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Retired Marion business owner ‘Boy Gene’ Harris dies at 84

Jean, Gene, and Bessie Harris in 2005.

Eugene N. Harris of Marion died March 7 at age 84. He was born July 11, 1937, in Birmingham, to Joe Harris and Bessie Rosenblum Harris Shiller. He owned Nathan Harris’ Sons, a clothing store located in downtown Marion and founded by his grandfather, for many years.  He was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by his wife, Jeanette “Jean” Harris; his son, Joseph Scott Harris (Aimee); and his brothers Nat Harris (Lois) and Sam Shiller (Linda) as well as two grandchildren Josh and Ben Harris. A family private service will be held with Cantor Jessica Roskin officiating and Kirk Funeral Homes, Marion Chapel directing. In 2005, as Harris’ family business celebrated its 95th anniversary, the Perry County Herald interviewed Harris about the history of his family in Marion, his business, and his outlook on life in our part of the Black Belt. In that interview, ‘Boy Gene’ said he hoped to see the business reach its 100th year in business. Nathan Harris’ Sons closed its doors in 2013, after 103 years.  

We re-publish our Nov. 10, 2005 interview with Harris in its entirety here:

Marion is probably the last place you would expect a young Polish immigrant to end up after leaving New York City. But this is exactly where Nathan Harris found himself in 1910, and the little tailor shop he founded would grow into a Marion institution over the next 95 years.

Today, the small business can claim the title of Marion’s oldest retail business, and one of Alabama’s oldest independent clothing stores.

“My granddaddy knew the [tailoring] trade,” explains Gene Harris, third-generation owner of Nathan Harris’s Sons specialty store on Washington Street.

“And he had some relatives here, so this is where he came.”

Nathan Harris opened a tailor shop in the northernmost storefront of the Marshall Hardware building, which is located next door to the Marion Library.

It was not long before the little town’s bustling business environment caused his business to outgrow that space, and Harris moved to the other end of town.

“He moved to a bigger place because he couldn’t make all the clothes that he was selling,” Gene explains. It was then that Nathan began to offer ready-made clothes.

The business continued to grow, and Gene’s uncle, Max, was in the process of taking over the reins until his untimely death in 1931 at the age of 28.

Gene’s father, Joe, who actually went to school in pharmacy at Auburn University, took over the family business in his father’s and brother’s footsteps after Nathan Harris died.

Joe married Bessie Shiller in the early 1930s, and ‘Mrs. Bessie’ can still be seen at the shop much of the time.

Tragedy again struck the family in 1942, when Joe Harris died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Bessie Harris, who knew very little about the clothing business at the time, stepped in and learned quickly.

Harris developed a reputation as a good businesswoman, and was able to secure items few could get during World War II. Silk stockings and other luxuries were rare in those days of rationing and frugality, but Mrs. Bessie usually managed to bring a few items back from market in St. Louis to her loyal clientele, who would snatch them up, sometimes within the day.

“I finished Alabama in 1959 and went into the Army for a while,” says Gene. “I came back to run the business in 1960, and we’ve continued to grow and expand, and add lines and change things.”

Harris says the business still did a fair amount of tailoring when he took over—one wall of the building was lined with cloth, he recalls. As ready-made clothing supplanted tailored items, though, the trade was a side of the business he never really got to know.

“But I can alter a little bit,” he says.

When Nathan Harris came to Marion back around 1910, he also joined what was, at the time, part of Marion’s close-knit Jewish community. Many immigrants like him found their way here over the years, forming an integral part of Marion’s commercial sector.

Today, Gene and his family are the last of that group that once included such well-known families as the Solnicks, the Goldblatts, and the Shillers.

Employees at the shop include “Boy Gene” Harris and his wife, “Girl Jean”, Mattie Essex, Mattie Carroll, and Gene Vaughan. Up until two years ago, Gene’s aunt, Helen Behrenson came to work every day, but her health prevents it these days.

Harris notes that Mattie Carroll and Viola Logan both came to work there only a few months apart from each other, and worked there for 25 years. Carroll, who does most of the alterations, is still going with 28 years under her belt.

Marion’s business environment has changed drastically over the last 95 years, and Gene Harris will be the first to admit that things are not as easy as they once were. Whereas just getting items from the store was the biggest obstacle in the old days, now he must make sure he gets exactly the right items.

“Back then, you could sell anything you could get. Now you have to guess what the trend is going to be three months from now,” he says.

Marion used to boast several clothing stores, something Harris says was actually good for the business.

“We used to do a lot more business where there were five or six stores like ours in Marion, because if one of us didn’t have it, the other one did,” he says.

As consumers became more mobile and trends became more volatile, most small-town clothiers went out of business years ago.

How, then, has Harris’s been able to survive all these years? Gene has attributed it more than once to “having a good banker,” but his customers know it is more than that.

Customers know that they will get personal service from people they know, a rare luxury in this day and age.

Something else has happened to keep business going, and Harris notes it with a hint of irony.

The same things that spelled doom for most independent clothing stores in this century—huge chain department stores and increased willingness of customers to travel out of town to do their shopping—now work a little bit in his favor.

People from nearby small towns who miss the atmosphere and service of the old days have rediscovered Harris’s.

“A lot of towns close by that don’t have good shopping come to Marion to shop.”

Harris explains, “We get a large part of our business from outling areas; all over the county and the surrounding counties.”

When Nathan Harris came to our small town so many years ago, he brought with him little more than his knowledge of tailoring and his ambition. That small chunk of the American dream he was able to carve out has sustained his family for three decades.

And Gene does not hint at retiring just yet.

“I’d like to at least make it to our 100th anniversary,” he smiles

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