Sy Syms, the founder of the SYMS discount clothing chain who died on Tuesday of heart failure at the age of 83, has been called a business pioneer, a real estate legend and a major philanthropist. But Dorothy Rabinoff remembers him most as a teenager whose “first real love was radio.”
Rabinoff and Syms were both students at Midwood High School in the 1940s, back when Syms was still known by his birth name, Seymour Merinsky. After he graduated in 1943, Syms left Brooklyn to join the US Army and pursue his dream of being a radio broadcaster. After stints as a sports announcer in Maryland and West Virginia, though, Syms returned to New York where his father and older brother George had changed their surnames to Merns and opened up a clothing shop on Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan.
For six years, Syms saved up so that he could buy his own stake in the family business. But when he finally came up with the $6,000 needed for a 20 percent share of the company, his brother refused, claiming that it was now worth much more. In 1959, Syms left the family company and started his own store around the corner: a 2,000-square-foot building on Cortlandt St. he named “Sy Merns.” A lawsuit from his brother forced him to change the store’s name to SYMS, a combination of his first and last names, but he continued to expand his brand. Today, there are 30 SYMS stores across 13 states.
“My father was a really passionate person and someone who was a bit of a visionary,” said his daughter Marcy Syms in a statement. “Once he believed something could happen, he pulled out all the stops to make it so.” SYMS became one of the first off-price clothing stores in the country that targeted shoppers who were both price-conscious and brand-savvy. Syms’s motto was “An educated consumer is our best customer” – a phrase he often delivered himself in his commercials in the distinctive radio voice he had cultivated many years earlier in Brooklyn.
In 1985, Forbes claimed that SYMS Corp. had among the highest profit margins in the entire retailing industry. Syms donated his fortune to a variety of causes, including the American Heart Foundation, Boys Town of Jerusalem, Public Broadcasting and the Fashion Institute of Technology, but also never forgot to give back to his Midwood roots. “Whenever we called on him, he was always ready, willing and able to help,” said Rabinoff. The school honored him with a Lifetime Achievement award in 1999.
Syms had four children with his first wife, Ruth Glickman Merns, before the marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife of 25 years, Lynn Tamarkin Syms. He was predeceased by his son, Stephen and his daughter, Adrienne. He is survived by his children Marcy, Robert, Richard, and Laura, two stepchildren, ten grandchildren and three sisters.
-by Miranda Lin