COLUMBIA, SC — Photos: Florence and Moe Levy's legacy
Florence Levy saw a lot of changes in her 106 years, but her place in the world behind the jewelry counter at Columbias Reliable Loan pawn shop was a constant.
That spot is empty now. The spirited native New Yorker and wife of the late Moe Levy died at 4:30 a.m. Saturday at Palmetto Health Heart Hospital.
Until a week ago, Levy, a Columbia fixture, still went to work every day.
Thats what kept her going, the fact that she had a place to go, that she had something to do, said her son-in-law Harold Rittenberg, 82, who runs the side-by-side stores Moe Levys and the Reliable pawn shop on Assembly Street. She always said that. She said, I couldnt stay home.
Levys last day at her post was March 8, just shy of a week after she turned 106. And she stopped going to work then only because she had to be hospitalized for health problems, Rittenberg said.
She just stopped eating, he said. She loved ice cream and crackers. When she wouldnt eat the ice cream and crackers, we knew something was wrong.
And she had stopped talking a rarity for the woman who thrived on interacting with customers, Rittenberg said.
If they come in and they dont talk to her shell fuss at them a little bit, he said. But everybody loved her. She just had a way about her.
And, as a saucy centenarian, she could get by with anything, he said, such as telling somebody they needed a haircut or they had a nice lady and better take care of her.
She would tell people she came from up north and got stuck here, saying, Im a Yankee and you cant change me, Rittenberg said.
Al Browder, 48, of Gaston, did work for Levy around her house and was one of many who would visit with her at the shop.
I used to go in there and get fussed at if I didnt help sell merchandise, he said. Whatever she thought, she told you.
Browder took Levy who he called Ma to lunch at nearby Wendys once before her 90th birthday. He got her settled and then started to the counter to order. She told him to sit down. As he started to protest, the manager came out to take their orders and bring their food.
Only she could take something like that and make it work, he said. Thats a pair of shoes that you aint gonna fill.
Rabbi Jonathan Case, leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue, where she was a nearly lifelong member, called Levy a character, spry and energetic wonderful wise cracks and a wonderful sense of humor.
She wasnt a bad salesman either, he said. She would often point her finger at a customer and say, Come on over here, Ive got something to show you. And the customer, never intending to buy it, would often come out with a bag under his arm, Case said.
Case himself was often on the other end of that pointing finger, too.
At the end of (synagogue) services, shed take that index finger and wiggle it at me, he said, telling him whether he had done a good job or not.
Shed let me have it with both barrels either way, he said.
Levy also had her finger on everything that went on in Columbias Jewish community as a supporter, either with her time or money, Case said.
With her gone, Its going to be like having a missing tooth, he said.
Levy was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1907, when most homes did not have electricity and the latest in technology was the automobile.
She moved to Columbia in 1926 and married Moe Levy, who had opened his clothing store in 1920 at the corner of Assembly and Lady Streets where it still stands today. As the story goes, Levy persuaded her husband to open Reliable during World War II so she would have her own store to run.
Eventually, as their daughter and son-in-law, Gloria and Harold Rittenberg, got involved in the business, Levy and her husband took some time to enjoy things they loved: fishing at Lake Murray, going wild at USC basketball games and traveling to places like Cuba and California on a dance tour with Arthur Murray.
Trophies from that tour still adorn the Cottontown home where she lived for 87 years, Rittenberg said. It was a place where she welcomed over the years large gatherings of family, friends and even Jewish Fort Jackson soldiers for Passover meals and other events.
And it was a short hop from there to what was then Columbias mental health hospital on Bull Street, where she volunteered by taking patients shopping or to visit her lake house in years past.
In the 1970s, the Levys bought a retirement condo in Florida. But they never made it there. Moe Levy died in 1974.
After that, Florence Levy started working more in the stores, at first doing the books for Moe Levys, and finally settling into her spot at Reliable every day. In recent years, her home health care workers would bring her in before lunch and she would stay until 5 p.m. every day still calling out to customers and fussing if she thought Gloria or Harold werent doing something the right way.
She might get mad, her son-in-law said, but by the end of the day, she wouldnt leave until I gave her two kisses, one on each cheek.
The longtime downtown retailer got a key to the city from Mayor Steve Benjamin last year and the Order of the Silver Crescent from Gov. Jim Hodges more than a decade ago.
Levy leaves behind two other daughters Arlene Pearlstine and Iris Balser and a range of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
Its so strange, even right now shes not sitting right here, Rittenberg said last week from Reliable, as his wife and other family members rallied around Levy in the hospital.
Shes been in remarkable health. She hadnt been in the hospital in 30 years, Rittenberg said. Age just finally caught up with her.
She will be missed.