Getting to Know You — Part 2
One retailer planned to be a deaf instructor but was lured into the travel goods business where he happily stayed. Another never wanted to be a teacher but became one anyway and then got into the travel goods business. And a third retailer never even wanted to be in the travel goods industry but has managed to rack up nearly a half century of experience — and has loved every minute of it. Here are their stories.
A godfather of luggage
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
If it sounds like Sam Hirsh is channeling Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather Part 3,” it’s because he is.
Hirsh never wanted to get into the travel goods business in the first place, but he is an industry veteran with 47 years of experience under his belt.
At 15 years old, Hirsh worked as a stockboy for Stacy’s Luggage and Handbags in Chicago, moving into a luggage buying role four years later. He did that for the next 12 years.
Then he worked as a sales representative for the luggage industry, repping some of the larger luggage brands as well as other travel goods and accessories.
“Eastpak was my principal line at the time, and then I was also the rep for Travelpro,” said Hirsh. In fact, Hirsh was the original sales rep in Chicago beginning in 1991 when Travelpro founder and original owner, Bob Plath, was at the helm of the company.
Throughout his career, Hirsh has repped luggage, products for the outdoor industry, accessory-driven ancillary lines and more, even getting involved with product design at one point.
Then, in the mid-80s, Hirsh thought he was getting out of the business and into something wholly unrelated — until the plans fell through and he found himself pulled right back in.
“At that time, our son was four years old and my wife, Kate, who is from northern Maine and always wanted to go back, suggested we make the move,” said Hirsh. “We could raise our son there and he could be with his cousins.”
Kate Hirsh, who had been involved in the travel business in New York, suggested the couple open up a retail store. Hirsh agreed.
In 2007, the two opened Tripquipment in the Portland area. Not only does the family-owned and operated business offer a wide selection of luggage, but the store stocks an array of travel accessories, travel electronics like adapter and wireless charging items, travel clothing including clothing with insect shield protection, travel and emergency kits such as water filtration and purification products and other travel goods and gear as well.
Hirsh considers Tripquipment to be a direct reflection of everything he wanted his store to be for his customers when he was a sales rep.
“Mom and pop retailers need to be more travel-centric, not luggage-centric,” he said. “Our store reflects this.”
In fact, Tripquipment’s biggest seller isn’t luggage at all, but travel underwear.
“We sell 230 or so pieces of underwear about every 60 days,” said Hirsh.
The store prides itself on getting customers ready for their trips. While the staff doesn’t plan trips, they do give educated and curated suggestions to customers about what gear they need based on where they are going.
“I enjoy being able to guide my customers into purchasing the most advantageous things to make their trip as carefree as possible,” said Hirsh. And with 47 years of experience on Hirsh’s part alone, customers can count on getting informed insights and recommendations from Tripquipment.
“When someone walks up to my front counter with $400 worth of stuff, that’s a great thing,” said Hirsh. “But my biggest thrill is when I watch two people meet in the middle of my store and say, ‘I love shopping here.’”
Happiness is the luggage industry
Mark Stern would like for travelers to stop buying luggage in their pajamas, thank you very much.
“Everyone buys luggage from home in their jammies at two o’ clock in the morning from Amazon,” said Stern, owner of the Canoga Park, CA-based H. Savinar Luggage store. “Independent stores are going away,” he added. “And this is one of the reasons why.”
Stern noted that by going into a store, customers get the benefit of the staff’s experience.
“They’ll set the luggage lock. They’ll show customers how to work the expansion feature. If someone brings in a bag for repair, we don’t care where they bought it — we fix it. It’s an advantage of buying from an independent store. Customers may even find a better price,” said Stern.
“In shopping local, you’re supporting local families who put money back into the local community.”
Stern got his start in the luggage industry in 1985 when he was offered a partnership in H. Savinar Luggage. Before getting into the industry, however, he was on a completely different path, planning to become a teacher specializing in Deaf education.
He had graduated in 1974 from California State University at Northridge (CSUN), proficient in American Sign Language — a skill he still possesses — and was a beginning interpreter. Home to the landmark institution, National Center on Deafness, now known as NCOD: Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, CSUN has the largest nationwide enrollment of students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing at a mainstream institution.
Stern is an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree, though. Both his grandfather and father were in the travel goods business — his grandfather Max Stern as the founder of Ace Leather Goods and his father, Herbie Stern, as a luggage salesman. Even his brother, Michael Stern, got in on the act as co-founder of Briggs & Riley.
While Stern would like to see more support for independent stores, he readily admits he loves his job.
