One of Columbia’s oldest businesses, Moe Levy’s, to close.
Moe Levy’s sold a fur coat to Michael Jackson, a jean jacket to Johnny Cash and a gun to Roy Rogers.
It sold a safari helmet to S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell, who gifted the hat to President George H. W. Bush.
Next month, Moe Levy’s will close after 99 years of selling immeasurable quantities of military uniforms, combat boots, outdoor gear and “more jeans than you can imagine,” said Harold Rittenberg, the iconic store’s 88-year-old owner.
Moe Levy’s Army surplus store has been a Columbia institution since Moe Levy himself opened up shop in a tin shack downtown at the corner of Assembly and Lady streets in 1920.
The name and the store have been fixtures through decades of Columbia history, particularly before the clothing store closed in 2014 and reopened outside of the bustling heart of the city in 2016. Now Moe Levy’s is closing for good, partly because the brick-and-mortar retail business has toughened but largely, frankly, because Rittenberg’s tired of working.
“Five years ago, I was younger. I’m not younger now,” Rittenberg said. “It’s just a lot more problems with retail than there used to be. There’s a lot more problems.”
An astute businessman, Moe Levy was, for a time, one of the leading sellers of Levi’s jeans in South Carolina, said Rittenberg, Levy’s son-in-law. Rittenberg joined the business when he married the Levys’ daughter Gloria in 1951.
“In those days, it was hard to get Levi’s. You’d have to put in an order six months before you’d even get them,” Rittenberg said. “He had the ‘button fly, shrink to fit’ ... and they were $3.99. Of course, they’re like $60 now.”
Rittenberg was an Army man from Birmingham stationed at Columbia’s Fort Jackson at mid-century. He and Gloria, a senior at the University of South Carolina when they met, fell in love and married after a six-month courtship.
Having worked in stores growing up in Alabama, Rittenberg was a natural addition to the Levy family business. The mainstays of their work were a pawn shop and the Army-Navy surplus store, which stood side-by-side in Levy’s brick building on Assembly Street. They’d have Levi’s stacked to the ceiling in the surplus store, Rittenberg said, and later they added women’s clothing and outdoor gear.
Moe’s wife, Florence, a sharp-witted woman who lived to be 106, kept away from the stores until her husband’s death in 1974. She went to work at Levy’s pawn shop then because “she wanted something to do,“ Rittenberg said. And she didn’t leave the store until shortly before her death in 2013.
Framed portraits of Moe and Florence hang near the back of the camouflage-filled surplus store now on Laurel Street, where it moved three years ago after Rittenberg sold the Assembly Street property to developer Ben Arnold. The corner of Assembly and Lady sits vacant now.
The Laurel Street store is much lower in visibility and lighter on foot traffic, which hasn’t been great for business, Rittenberg said.
“The customers today are coming in and ... they see what they want, and then they see if they can buy it on the internet,” Rittenberg said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I can get this on the internet for this much money,’ and then they walk out. So it’s kind of a tough retail environment.”
The Rittenbergs’ son-in-law, Trent Grant, handles most of the business these days. The store’s biggest customer, he said, is the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department, which provides work clothes for people with disabilities.
From behind a long glass case filled with knives, collectors’ coins and jewelry, Grant pulled out what he thinks is the most interesting item in the store: A World War II-era Japanese bayonet, encased in a sleek black sheath.
For a store dominated by military surplus clothing and supplies, from peacoats to bulletproof vests to ready-to-eat meals, Moe Levy’s carries a surprising array of uncategorized odds-and-ends — ladies’ jewelry, porcelain figurines (brought over to sell from the Rittenberg’s own house), framed and unframed Levi’s posters, 50-cent clothing patches and a uniform-clad mannequin Rittenberg will gladly sell to get off his hands.
Rittenberg hopes a “white knight” will buy the whole business from him, Moe Levy’s famous name and all. Having no luck selling off the business so far, though, he’s planning a store-closing sale to liquidate as much of his inventory as possible by the end of April.
This is his “final retirement,” Rittenberg said.
A piece of Columbia history will retire with him.