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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                     MARTIN SHER


LOCATION:                        BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

DATE:                                 JANUARY 18, 2012

ID#:                                    OHC 10820

NUMBER OF PAGES:         19 pages

[Transcript PDF]


On his father, Morris, and the development of the original family business:

“He had a paper route, as I told you earlier, and he went into low-income neighborhoods.  He was an entrepreneur, I guess had an entrepreneurial bent. He decided that he wanted to sell . . .  them clothing, but he didn’t have any money.  My understanding is that they had jobbers on 1st Avenue North in downtown Birmingham that would put their wares out, and he figured out some kind of way on credit to get some . . . For example, a lady, one of his newspaper customers . . . I think it probably went like this.  He told me this many years ago, and I think I’m getting it right.  He asked her, “If I ever found some dresses, would you buy a dress from me?”  She said, “Sure, Morris, I would do that.”  He asked her what size, say a 16-½ or 12 or whatever it was, and what color she liked, and she said, “Red.”  He would go to the jobbers on 1st Avenue North and worked out some sort of arrangement where maybe he left a nickel there and took two or three dresses to show her, and picked up a nickel from her and paid back that person and built up his route just from his newspaper route.  He was a peddler, and then he had enough money to buy a car.”  2

On the King Credit jingle:

“[My mother’s uncle] came to Birmingham, and he was telling my dad about a car lot called ‘Big John’s Car Lot’ in Indianapolis, Indiana.  They had a saying: ‘Big John don’t care.  He doesn’t care if you ever had credit or bad credit or been in debtor’s court.’  My dad really liked that.  ‘Big John don’t care.’  Then I had my uncle Frank, who’s a commercial artist . . . my dad’s brother.  He said, ‘We’ll have a picture of a king,’ and he drew a picture of a king.  We called him ‘King Credit.’  In those days, many of his customers couldn’t read or write, so they needed some sort of icon, I guess.  They didn’t use that word back then.  They took the King Credit jingle and the ‘don’t care’ from Big John’s Car Lot, and they started what we thought was the first rap song in Alabama.  It’s called ‘King Credit Don’t Care.’  That turned out to be a very big success, and our business grew a lot.  That’s the time when I was young and coming in the business . . .”  4, 5

On selling and marketing in the clothing store:

“A typical thing I would do is customers . . . They’d walk by, and they’d go look at the window.  We had beautiful windows and always did a good job dressing up the window, and they’d be looking.  My dad said . . . one of my first jobs was . . . he said, ‘Go out to the window and introduce yourself, that you’re Martin Sher, the son of Morris Sher.’  They all knew my dad, Morris.  ‘Say it’s hot out here.  Would you like a Coca-Cola?  I’ll bring you a Coca-Cola, or could you just follow me in and I’ll get you a Coke?’  That was the idea, to get them to come in.  I’d get them a Coca-Cola.  We had a Coca-Cola or a Buffalo Rock or a Green Spot.  I’d put a sock on it for them, so it wouldn’t be cold when we held it.  Then we’d start the sales process with them.”   6

On events in the Civil Rights Era:

“I remember we always had boycotts against the Jewish merchants around Easter time.  For some reason, they always thought that the Jewish people controlled everything, but we didn’t control anything in the city.  They thought that if they boycotted the Jewish merchants, it would put pressure on the city to get some changes made.  When you’re Jewish, we were kind of on their side.  We knew what it was like.  I do remember, I think maybe Martin Luther King was in town or something was going on.  There was supposed to be a big march right in front of our store on 3rd Avenue North.  I do remember my dad locking the doors and telling me to go to the back of the store along with all the employees.  It was a little scary.  I’ll always remember that.  Everybody went by peacefully, but it was something I’ll always remember.”  7, 8