“I love how people come to the store and they are happy about traveling — and we’re the experts for their trips,” he said. “When people ask us questions about carry-on weight restrictions, what adapter plugs they might need, which money belt or lightweight luggage, hardside luggage versus softside, we have the answers.”
“Whether they come in for a luggage tag, for an inexpensive suitcase or for top-of-the-line luggage, we treat all our customers the same way. We are there for them.”
With every transaction, Stern’s mile-a-minute storytelling, sense of adventure and irrepressible humor comes through. When kids come into the shop, he performs magic tricks. When a customer told him she needed “a bag you could put a body in,” Stern raised an eyebrow, but showed her a bag. (She was a contortionist who wanted to see his reaction.) Another customer insisted on looking at only two-wheel suitcases and Stern refused to write up the sale.
“I told him, ‘I won’t write a case with two wheels unless you show me your flip phone.’”
He’s chatted up (and geared up) marquee entertainers, including Smoky Robinson, Frankie Valli, the Rolling Stones and dozens of others.
One day a woman came in who he knew but couldn’t place.
“I said to her, ‘I know I should know who you are, but who are you? And she said, ‘Well, I can’t fit in the bottle anymore.’ It was Barbara Eden.”
In spite of pajama-clad people buying luggage from Amazon, Stern has no regrets about spending a career outfitting travelers with luggage that suits their needs best. And he has enjoyed paying the joy forward. For over 15 years, Stern and H. Savinar Luggage have asked customers to bring in luggage they are no longer using for Bags of Hope.
The bags are cleaned and donated to foster children, who would otherwise have to transport their belongings from home to home in plastic garbage bags. H. Savinar Luggage was one of the first luggage companies to participate in such a program.
“We were so happy when we heard about other luggage stores doing the same thing,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of happiness in this business.”
From travel to teaching to travel
“All business is about people,” said Sheilagh Robertson, owner of The Harbourmaster in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Robertson should know. As Bermuda’s only luggage and leather goods specialty store for the past 47 years, she has built long-term relationships with an ever-growing base of travel-loving customers.
“Bermudians love to travel, and I enjoy hearing the stories of the places they have been and how much pleasure they have had from using items they have purchased from us over the years,” she said.
Robertson opened her store in 1975 in Washington Mall in Hamilton, but like Mark Stern of H. Savinar Luggage, she had been on a much different career trajectory, in a completely different industry and in another country.
She had graduated in 1970 from the University of Western Ontario in Canada with a degree in bacteriology and immunology but had no specific job goals other than not wanting to be a nurse, teacher or secretary. For a year she worked as a research laboratory assistant. Then she took a holiday to the island in the North Atlantic to see her Bermudian boyfriend. And stayed. And became a teacher.
“Well, if you were 22 years old and someone offered you a job in a beautiful place like Bermuda where your boyfriend lived, what would you do?” she asked. “Of course, I said yes.”
Robertson taught science and biology for three years without formal teacher training qualifications and then made a decision: She either needed to return to school to get qualified and make a career of teaching or she needed to find something else to do. She opted for something else.
By that time her boyfriend, Gerald Simons, was her husband and also a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees). Robertson had attended a Jaycees lecture on “Starting Your Own Business” and was intrigued by the idea.
“I thought of a store in London, Ontario, called The Traveller, which was a very nice luggage and leather goods store,” she recalled. “There was nothing like it in Bermuda so I wrote to the owners and asked if I could visit them when I next went home to Canada.”
Fast-forward through a month of on-the-job training at The Traveller, which included having access to the store’s vendors, studying business and accounting through the University of Maryland’s extension program on the U.S. Naval Base in Bermuda and following through on all the steps required to open a new business.
The Harbourmaster was a perfect fit for a girl who spent her childhood moving around. A lot. With the job opportunities that came to her Scottish chemical engineer father and Canadian teacher mother, Robertson’s family lived in five different cities in Canada alone.
“In my Grade 12 year I physically attended four different high schools in Wales, Scotland, France and Canada,” she said. “The one in Scotland holds the record for only six days.”
“Travel and living in new places are in my blood.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and travel came to screeching halt, the people part of the business equation was lost to lockdowns, home isolation and endless rounds of Zoom meetings.
“After two years of this, people really appreciate the importance of in-person connection,” said Robertson. “So much about travel is about discovering new cultures and meeting people from around the world, tasting new food and experiencing the wonders of our ancient civilizations.”
Robertson had had that in-person connection through the years leading up to the pandemic, typically meeting her vendors at the annual trade shows.
“I look forward to reestablishing in-person contacts with my vendors in 2023,” she said. “Because ultimately, all business is about people.”