Steve Fishman's tough-guy persona belies a big heart

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There's no Most Intimidating Business Owner award at the local chamber of commerce. If there was, the hands-down winner would be found sitting in a rocking chair at Sidney's Department Store.

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Steve Fishman, the owner and president of Sidney's Department Store, helps a customer at the store on Broad Street. The store was opened by Mr. Fishman's ancestors Jacob and Rosa Sawilosky in 1894.  Chris Thelen/Staff
Chris Thelen/Staff
Steve Fishman, the owner and president of Sidney's Department Store, helps a customer at the store on Broad Street. The store was opened by Mr. Fishman's ancestors Jacob and Rosa Sawilosky in 1894.

The man in the chair, surrounded by guns and knives, is Steve Fishman.

At 6-foot-1 inch and 240 pounds, he has the physique of the cartoon ogre Shrek, with the bald head to match. His two degrees, a seventh-degree black belt in the U.S. Tai Karate Association and a juris doctorate from John Marshall Law School, tell you his mind is as quick as his fist.

The fourth-generation shopkeeper, who has worked as a reserve police officer for more than 20 years, is armed every waking hour with at least one pistol. The fanny pack he keeps on his waist usually contains a beautifully engraved Beretta 92 subcompact 9 mm.

To say he knows how to use it is an understatement.

As a former member of the Army Special Forces - more commonly known as the Green Berets - he is a trained killer.

The 56-year-old Mr. Fishman belonged to units that purportedly ran clandestine operations during the Vietnam War. The walls of his store, which has evolved from a family clothing store into one of the Southeast's most revered gun and knife shops, is covered with Special Forces mementos, insignias and photos.

Don't expect Mr. Fishman to talk at length about what he did, or didn't, do while working for Uncle Sam. The ordinarily calm and jovial merchant bristles when pressed for details on the matter.

"We don't discuss that," he said. "OK? We don't discuss that."

Tough guy

Mr. Fishman has many friends. One of them, Jerry Ahern, of Jefferson, Ga., is a firearms entrepreneur and author who is best known for writing The Survivalist, a post-apocalyptic series of pulp novels during the 1980s and 1990s.

The series, 29 books in all, salaciously describe the weapons used by protagonist John Thomas Rourke to fight off a seemingly unending supply of bad guys - think of a Harlequin Romance for firearms fanatics.

All names in the books, as the disclaimer says, are fictional and not intended to represent actual people either living or dead - except for Mr. Fishman.

In two of The Survivalist books, No. 24, Blood Assassins and No. 27, Death Watch, Mr. Fishman appears as Mr. Rourke's old buddy and owner of Sidney's Department Store in Augusta. The Mr. Fishman in the books carries a custom-engraved Beretta 92, just like the one the real Mr. Fishman carries.

Though Mr. Fishman has never done any of the things described in those books, such as gunning down mobsters near Savannah, Ga., it seems plausible when you spot the mock magazine cover of him dressed as a mercenary on the wall next to the assault rifles.

The tough-guy persona is what many people see when they meet Mr. Fishman - a big, burly, slightly off-kilter gun nut.

They don't see a man who is one of the city's most prolific blood donors, despite a child-like fear of needles. They don't see the past president of the Augusta Humane Society, who was so distraught over losing his German shepherd, Kiddo, six years ago that he hasn't owned another dog since.

They don't see the happily married man whose wife, Cathy, a teacher, writes children's books.

"He's really a romantic," said Ms. Fishman, who married him just six months after meeting him at a Jewish singles event in 1981. "You wouldn't know that by seeing him at the gun store."

Most people also do not see in Mr. Fishman a man that has reared two children, Alexander, 24, and Brittany, 19, whose stellar academic records earned them full-ride scholarships to top colleges.

To know all of that requires looking past the macho exterior.

Getting to know you

Gary Thadden, the owner of Oregon-based Al Mar Knives, is part of a small group that make up Mr. Fishman's closest circle of friends, some of whom include former Special Forces alumni who declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Thadden met Mr. Fishman during the mid-1980s, when he was a sales representative for major firearms companies.

"A 'piece of work,' that's how I'd describe him," Mr. Thadden says with a laugh. "Steve is a character. He's borderline eccentric."