“I do remember discussions about boycotts.  We always talked about the boycott and what was going on with Martin Luther King [Jr.] and [Reverend Fred] Shuttlesworth and some of the others.  We were very cognizant of it.  It felt really uncomfortable being Jewish that there this terrible stuff going on in Birmingham.  It was really hard to figure out.  We went to Mountain Brook schools, which are nice schools, and everybody’s white there.  You have this other world that I knew about, but the people I went to school with didn’t know about.  We would ask a lot of questions to our parents to see why this was going on.  They’d try to explain it and talked about being Jewish in Germany, I remember, and it’s the same kind of thing.” 8, 9

On working for his father and their relationship with their mostly black customers:

“It was uncomfortable as a kid, especially for me, because I would leave Crestline Elementary School and get on the bus in Crestline Village when I was 10 or11 years old.  I would get on the bus and go downtown, and start working for Christmas once we got out for Christmas vacation.  Everybody else went to the beach house or whatever, and I went down into this different world that my dad was working in and had us work in.  I knew his customers really, really well.  I liked them.  They were all good people.  He gave them good service.  Treated them with dignity and respect, and just gave exceptional customer service.  I lived in that, so I lived in really two different worlds.  It was a little conflicting understanding how things were as a kid.

10 I just really understood their lives.  I spent a lot of time with them.  They were very religious.  Very good people.  Hard working.  A lot of blue-collar people, and just nice.  They lived for today, and wanted to have nice things.  It did help me understand a part of humanity that I would never have understood.  It helped me understand that I was raised with certain values, and they were raised with certain values.  They’re both okay, just a lot different.  There were a lot of common things, but there were a lot of differences in the value systems.  That made me be more understanding, I think, of other people as I’ve grown up.  I wasn’t in just a tight little community that I never learned anything or had any exposure to a different culture.”  10

On one of his father’s black employees:

“My mother used to be on the NCR [National Cash Register] posting machine and take the payment.  She was the one that took the payments.  This guy had a great personality.  He was always reliable.  Real honest.  Had a great personality, and so my mother said, “Morris, you’re going to have to hire this kid.”  We didn’t really have any black employees at the time in the office.  We always had black salespeople and people that did different things, but we didn’t have anybody in the office.  My father interviewed him, liked him, and put him in the office.  About that time, a couple, three, of the white people decided they didn’t want to work in the office anymore.  They quit, but my father stood behind what his decision was.  Over the years, he worked and did good, and eventually my dad decided to make him the office manager.  At that point, one of the ladies who had been there for 40 years wasn’t going to work in the office, so he built her a separate office outside.  He didn’t know how to deal with it, so she had her own little area but everybody else stayed.  It turned out that this man that was the office manager, Bunny Stokes . . . turned out to be a president of a bank.  He was hired by [A.G.] Gaston, and Citizens Federal Bank was his bank.  He ran into Bunny.  My father said, ‘Good luck.  That’s quite an opportunity.’ He ended up being CEO [Chief Executive Officer) of that bank.”  14, 15


Martin Sher’s father, Morris Sher, came to Birmingham, Alabama with his parents and five brothers and sisters.  Morris’s parents came to the United States through Ellis Island in New York. The family came to Birmingham, to Martin’s best recollection, because Martin’s grandparents, Victor and Jenny Sher, knew a relative or somebody who had come there.  They lived on the Northside of Birmingham where a lot of other Jewish people lived.  They were very poor when they arrived.  Martin’s grandfather had an asthma condition and had to move to Arizona for a while for his health.  Martin’s grandmother couldn’t speak English and couldn’t work.  Martin’s recollection is that all the kids had to work to make ends meet. 

Morris Sher had a paper route as a young boy, and being entrepreneurial he conceived the idea of selling clothing to his customers.  He found a way to get jobbers to provide him clothes on credit, which he would in turn sell to customers on his paper route.  He eventually made enough money to purchase a car, married Martin’s mother, Sylvia Sher, in 1941 and opened a clothing store where customers could purchase the clothing on credit.  They created a jingle called ‘King Credit Don’t Care’ (meaning they don’t care how much money you have), which was so popular that older people still remember the jingle to this day.  The business was very successful.  Later they added appliances to their product line.

