History

First light

It was the first night in our first home that Lori and I finally had a chance to sit down and read.

Lori saw it immediately.

"There we were in our new living room, in the house we'd stretched for, and there wasn't enough light so both Steve and I could read," she later wrote. "We started joking around, fighting for the seat next to Grandma's old dinosaur floor lamp. Then it dawned on us."

We looked around and saw that a revolution of sorts had just begun in lighting technology. At the time, though, few Americans were aware of this new type of bulb called halogen. It would be, we decided, an excellent source of lighting for serious readers.

And thus in 1987—thanks to a small, cozy, but poorly lit condominium in the Boston suburb of Belmont—the idea of Levenger saw its first light.

First thing we (finally) did right

New Yorker and first ad

Lori and I pooled our retirement funds, sold our first new car (a 1985 Mitsubishi Montero) and performed the archetypal rite of passage for startups: we headed for the garage.

But before we even did that, we knew we had to expand our sales beyond the lamp our hairdresser, probably out of pity, bought from us. What about those newspaper home magazines? Ads in those should be cheap. They were—and invisible. As our funds dwindled and a quiet panic mounted, we decided we'd try an ad in a different magazine: The New Yorker, with a one-inch ad and the line, "Serious Lighting for Serious Readers."

It was the inch that gave a mile.

It ran in the October 12, 1987 issue, which featured a young couple on the cover, huddled under an umbrella. That little ad was like a lightning bolt for us. Requests came raining in, and we sent our humble little catalog of lights out via first class mail. I have blessed The New Yorker and its readers ever since. And I toast them every year on my birthday—
October 12.

Tools for Serious Readers

New York Public Library Mini Table Lamp - LT0755 New York Public Library Mini Table Lamp

The first Levenger catalog was one sheet of paper, folded twice, printed in black and white, and featured halogen lights. The fulfillment center started out in our den, then moved to that garage (our neighbor's, actually). Our call center was the spare bedroom.

By the winter of 1989 we knew we needed to look for a proper business location. We considered Massachusetts, Maine and Maryland, all places where we had ties. But it was a cold March in the Northeast that year. My father was living in a quiet slice of sunshine in South Florida, and commercial real estate there was attractively priced. By that fall, Levenger was headquartered in Delray Beach, Florida.

And just what exactly was Levenger? We listened to what our customers told us they wanted. Good lighting. Bookcases. Well-made chairs and desks. Reading accessories.

H'mmm, accessories. What was a better word for that? Products…items…tools. Yes, that was it: Tools for Serious Readers. We still use that tagline today on our catalog cover.

Growing up, branching out

Shirt Pocket Briefcase - AL5945 Shirt Pocket Briefcase

By 1993, Inc. magazine ranked us number 8 among America’s fastest-growing, privately held companies. By 1995, we'd fulfilled our one-millionth order: for the slim version of our Shirt Pocket Briefcase, which we still offer today.

That same year, we launched our Professional & Corporate Sales division. It offers universities, Fortune 500 companies and other prestigious organizations the opportunity to put their logo on products of high quality—
a first impression with lasting appeal.

Mentors

We have been amazingly lucky to have had gracious, wise and inspiring mentors along the way. Leo Weiss of the MIT Enterprise Forum in Washington, D.C., inspired us into entrepreneurship. Master direct marketer Ric Leichtung helped us cut our teeth on direct mail.

Stanley Marcus, the other half of the storied Neiman name, helped us maintain a course of high quality. Mr. Stanley once told me that he didn't care how well we could sell them,
T-shirts did not belong in a Levenger catalog. He also told me that quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

Stanley Marcus Stanley Marcus

These three mentors have passed away. We owe them an impossibly huge debt that can only be partially paid by us helping other young entrepreneurs.

Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, advised us to "stay nervous," and taught us that retail is theater. And my father, Len Leveen, was far-thinking enough to pass on his entrepreneurial genes to his son. He gave us our first line of credit (which we paid off) and the adage, "Fast pay makes fast friends." (We have always prided ourselves on how we partner with our key suppliers—and pay our bills on time.) Today Levenger benefits from the wisdom of a small but diverse board of advisers, my father among them.