Mr. Fishman does not relax in the traditional sense. When he's not at work - he spends 90-100 hours a week at the store - he's reading, hunting or skeet shooting. Whatever he does, he does with intensity. That has a tendency to rub some people the wrong way.

"He kind of comes off as maybe a little abrasive," said North Augusta business owner Frank Beall, whom Mr. Fishman choked the first time they met.

Mr. Beall recalled the day Mr. Fishman walked in on his karate class several years ago.

"We were practicing choke holds and he came up to us and said, 'That's not how you choke someone, this is how you choke someone.' Then he grabbed me and picked me up off the ground. That was my first introduction," he said.

Mr. Beall, who went on to open his own karate school, Frank Beall's U.S. Tai Karate, now considers Mr. Fishman a mentor.

"I knew people who didn't like him at all, but they didn't get to know him," Mr. Beall said.

Bleeding heart

Mr. Fishman is well known to the staff at Shepeard Community Blood Center, where he can be found donating blood every eight weeks like clockwork.

"Every time he comes here he has a smile on his face and a new joke to crack," said Pamela Rascon, the center's director of community resources. "He goes out of his way to make everyone smile."

Mr. Fishman began giving blood in 1975 and has steadily increased his frequency. So far he's up to 177 units, or 22 gallons, which means, in blood bank parlance, that he has saved nearly 600 lives.

Mr. Fishman's work with the Augusta Humane Society, of which he is a past president and current chief financial officer, has enabled it to spay or neuter more than 20,000 animals and helped save thousands more through adoption.

It's his behind-the-scenes charity work, however, that has the most impact on people's lives. Mr. Ahern, the author, recalled a "very typical story" of Mr. Fishman's taking care of an older employee who could no longer work at the family store.

"She couldn't work very much, but she still needed an income," Mr. Ahern said. "Steve would drive out to her house a couple of times a week, drive her to his house so she could iron some shirts for him. Then he would take her back home.

"It wasn't that he needed his shirts ironed - he usually doesn't wear shirts that need ironed," he said. "He wanted to make sure she would have a check."

Larry Flanagan, who knows Mr. Fishman through his service work as a Mason (Mr. Fishman is a member of the Webb Lodge No. 166), said Mr. Fishman's good deeds aren't designed to boost his business or stroke his ego.

"Steve doesn't brag on the stuff he does," Mr. Flanagan said. "He doesn't go around strutting his stuff."

Mr. Fishman's philanthropic side was inherited mostly from his mother, Hannah, who was born on the second floor of the dry goods store that her parents, Alton and Sarah Gillman, owned at 558 Broad St. The property was merged with the dress shop that was started by her future husband, Sidney Fishman, at 554 Broad, to create present day Sidney's Department Store.

In her younger years, Ms. Gillman was a teacher at Joseph R. Lamar Elementary School who often was chastised by her father for taking shoes from the store to give to her barefoot pupils. In her later years, she was a fixture at the store, holding court in the rocking chair that her son calls the "best seat in the house."

She was the second-grade teacher of Richmond County sheriff's Lt. John E. Whittle.

"She was just one of the sweetest ladies I think I've ever known," said Lt. Whittle, 74. "You don't remember all of the teachers you had in school, especially when you get to be my age, but she is one that will always stand out in my memory."

Always armed

Mr. Fishman would be the typical community do-gooder except that the typical community do-gooder isn't packing heat. The shopkeeper, who holds varying degrees of concealed weapons permits, carries a pistol the way many people carry a handkerchief or a keychain pocketknife.

"I don't think he carries a gun in the shower," Mr. Thadden said. "At least, while he's in this country."

Mr. Fishman's penchant for sidearms poses a problem for his daughter, Brittany, a Vanderbilt University sophomore who says she has yet to bring a boyfriend home to meet her father, but it isn't a concern among local law enforcement officers, who are among his best customers.

Everyone else, Mr. Fishman disarms with humor.

"I was eating at Sixth (at) Watkins once when this lady at the table next to me leans over and whispers, 'Why are you wearing that gun?'" he said. "I whispered back, 'Because it makes the waiter nervous if I lay it on the table.'"

