Leo Finkelstein’s father came to Asheville, NC in 1903; Leo was born in 1905. “Kosher food and orthodox cooking was family tradition until my father died. I attended camp in Brevard and canoed on the French Broad to Arden. I left my lunch behind and ate the bacon and eggs with the rest – despite the Jewish rules. I used to take a car from the square to Biltmore and fish in the Swannanoa. The Asheville Power and Light ran an open air street car and rides cost 5 cents each way.”
“My father gave me a job in his pawn shop for 50 cents a week – out of this I was to save 25 cents. Because of the serial movie on Saturday, I did not work Saturday morning.”
Finkelstein was in the 1922 class of what is now Asheville High School. His high school principal called him into his office and said “You’re wasting tax payer’s money – go out and get a job!”
“When I graduated from high school I inspected watches for the railroad. Railroad workers’ watches could not vary over 30 seconds a week. They were purchased from my father’s store. There is only one person in the city who can work with wind-up watches today.”
He eventually took over the family business, and was successful during the Depression when other businesses failed. “We made smaller loans during the Depression but the same 80% of items were redeemed. Anything that had value and was portable was handled. I knew most of my customers and made about 100 loans a day – 50% black and 50% white. The most reliable were the prostitutes. A lady came to my shop to pawn something – she was drunk, offered me a drink and dropped dead.
“The customers had no credit and couldn’t borrow from the bank. They needed cash for doctor bills, to buy drugs, and to eat. My father gave loans on practically nothing. He gave $5.00 with no collateral to a man who bought a portable stove and chestnuts which he roasted. The man later opened a restaurant with two sections – one black, one white.”
Finkelstein was in charge of the Jewish Aid Society. “I gave a 50 cent meal ticket to Peterson’s on the Square and helped them leave town. There were no shelters. The Jewish Aid Society, later the Federated Charity, was run by women. A drive was put on every year. One man refused to give more than $5.00 and was finally induced to donate $500.00!”
Leo Finkelstein, 1905-1998