Morris Sher died at age 54, at the end of Martin’s freshman year in college. After his father’s death, Martin transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to be closer to his mother. His brother, David, had been in the business for about a year at the time of Morris’s death, and Martin went to Birmingham on weekends to help in the store.  David and Martin became business partners and changed it to a credit furniture store.  Due to a change in the tax laws in 1986, they changed their business model to a rent-to-own business and started a collection business, as well. They eventually sold the rent-to-own business and focused on the collection business, which today is called ‘AmSher Collection Agency.’

Martin met his wife, Debbie, at a party when he was 18 and she was 15.  They have three grown children, all of whom live in the Birmingham area.


Martin provides background on how his grandparents came to Birmingham, Alabama with Martin’s father and their five other children.  He describes the family business that his father, Morris, started and how it began with Morris peddling clothing to customers on his paper route, which he expanded to a store in downtown Birmingham which sold clothing on credit and then expanded to include appliances. 

Martin discusses his experiences working in the store as a child, as well as his exposure to a customer base that was almost entirely black and lower income.  He describes the further evolution of the business, when he and his brother, David, took over the business following their father’s death.  They turned it into a furniture store and later into a rent-to-own business, until they eventually sold it and focused exclusively on a debt collection agency they had started.

Martin describes some of his experiences during the turbulent 1950’s and 1960’s as they relate to the downtown location of their store, boycotts, the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and other turmoil in Birmingham.  He talks fondly of his family’s black live-in helper when he was growing up, how much he loved her, and how much she loved and cared about him.  He does not recall that they ever discussed what was happening with the civil rights issues.

Martin tells an important story about how his father made the decision, based on his mother’s recommendation, to hire a black man who had been a customer to work in the office of the store.  Despite opposition from some of the other office workers, Morris stuck to his decision, and that man went on to become the office manager and ultimately president of a bank.

Martin talks about how he met his wife and the strong influence of his parent’s insistence that he marry someone Jewish.  He also shares his sentiments about the close-knit Jewish community of Birmingham and how much he enjoys living there, as well as having not only his own grown children living there but other young people who are staying, as well.


16th Street Baptist Church—Bombing—Birmingham, Alabama

AmSher Collection Agency—Birmingham, Alabama

Bar mitzvah

Birmingham, Alabama

Blacks—Relations with Jews


Chattanooga, Tennessee


Civil rights movement

Clothing industry and trade


Crestline Elementary School—Birmingham, Alabama

Ellis Island

Fairmont Club—Birmingham, Alabama


Furniture industry and trade

Happy Rents—Birmingham, Alabama

Hebrew language—instruction and study

Hillcrest Club—Birmingham, Alabama


Jewish Community Center—Birmingham, Alabama

Jewish-Jewish relations

Jews, German

Jews—Relations with blacks


Judaism—Customs and practices

Judaism—Rites and ceremonies

Judaism, Conservative

Judaism, Orthodox

Judaism, Reform

King Credit

King, Martin Luther Jr.


Lions Club

Mesch, Abraham Rabbi

Mountain Brook (neighborhood)—Birmingham, Alabama

Mountain Brook High School—Birmingham, Alabama

National Clothing Company—Birmingham, Alabama

New York Clothing Company—Birmingham, Alabama

Northside (neighborhood)—Birmingham, Alabama

Paper routes

Religious education, Jewish

Rent to own trade

Royal, Arnold (Dr.)

Royal, Elaine


Sher, Deborah

Sher, Jenny

Sher, Martin

Sher, Morris

Sher, Sylvia

Sher, Robert

Sher, Victor

Sher, William

Shuttlesworth, Fred Reverend

Stokes, Bunny Jr.

Sunday schools

Temple Beth-El—Birmingham, Alabama

Temple Emanu-El—Birmingham, Alabama

University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, Alabama

University of Florida—Gainesville, Florida

Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA)

Ziff, Sidney





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