Such zingers flow freely from his lips because he has answered such questions most of his adult life.

Do you always carry a gun?

"No, sometimes I carry two or three."

What do you think of gun control?

"You cannot legislate against criminal behavior, because criminal behavior by its definition violates the same laws."

Mr. Fishman said the main reason he carries a gun is to protect his shop.

"I don't have any paranoid tendencies," he said. "But my gun shop is the only one in Augusta that's never been burglarized."

Even if he weren't a firearms merchant, Mr. Fishman - whose contributions to the National Rifle Association have earned him "benefactor" status, the organization's highest level of monetary contributions - would still carry a gun, he said.

"Self-defense is a wonderful concept," he said.

There's an expectation that Mr. Fishman, being of Jewish faith, will someday make a pilgrimage to Israel. What's kept him from the Holy Land so far is that he hasn't found a way to take his pistol with him. He has been in contact with the Israeli government to discuss his options. His preference is to have his pistol shipped there and picked up from authorities on arrival.

"El Al won't let guns on the plane," he said, referring to the Israeli state-owned airline.

Legacy of service

Mr. Fishman's business acumen and affinity for community and military service can be attributed mostly to his father, a native New Yorker, stationed at Fort Gordon during World War II. Sidney Fishman met Hannah Gillman in 1945 at a USO function, and theey were married the following year.

They had four children, Jack (a retired Treasury agent who is now a tax attorney in Atlanta), Florence (who lives in Augusta and is married to dentist Albert Rabin), Steve and Judy (who lives in Atlanta).

Sidney Fishman took over the family Broad Street stores when his wife's father, Alton Gillman, retired in 1966.

When middle child Jack decided to leave college to enroll in the Army at the height of the Vietnam War, there was no protest from his father, an active Scoutmaster who would routinely invite Fort Gordon GIs over to the family home for dinner.

"We never blamed the GI for the actions of the politicians," said Jack, who left the Army in 1969 with an Army Commendation Valor Device, a combat medal one level below a Bronze Star.

Sidney Fishman didn't protest when his youngest son enlisted and joined the Special Forces in 1971, though Steve Fishman acknowledges that his father didn't know all it entailed.

"I thought it would be neat," Steve Fishman said. "I thought I would have a lot of adventures."

In all likelihood, he did, though he declines to talk about them.

His service with the 1st Special Forces Group, an airborne unit, had him based out of Okinawa, Japan. He says he never set foot in Vietnam.

"I did not do anything. I did not go anywhere. I was not a hero," he said.

Whatever Mr. Fishman did, or didn't, do in the name of God and country earned him no medals. His active service ended with a medical discharge in 1974 for a severe leg injury that, after 30 years and four surgeries, still causes him a great deal of pain.

"I walked with a cane for 2 years," he said.

How did it happen? He won't talk about that, either.

"I had a bad day," he said. "Just put down that it was a parachuting accident. Is that good enough?"

Growth, collapse

Sidney's Department Store enjoyed its most prosperous era once Mr. Fishman joined the business in the late 1970s after deciding not to pursue a career as a lawyer.

The company secured several lucrative government contracts to provide uniforms to local public safety and police agencies such as Savannah River Site during the 1980s.

Moving into the gun business was the next logical step, and Mr. Fishman's encyclopedic knowledge of firearms and tactical experience garnered the store a national reputation.

"His depth of knowledge is astounding, scary." Mr. Thadden said. "You could call up a lot of these different gun companies and their upper management all know Steve."

The business, and Mr. Fishman's personal life, took a turn for the worse May 18, 1994, when the store literally collapsed.

A contractor the Fishmans hired to dig footings for a future warehouse next to the store weakened the east wall, causing it to collapse inward causing more than $830,000 in losses.

"You wouldn't believe the number of people who stopped what they were doing and showed up to help him secure the area," longtime family attorney Ed Stalnaker said. "That shows you the type of friends he has."

Rebuilding the section cost $430,000 and the disruption caused the business to lose several key uniform contracts. Mr. Fishman said the company has never regained the level of sales it had before the accident and that it took years of legal wrangling to extract a partial settlement from four insurance companies.