Advice I'm glad I never took

Most of the time I not only listen but hear when trusted staff, colleagues, friends and advisers offer suggestions on how to make Levenger more of what we're capable of being. And most of the time, I'm glad I do.

But every now and then it is good to turn an entrepreneurial deaf ear to the wise and caring. Here are three times I'm glad I did.

Levenger.com - 1996 Levenger.com - 1996

"Don't put your resources into the Internet."
Such advice sounds laughingly quaint now, but in the early days of the World Wide Web—when we actually called it that—there were many who thought dot-com could never hold its own with catalog.

We launched Levenger.com anyway, on July 31, 1996. Like most companies born and raised in the twentieth century, we're able to thrive in the twenty-first only because of the power and magic of the Web.

The Fantasia of Leonardo Da Vinci - RB1405 The Fantasia of Leonardo Da Vinci

"Don't try to publish your own books."
But why not, I wondered. Wasn't a book a treasured tool for serious readers? In September 1998 Levenger Press was born, a specialty imprint of uncommon books unfound anywhere but here. And it's because of Levenger Press that we've forged many of our Partnering for Good collaborations.

"Don't do bricks-and-mortar."
Yet how could we resist, when the venerable Marshal Field's of Chicago came calling in 2003, inviting us to be a store within its store? (Today that store is called Macy's .)

Levenger in 3D: our stores Levenger in 3D: our stores

We opened our first freestanding store in 2004, at The Shops of Prudential Center in downtown Boston—not far from that spare bedroom in Belmont where Lori and I first set up shop. Two years later, we were in Tysons Corner, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

Our stores have given us the chance to do something not possible on the Web or in the catalog: meet our customers face to face, handshake to handshake. What merchant doesn't love that?

The biggest mistake I'm glad I made

True Writer Kyoto Fountain Pen True Writer Kyoto Fountain Pen

Okay, I'll admit that I'm glad only because I was able to fix my goof. And it was a major one.

In 2005, I told our merchandising group to offer only our own brand of pen. At the time, Levenger sold more fine writing instruments from such sterling companies as Pelikan, Sailor, Parker, Waterman and Lamy than any other retailer.

But I wanted to build up our own brand of fine pens. After all, Levenger pens were available only from Levenger, and only we could continually improve their quality. That wasn't true of the other lines.

I still remember the customer who called me shortly after we pulled the pen plug. Being a lawyer, he was schooled in offering sage counsel. His advice to me: "You’re making a mistake."

The customer is always right.

We realized that customers came to Levenger not just for the pen but for the experience—the knowledgeable staff, the ease of ordering refills and finding the ones they wanted, the superb customer service.

Pen Outfitting

It's what we came to call Pen Outfitting, and to do this the right way for our customers, we needed to offer them all the brands we believed in, not just our own.

In 2009 I announced on my blog that "the quill is back." What I am forever grateful for are the customers who also came back to buy the pens they'd been missing.

But our interregnum did, in fact, give us the time and focus we needed to make Levenger-brand pens ever better, with more choices and some fantastic designs. Today we're proud to put the Levenger name in the same pen pantheon as Pelikan, Sailor, Parker, Waterman and Lamy. And delighted that we're outfitting our customers with the best pens the world has to offer.

History to be written

My father told us early on that if you're in business long enough, you'll run into hard times. He was right. We faced difficulties pushed on us, like recessions, and difficulties of our own making.

Soon after we began Levenger in the late 1980s, the halogen lights we started with became commodity items; had we stayed selling only lights, we wouldn't be here today. Today, as reading evolves from tree-books to e-books, we're selling fewer bookweights and PagePoints, but e-readers have opened up whole new opportunities in reading pillows, stands and bags.

Our first eBook, 2011 Our first eBook, 2011

What stays the same is our commitment to customers. We learned early on that a customer is more important than any transaction. We treat customers like friends, we tell the truth, watch out for them, protect them—not the company—and trust that they will continue to give us their trust in return. As we pass our first quarter-century mark, we look forward to continuing to surprise and delight the serious readers of the world.

Steve and Lori Leveen, Founders Steve Leveen
CEO and Co-founder