One hundred years ago, you might have seen three Jewish boys biking from an 18-by-30 ft. shop on West Commerce Street to the mansions of King William, Monte Vista, and Alamo Heights. There, Ben, Max, and Sam, still adapting their Polish roots to Texas, would buy worn shoes and suits and ride them back to their father, Morris, who would repair their wares and sell them for double the price.
Today, Morris’ grandson, Mark, and three great-grandsons, Matt, Mitchell, and Max, can be found in the same shop on West Commerce Street. Though top-quality suits, Stacy Penner’s shoes, and custom guayaberas have replaced the original thrift items, and the building has expanded from Cameron Street to the San Pedro Creek in the face of flood and fire, the same passion for quality and customer service is still the heart and soul of the family business, a men’s retail store – Penner’s.
“I tell the boys, ‘Everyday you have to have the passion, you have to care, you have to think,'” said Mark Penner, 70, who’s been working in the store since before he was bar mitzvahed. “… Every store that’s been around that’s no longer around was bigger than us … How can good places go out of business? I guess the most important thing is when an owner loses passion.”
Speaking with Mark, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at Centro San Antonio’s Centropolitan Awards Thursday, that passion is undeniable. Having worked six days a week for the better part of his life, Mark is finally spending some time away from the store, taking over ordering at home, and leaving his son and nephews to take the reins like he once did. The adjustment, he said, is a challenge.
“Today I thought I should go help them with the 500 guayaberas – I feel a little guilty,” Mark laughed.
The family’s story is about far more than men’s retail. In conversations with the Penners, one can feel a palpable affection emerging from latticework trials and tragedies.
It began in the early 1900s when Morris left Poland to work in a shoe repair shop in New York City. He saved his money to bring his two oldest sons and, later, his wife, remaining son, and two daughters over to join him. Hoping to make a bigger name for themselves, the Penner’s ventured to San Antonio in 1916 to try their hand in the then competitive second-hand business.
After taking over the business in the 1930s, Morris’ three sons shifted the business to high-quality merchandise, opening a second store called Todd’s, which served a more upscale clientele. Over the next few decades, Penner’s expanded dramatically, absorbing the neighboring shops until their store occupied the entire building.
In the 1940s, Penner’s became one of the first businesses in the area to have “one price, no haggling” and offer in-house credit to buyers, a strategy that made products accessible to a broader market and increased brand loyalty as customers regularly came back to make payments.
“One of the biggest ways we grew was by trusting people,” Mark told the Rivard Report. “We had thousands of people who would bring their kids, and their kids would bring their kids, and you could stand there one Saturday, and they’d say, ‘Father, you opened my very first account.’ … Yeah, we took some losses, but it was very minor. There are more good people than bad people, I guess.”
That’s around the time when Mark and his identical twin Mickey, born in 1946, entered the picture. In 1954, their lives took a dramatic turn that only deepened the family’s connection to the business. On a family trip to Disneyland, their father Sam’s brand new Mercury spun out, injuring Mark and killing his mother.
“I never didn’t work in the store, because I didn’t have my mother, so my father and my brother and I were just very, very close,” Mark explained. “So I grew up literally in the business. Now, I’m trying to change my life a little.”
In the 1950s, the business zeroed in on a particular style in the Westside’s predominantly Mexican-American population, developing a custom tangerine Pachuco-style shoe in 1957 as part of a growing line of “Stacy Penner’s” shoes. A few decades later, Penner’s entered another niche market, shifting from standard polyester-based guayaberas made in China to 100% Irish linen shirts custom-made in Mexico, Colombia, and Panama. Today, the guayaberas are an international hit, selling in all 50 states as well as areas as wide-ranging as China, New Zealand, and much of Europe.
Mark and Mickey officially joined the family business in the 1970s. When an electrical fire burned the store to the ground eight years later, Penner’s quickly erected a new structure while serving customers from a space offered by Frost Bank.
Though Mark primarily managed Penner’s while Mickey took over Todd’s, the twins always remained close, training for marathons together for 14 years and calling each other every morning at 5:30 a.m. before they opened their shops. Finally, in 2002, they decided to sell Todd’s and focus their efforts on the original business.
But the Friday after the sale, Mickey didn’t pick up the phone for their 5:30 a.m. call, or when Mark called him again five minutes later.
“I just jumped in my car, drove over to Hill Country Village, and got in his house,” Mark said. “And he was in his bed, cold. Died in his sleep.”
The cause of death was unknown. The day before, Mickey had reported feeling ill from an intense workout in the heat, so Mark speculates it may have been dehydration.
“We really had good ideas and plans to be together,” Mark said. “He was passionate, I was passionate.”
At 92, their father, Sam, took the tragedy harder than anyone else.
“I had to tell my daddy about Mickey on that Friday afternoon,” Mark said. “And the following Thursday he died. He never spoke again. Just laid in his bed … He was more dedicated than me, and that’s pretty dedicated. He was the best, the best. He lived that business, and I did too.”
Today, Mark’s son, Matt, and Mickey’s sons, Mitchell and Max, continue the legacy. While the stress of running a department store never goes away, each new generation helps carry Penner’s forward. Just as Sam skeptically heard out Visa and MasterCard sales pitches when they first rolled out their credit cards, Matt eventually convinced Mark to open the business to internet shoppers in 1997. He now finds himself taking his father’s place as he watches his younger cousins innovate the business’ marketing through social media.
From the seven in-house tailors freely available to fit clothing to customers to the extreme lengths the family goes to in order to meet customers’ needs, Matt says it’s the original vision of world-class customer service that keeps the store vibrant, attracting national news coverage and celebrities like ZZ Top lead singer Billy Gibbons, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, and guitarist Carlos Santana.
The youngest family member in the business, Max, who takes his name from one of the original Penner boys, considers himself “very fortunate” to have learned from Mark’s decades of experience and incredible work ethic.
“I always thought it would be pretty special to continue the legacy and pass something on one day,” Max told the Rivard Report. “You know, it’s not every day you see a business, family-owned, that’s been here for 100 years.”
The very names of the fifth generation of Penners hints at a potential recipient of the Penner’s torch. Matt’s 9-year-old son has taken his great-grandfather’s name, Sam, while Mitchell’s newborn is named after his grandfather, Mickey.
Despite watching dozens of stores rise and fall around Penner’s, as malls and department stores have siphoned business to the suburbs, the family sees a promising future of continued growth ahead. Mark attributes some of this to the San Pedro Creek developments next door and other initiatives to revitalize the downtown area. But his optimism primarily boils down to his “three boys.”
“They’re young, they have passion, they take care of customers, they work hard,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can say. I pray for them. Nothing’s easy.”
Top image: (From left:) Max, Mitchell, and Matt Penner surround Mark Penner in a group photograph at Penner’s. Combined they have a total of 84 years experience working at the store. Photo by Scott Ball.