“Shelf Life” by Martin Sneider

The lucrative world of high fashion women’s shoes is the setting for this Jewish family saga. Max Feldman is the patriarch of the family and the owner of the Fratelli Massimo luxury shoe store chain. Though living in the less than prestigious city of St. Louis, Max wields a lot of power in the shoe industry and receives much attention from buyers and shopping center developers when he attends industry conventions. As Max heads towards retirement age, his son Josh can usually be found by his father’s side, learning the family business.

The Feldman family’s history in the United States began in the 1920s, with Josh’s grandparents settling in Omaha. His grandfather Sy opened a small general store that was within walking distance of their shul, and his main customers were the other Jewish families in the neighborhood. Josh’s father lived with his parents and worked in the store, and his cutthroat approach to retail was apparent early on. Sy noticed Max putting his finger on the scale when weighing dry goods out for customers, and wished he could keep a closer eye on him. In the 1940s, as many of the Jewish families started moving east, business began to fall off. Max wanted the family to move the store to a better location, and he found a vacant storefront in town, but it wasn’t near the Jewish community. Sy refused, and Max berated him for putting relationships before money. When it was obvious that Sy wouldn’t budge, Max offered the space to a competitor and went to work for them as assistant store manager, pitting himself against his own family.

Growing up, Josh saw many unpleasant confrontations between his father and grandfather. At one memorable family seder that was going on longer than Max preferred, he declared Moses a loser in the Hagaddah story. Sy ordered Max to either apologize or leave the table, and Max chose to go into the other room and watch TV. While the two continued to attend family events, usually when one entered a room, the other left quickly. Josh didn’t like his father’s rudeness, but still admired his business sense.

Josh knew from an early age that he was expected to eventually run the company. By the age of ten he was already going to his father’s office after work, making copies and stapling store promotional materials. The summer between high school and college was particularly significant, with Josh being sent down to Miami to check on some stores. By then, his grandfather was in a Jewish old age home in Miami, so the two of them got to spend some time together. Josh asks Sy what happened that soured the relationship with Max, and Sy tells him the story of Max intentionally helping a competitor and going to work for him. Josh begins to wonder whether Max would turn on him as well if it would be financially beneficial.

As Josh gets more involved with Fratelli Massimo, he realizes that although his father always promised him that the company would eventually be his, as his father approaches retirement, he is not so sure. Max’s business ambitions don’t seem to be diminishing as Josh becomes impatient to take over. Josh notices that his father’s love of attention and admiration from people in the industry cause him to do things that discount the accomplishments of everyone else in the family – Josh, his brother Rand, and their mother, whose family inheritance allowed Max to start building his chain of stores. Max and Rand become estranged when it becomes apparent that Rand is gay, but Josh and their mother continue to be supportive of him. Josh’s wife Amy is a lawyer, and as she sees how Max undercuts other people whenever it suits him, she encourages Josh to stop working for Max and go out on his own, before he becomes the target of some sort of scheme, because she believes that personal glory will always win out over family loyalty for Max. But Josh believes he can work his way up and take over the company based on his own hard work and knowledge of the business.

An argument between Max and Rand, over Rand living with a same-sex partner, results in a family secret about the business to be revealed. Josh correctly assumes that Max will fire him for perceived disloyalty, so he is not surprised when another employee comes to his office with an official letter from Max, and he packs up his office without putting up a fight. Eventually Josh has to decide whether he wants to emulate his grandfather Sy and value family and relationships first, or, follow the example of his father Max, and pursue financial gain and prestige in the business world above all else.

I got the feeling that this first novel was probably on the “bucket list” of the author, who is in his 80s. Sneider picked an appropriate topic, since he had a long career in retail, starting out as a shoe salesman, and eventually owning several major shoe and apparel chains. He has written one previous non-fiction book, “Toast,” about the bankruptcy of the St. Louis based Edison Brothers Stores. His knowledge of retail in general, the shoe business, and the St. Louis setting, all make the details of this new novel an engaging read.