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Borderlands: Adolph Schwartz Built Local Retail Dynasty 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Adolph Schwartz Built Local Retail Dynasty

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Celia Enriquez

In 1883, Adolph Schwartz left his father’s house in Eastern Europe for an arduous 30-day trip across the Atlantic to the United States. He arrived in New York with only 15 cents in his pocket, a 16-year-old boy alone in a strange land.

In 1902, Schwartz opened the Popular Dry Goods Company in El Paso after successfully establishing two other stores. The Popular would become the largest locally owned department store, at one time having three branches in addition to the main store downtown. It would survive nearly 100 years. Schwartz would prove that determination, hard work and strong family support could produce the American dream.  


Image caption: Pioneer businessman Adolph Schwartz in 1928. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society 

As a young Jewish immigrant, he was faced with many obstacles when he arrived in this country. He did not speak English and he had no family or financial support. Born on December 31, 1866, Schwartz had left Stropko, an Austro-Hungarian village, (later Czechoslovakian), which  had a population of fewer than 300 people. The young Schwartz left the repressive and degrading treatment of Jews in his native village to seek freedom and a hopeful future in America. 

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During this time, many unskilled immigrants became traveling merchants or peddlers. Schwartz learned the English language quickly and decided to try this business. Staying in New York only briefly after perceiving the competitive job market, he traveled through many states including Ohio and California, where he gained experience in the dry goods business. Relatives in Juárez encouraged the young Schwartz to come to the El Paso area. 

After arriving in Juárez, Schwartz peddled wares to train passengers headed south. After saving 900 pesos, he joined his friend Simon Picard in opening a store which they named the “Tres B,” standing for “Buena, Bonita, Barata” (Good, Pretty, Cheap).

At this time he also met Fanny Amstater from Hungary who was visiting family in Juárez . After a brief courtship, they married. They were drawn to El Paso where other Jewish immigrants lived.

Changes in the economy and population also motivated Schwartz to sell the “Tres B” and build The Fair in El Paso in 1900. He expanded the Fair to a second location in a three-story building that was built by Henry C. Trost, a well-known El Paso architect. 

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Schwartz needed help with merchandising, so he began bringing relatives over from Hungary. Historian Floyd Fierman writes that family members were housed, educated, given dignity and absorbed into the family business.


Image caption: The Popular Dry Goods store owned by Adolph Schwartz, circa 1907.  Photo courtesy of UTEP Special Collections Dept. Popular Dry Goods Collection.

In 1902, Schwarz closed The Fair and opened Popular Dry Goods Company with nephew Maurice and other relatives. The two leading merchants in the city at that time, H. Lesinsky Co. and Calisher Dry Goods Company, proved to be little competition for Schwartz, and the Popular became a huge success.

In 1907, the Popular moved from the northeast corner of El Paso and Overland Streets to Mesa and San Antonio and consisted of three floors by 1914. Just two years later, Schwartz decided a modern department store was needed, and in 1917, a six-story Popular building fronted Mesa and San Antonio Streets.

The Popular was one of the main stores in town during the Mexican Revolution. Schwartz’s granddaughter Ann Goodman Schaechner, tells a story about Pancho Villa and Francisco I. Madero, opposing military leaders: 

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One day at the Popular, Pancho Villa and General Madero were in the store together, but on different floors. One was on the basement and the first floor and the other was on the second or third floor. A clerk recognized the foes and ran back and forth between floors attending the two men so that they would not bump into each other. Thanks to the observant employee, the two men never saw each other, and the store kept both good customers.  

The Popular’s success can be attributed to such things as trust, hard working employees and loyal customers.  At the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Popular, Judge R. E. Thomason stated, “Mr. Schwartz built the store on faith: it was the faith of Popular’s employees in the management that contributed to its growth, the faith of the management in the employees, the faith of the store in its customers, the faith of its customers in the store.”

Of their employees, the buyers were the most important. They decided what merchandise the store would offer its customers, and they were the ones who searched the markets for new styles and special purchases that were passed on to the public. To keep up with demand, Schwartz imported merchandise from the four corners of the fashion world. In 1928, the Popular’s buyers covered over 195,000 miles on buying trips in the United States and Europe.

The employees’ attitude toward customers was also highly important. The employees were asked to smile, to keep the customers happy and to treat them as the important people they were, for if customers did not come to buy, the store could not survive. The employees were trained to be polite, attentive and not too aggressive in making sales. They were to talk with customers about style, quality and attractiveness of items rather than the price. This philosophy would serve Schwartz well for 39 years.  

Surrounded by immediate members of his family, Adolph Schwartz died from a heart attack at the age of 74 on March 3, 1941. A crowd of 1,500 people filled Temple Mt. Sinai to overflowing to pay respects to Schwartz who had been a patriotic citizen and a constant worker for the best interests of his community, state and country.

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According to Fierman, “The Popular leadership subscribe [d] to the principle that a firm must attempt to give back to the community what the community has given to it.” In addition to the successful Popular, Schwartz had large real estate interests acquired over the years as El Paso grew.  Following his death, many organizations were recipients of his bequests, including the Southwestern Children’s Home, St. Margaret’s Orphanage, the National Jewish Hospital of El Paso, and the Children’s Tuberculosis Hospital of Denver.

Schwartz served as president of the Chamber of Commerce for two terms and served as a director for many years. He was past president of Temple Mount Sinai and El Paso Chapter of B’nai Brith. He belonged to the Masonic Lodge, the Scottish Rite, the Order of the Shrine and the Elks Club, and served as a director of the El Paso National Bank for several years. When refugees fled from the Mexican Revolution, Schwartz established the “Amigo Listo” Fund to provide food for the homeless.

For years after his death, Schwartz’s descendants continued to make the Popular successful. The first branch store was opened at Bassett Center in 1962, and another in 1966 at Northgate. The third branch store at Sunland Park Mall opened in 1987 to serve West El Paso. The Popular was a member of a national merchandising organization through which most of the largest American stores buy cooperatively to compete with chain stores. In this way, local stores secure merchandise at the lowest prevailing prices.

In 1995, the falling peso and Mexico’s recession cast a shadow on the border economy just as the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. All Popular stores closed on November 6, 1995, saddening their thousands of loyal customers. Throughout its 93 years, the Popular served its community well. Over the years, the Popular had employed thousands of local El Pasoans, providing jobs and fashion to both sides of the border.  The Popular Foundation supported cultural events in town, the youth in the community, and the UTEP scholarship and athletic programs.

Despite its demise, the Popular remains an important icon of El Paso’s past. And its founder, Adolph Schwartz, remains legendary in the region. He truly was an example of early El Paso immigrant pioneers who discovered wealth and respect in a yet untamed Western frontier in a new country. 

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tags: biography

Popular Department Store Sources

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