"Five years, one month, 10 days, but who's counting?" Mr. Fishman said.

The real tragedy of the accident might have been its effect on Sidney Fishman.

Mr. Fishman said he believes his father, who narrowly missed being hit by the falling wall, suffered a mild stroke during the accident.

He died the next year.

"There is no doubt in my mind, it was his downfall," Mr. Fishman said. "I'm convinced to this day that is what killed him."

His mother died in 2001.

Fifth generation

Mr. Fishman never misses an opportunity to sing the praises of Brittany and Alexander, a high school math and physics teacher in Greensboro, N.C.

Alexander Fishman said that his father would often hang out with he and his high school buddies, taking them out to restaurants so they could play in trivia contests.

"All my friends called him Big Steve," he said.

The Fishmans are proud that, in an age when daily pressures pull many families apart, they were able to enjoy a traditional family experience.

"We've always done everything as a family," said Cathy Fishman, who was a stay-at-home mom until the children were in their late teen years. "We had dinner together every night. We would wait until (Steve) got home, even if that meant having dinner late."

The Fishman children grew up working in the family business, as Mr. Fishman and his brother did in the 1950s and 1960s, but they most likely won't be taking over the store when he decides to retire.

That means the family business bloodline that began with Jacob and Rosa Sawilosky in 1894 would end with Mr. Fishman.

He points out that, with the exception of himself, the business has historically been picked up by the husband of the oldest daughter, so there's still hope.

Mr. Fishman said he has no immediate plans to retire but he someday sees himself moving the store to a smaller location.

Until that happens, he can be found sitting in his mother's rocking chair, surrounded by guns and knives and looking intimidating to everyone but the people who know him well.

"He can eat cans and poop barbed wire," longtime friend and part-time employee Steve Meldrum said. "But he's the biggest teddy bear in the world."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

THE VITALS

Name: Marc Steven Fishman


Born: May 8, 1951, Augusta


Title: Owner/president. Sidney's Department Store & Uniforms Inc.


Education: Attended the University of Georgia; John Marshall Law School, luris doctorate, 1977


Family: Wife, Cathy; children Alexander, 24, and Brittany, 19


Church: Adas Yeshurun Synagogue


Civic: CEO of Augusta Humane Society; Shepeard Community Blood Center volunteer; master Mason, Webb Lodge No. 166; Shriner, Alee Temple Legion of Honor


Hobbies: Firearms, reading, movies, martial arts

Comments (3) Add comment
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CalvinCool
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CalvinCool 06/01/07 - 07:58 pm
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A great article about a great

A great article about a great guy! In 25 years of personal and professional (his and mine) dealings with Steve, I have found him to be the most honest, honourable, entertaining, kindest and big-hearted fellow it has been my pleasure to know.
Although I no longer reside in the CSRA, many of my best memories of my time in Augusta involve Sydney's- visiting with Steve, his Mom and Dad and Uncle Stanley (an individual whom I still consider to brighter than most of the Nobel Prize winners from the past decade or so), creating 'furniture' out of cases of ammunition, swapping stories and jokes and oftimes laughing so hard that my ribs would hurt.
In times of indecision, I still seek his advice. Augusta is fortunate to have such a wonderful humanitarian who has given (and continues to give) so much to the community and I'm glad that someone recognized Steve as such.
In a world of washed out 'plastic people' Steve stands out & is proudly continuing in the traditions of our friendly and vibrant past.
L'chai-im, Bubba!!

erica_aronson
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erica_aronson 06/01/07 - 09:44 pm
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I have known Uncle Steve all

I have known Uncle Steve all my life. He is a true and compassionate man. Once you meet Uncle Steve, you will always have a part in your heart. If you ever need him for something, no matter what it is or what time it is, Uncle Steve will be there for you.

Brad Owens
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Brad Owens 06/02/07 - 03:49 pm
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This article is so dead on.

This article is so dead on. Steve is a great guy and an asset to our community. I have known him most of my life and consider him both a freind and mentor. If there were more men like him in the World it would be a much better, and safer, place.

AIRBORNE ALL THE WAY!

SSG Bradley E. Owens
1/20th Special Forces Group (Airborne)

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