters who come in to shop and share their memories of her parents.
Felice Nelson will miss those characters. They kept her grounded.
“You make connections with people,” she said. “There’s a customer named Mr. Huang who I heard [the employees] saying, ‘Oh, when he finds out he’s gonna cry.’ Then he told Richard he doesn’t know how he’s even gonna get merchandise now and make a living.
“But I guess it’s relationships. And it’s funny too. Sometimes we’ll be invited to a gala at one of those big Downtown hotels, and the hosts know so many people. But us? It’s the waiters and the waitresses who know us because they’ve shopped here, and some of them are selling stuff as a side gig. I like knowing the people of Chicago.”
People like Maria Gonzalez, Anna Camacho and Noemi Garcia, all of whom walked through Weinberg’s doors looking for a job but found so much more. Working in retail can sometimes be a pain, but the friendship the trio formed made the days better, they said.
“It doesn’t feel real, the day when I wake up and I don’t have to go to work. You’re so used to just going,” Camacho said.
Gonzalez, who started working at the store in 1991, isn’t quite sure what the future will hold. Like her other coworkers, she still has a family to support. A new challenge awaits, she said.
A new challenge awaits the Nelsons, as well: the challenge of getting to know one another again.
After four decades and four children, they move with the kind of rhythm that comes when you’ve been married for a long time. They finish each other’s thoughts, sentences and sandwiches.
Felice Nelson jokes her husband could pursue his dreams of becoming an extra on “Chicago Fire” or “Chicago Med” as they continuing planning their first trip to Alaska next year.
She also plans to continue her volunteer work helping new arrivals from other countries, so that they, too, can find community.
“I’m grateful for all of this, but I don’t like looking back. I like looking ahead,” Felice Nelson said.
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