By Carmen Brown | Photos by Blair Ramsey
When telling the story of Shaia’s, J.L. Shaia says it all began with a 16-year-old boy, his sweetheart and their dream for a better life. The young man was S.G. Shaia, his grandfather, whom he remembers as a “remarkable man.”
An orphan with no formal education, S.G. came to America from Lebanon with only $10 in his pocket. He eventually made his way to Nashville where he married his sweetheart, Badia. In 1905, S.G. moved to Birmingham’s Southside district close to present-day UAB. He began peddling, carrying a large and very heavy pack on his back full of notions and household goods.
“In 1921, he borrowed some money and purchased four lots south of Birmingham on a dirt road that would eventually become 18th Street in Homewood,” JL says. “By the next year, he had built a store and a home next to it and established a garden of fig trees and grapevines on the very spot Shaia’s stands today.”
S.G.’s wife, Badia, along with her two sons, George and Alex, ran the store while S.G. continued peddling.
“The first business license listed cigarettes and bottled drinks, as Shaia’s humble beginnings were as a general mercantile store that was tailored to the needs of our customers,” J.L. recalls. “No drug or grocery stores were in the community at the time.”
Alex took over the business in 1933, guiding it through the Great Depression and World War II. He continued to improve the merchandise selection, eventually making it a “junior department store.”
In 1955, Shaia’s moved two doors down the street to its present location, and at that time Alex’s oldest son, J.L., joined the business. In 1958, J.L.’s younger brother Leo also joined the family business.
“Leo and I felt the age of specialization in retail was the future, and we always wanted a men’s store,” J.L. explains. “In 1963, we closed the store for a few weeks, completely remodeled it and opened back up as a specialty men’s store.”
However, J.L. says the going was not easy as several well-established men’s stores in Birmingham were carrying all the better, well-known brands, and Shaia’s was forced to find equal quality but lesser-known vendors.
“We got our break when we discovered a new designer by the name of Ralph Lauren and his Polo brand,” he explains. “That was about 1972, and we had the brand exclusive for the next several years. Now all the other important brands were coming to Shaia’s.”
S.G. passed away in 1976 at the age of 96. He never remarried after Badia passed away decades earlier in 1931.
J.L. says that a few years later in 1982, Shaia’s took over the building on the north side and with this expansion, the business was able to have a shoe department and a fully-staffed alterations department.
“The benefits of this were many and allowed us to really enhance our commitment to customer service,” J.L. says.
In 1986, J.L.’s son, Ken, became the fourth generation to join Shaia’s.
“He was adding his energy and taste to the business, bringing in more brands and European designers to give the store a broader base to help it grow,” J.L. says.
As for Ken, he says he remembers being 9 years old and already immersed in the life of the clothing business.
“My grandfather, my dad, my uncle, my mother—they all could be around at any given time of the day,” Ken says. “My memories were like that of a modern KinderCare.”
With the guidance of his father, uncle and the rest of his family, Ken slowly learned the craft of being a businessman.
“At 15, I worked in the tailor shop and helped with pricing merchandise,” he says. “When I was 17, I started traveling with my dad to market in New York.”
Ken says while working he got a lot of his “education” just by talking to customers.
“Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, real estate, medicine—I could get just about any question answered,” he says. “It was a great network for getting free advice.”
Ken says his father and uncle allowed him to start hiring employees when he was in his ‘20s.
“No one is left here now that I didn’t hire,” Ken says. “Greg has been here for 25 years. I call him my switchblade and knife. He does a little bit of everything.”
Shaia’s staff includes Ken’s wife, Fonda, who manages aesthetics and jewelry; Hannah, Nathan, Greg, Patrick; and Gerri the office manager. His 22-year-old daughter, Zanie Love, also helps with answering phones and wrapping gifts. Shaia’s also has four in-house tailors.
“Everybody here is customer-facing,” Ken says. “It’s all about customer service here.”
One hundred years ago, Shaia’s was only about 1,800 square feet. Ken says that while most of these businesses are about 2,500 square feet, Shaia’s is now 6,500 square feet—a testament to the store’s legacy and the longstanding relationships they have with customers.
“We stay pretty busy,” Ken explains. “Right now, we’re doing so many weddings. We see about 40 customers a day.”
Today, Shaia’s has made a name for itself both locally and on a global scale, having been named “Birmingham’s Best Men’s Store” by Birmingham Magazine and “Best of Class” by Esquire Magazine. Esquire Magazine has also awarded Shaia’s with the “Gold Standard” honor for 12 years in a row.
Known as a “Southern store with an international flavor,” Shaia’s website describes its brand as “classic and modern Neapolitan artisan-crafted products with British influence and classic Americana sportswear.”
Although Shaia’s is a staple in Homewood, Ken says his business has become so well-known through social media and word of mouth that 30-to-40 percent of their business now comes from out of the state.
“We recently did a wedding for a family out of New York City,” he says. “We also get a lot of business from Nashville and Atlanta.”
Ken says the emphasis on customer service, including wardrobe consulting and the Made-to-Measure program, is what sets them apart from many other men’s clothing businesses.
“A lot of places aren’t going to spend the time and money to focus on customers like we do,” Ken says. “Their tailors aren’t going to spend three or four hours with a customer. That’s why we say we tailor to the needs of customers to get it right.”
Ken says he enjoys having his business in Homewood, not just because of his family’s history, but also because of the small-town feel of the area.
“I like Homewood because of the convenience, friendliness, diversity and walkability,” he explains. “You don’t have to leave 35209. You don’t even have to get in your car if you don’t want to.”
In 2015, Leo retired, as did J.L. in 2020. On July 17, 2022, J.L. was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by leading menswear industry source MR Magazine for the store’s commitment to “resilience and re-invention,”vwhich was the awards show’s theme.
“It’s a long way from a dirt road and a general store to what Shaia’s is today, but we have not forgotten our beginnings and the support this community has given us,” J.L. says. “Shaia’s has grown as this community has grown, and we are forever grateful for their support.”
Shaia’s has gone through many changes over the years, but Ken says one thing will never change: focusing on the needs of the customers.
And, something else has never changed. The grapevine, which symbolizes the family’s Lebanese roots, still graces the handle of the front door.
Shaia’s is located at 2818 18th Street South in Homewood. For more information, customers can visit shaias.com.
Shaia’s 20-Year Timeline
MR magazine chooses Shaia’s as one of the “25 Most Exciting Menswear Stores in America.”
Ken launches Shaia Medical Heritage Apparel, bringing the quality of European tailoring to
modern physician’s coats. In 2009, the Alabama Retailers Association names Shaia’s as “Retailer
of the Year.”
Shaia’s concept shop originally featuring designer Scott James opens. The new shop includes the
rafters of S.G.’s house.
Shaia’s was one of only seven independent stores chosen to participate in Zegna’s Decade trip.
Ken was invited to Switzerland and Milan to tour Zegna factories and take part in their
Architectural Digest names Shaia’s as “One of America’s 50 Most Beautiful Independent Stores.”
Shaia’s holds its 100th anniversary celebration on May 15.
Fan Favorite Items
Zegna Triple Stitch Sneakers
Faherty All-Day Shorts
Bruno Cucinelli Lightweight Canvas Jeans
Canali Summer Blazer/Patch Pocket Blazer
Common Projects Summer Cashmere Suede Sneakers