A small, wiry man with a tape measure draped around his neck peers out from a vintage photo. He seems to be watching over Rusty Richardson, sitting in his office chair inside the back of the store that still bears his name.
The man in the photo stands at an angle, his head turned to face the camera. His short wavy hair is receding and he is dressed in a white short-sleeve shirt, tie, and dark slacks. His left hand clutches a notepad, his right holds a pair of reading glasses and a pencil. His name is Bernard Weinstein and though he may appear to be a physically small man, he is undoubtedly revered today as a giant by Rusty and those who knew him personally.
Bernard Weinstein was born April 14, 1912. His background is sketchy but 1920 census records indicate his father Lazarus immigrated to America from Russia in 1903 and settled in Jasper or somewhere in Walker County. Bernard was the youngest of four children, three boys and one girl. The census lists Lazarus Weinstein as a widower, so it appears Bernard’s mother died sometime before he was eight.
He served as a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. Gerson May, who was a 2nd Lt. in the reserves, remembers him with great admiration and respect. “Whenever I would go to him, he would stop what he was doing, and he would always offer you the best advice that he could. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I followed it,” he says.
“Bernard was bigger than life to me,” Rusty says in his familiar baritone voice, each word dipped and thoroughly battered in respect and admiration. “He was Mr. Jasper. He was one of those characters in Jasper, in a good way. He genuinely loved people. He went out of his way to be nice to people. When that door opened, he wanted people to be acknowledged. Even if he was busy, he made sure they knew he was glad to see them, regardless of what he was doing.”
Mr. Weinstein’s love for people was not exclusive to any certain age. “Bernard loved young people,” Rusty says. “He opened up many charge accounts for young people to help their credit rating. Sure, he got beat on some but the majority paid in full.”
The store was originally called R. Green General Mercantile until 1949, when it was purchased by Mr. Weinstein. Rusty says the reason Bernard’s became so successful was very simple. “He believed in customer service to the nth degree. He always carried the top brands, the highest quality, he offered free alterations, gift wrapping, in-town delivery, and he stood behind his merchandise. If you were unhappy with it, or if it wore out too soon, he would make it up. He built a good business by doing that.”
Rusty began his career with Bernard’s at the age of sixteen. “I was the most fortunate guy in the world,” he nods. “Through the co-op program at Walker High School I was able to get an interview and then a job. That was in July of 1974.” He shakes his head slowly, as if reflecting on the time that has elapsed. Rusty graduated from UAB in 1980 with a degree in marketing and was promoted to store manager. But the road to success suddenly veered sharply to the left when Mr. Weinstein died suddenly that July and the business was sold to Chuck Hockenberry.
Rusty continued working as manager until 1988 when he became the owner. He leans back in his office chair, one leg crossed, framed black and white images of prominent business leaders hanging on the walls around him, and says in that casual, distinctive southern gentleman’s voice: “We’ve been blessed to carry on the Bernard’s tradition of personal customer service. He valued his friends and customers. We have some of his loyal customers who still shop here. He wanted it to be a down-home store and we’ve tried to maintain that standard. Sure, he wanted to sell you something, but he would offer you a Coke or a cup of coffee, anything he could do to make you feel comfortable.”
One bit of wisdom that Mr. Weinstein imparted to his young protege has been etched into his brain cells so vividly that it has become ingrained into his DNA. “He told me, ‘Rusty, whatever you do, don’t ever make a first impression. Do your best to treat everyone nice and kind, and all the rest will take care of itself. Treat everybody the best you possibly can.”
If you know Rusty Richardson, you know that’s exactly what he does every day. 78
Cover photo by Blakeney Cox