Opening a business is a risky endeavor and many small companies fold in a short time, falling victim to tough economic times and customers’ ever-changing demands.
But Saba’s Western Wear in downtown Chandler opened during the Great Depression and survived that and other economic challenges.
The iconic store, which salutes the spirit of the West, is thriving today as it celebrates 90 years in business.
Recently, the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership, held a ribbon-cutting at Saba’s Western Wear to mark the milestone.
The store offers boots, jeans, cowboy hats, belts and other apparel and goods traditionally worn or used by cowboys and ranchers.
Echoing tales of cowboys and dancing saloon girls in dusty towns, Saba’s colorful story is one of humble beginnings and consistently getting back in the saddle despite changes in the economy and business environment.
Lebanese immigrant David Saba Sr. opened the store on San Marcos Place in downtown Chandler in 1927.
Initially, it was a department store before he decided to focus exclusively on Western-style merchandise.
The store was moved to its much larger current spot at 67 W. Boston St., after David Saba Sr.’s son, David Jr., and wife Joan bought the building in 1972.
Over the years, Saba’s expanded throughout the Valley, and today, shoppers can find Western merchandise at six other family-owned stores.
Saba’s still sells to old-time ranchers and also is a hit with a new generation of locals and tourists who like to buy boots for dancing or Halloween costumes or take home a taste of Western life to other cities.
Taking over the business in the early 1950s was an exciting challenge that David Jr. remembers fondly.
“That was the greatest experience I ever had, jumping into a retail business I knew nothing about,” he said. “We catered to all the farmers and the ranchers and the people that picked cotton by hand. As Chandler grew and competition became great with shopping centers, we decided to go exclusive Western wear in the ‘70s. We have done nothing but grow and be prosperous.”
Joan said her family had owned a junior department store in Portland, Oregon, so that gave her and her husband an advantage in knowing how to operate Saba’s.
They are a long way from the tough times in the Great Depression, when the late David Sr. made only $375 in sales in August 1931.
In 1954, David Jr. remembers, cotton pickers would come to the store after their payday and spend $1 on work clothes. Chandler had about 5,000 residents back then – a fraction of its population of 255,000 people today.
“He said he never thought he could make it,” David Jr. said of his father. “It was a hard struggle to stay in business. He worked hard. He supported seven kids.”
He remembered how his father would buy a lamb for $3 from a local rancher every month to feed his family. Sometimes, David Sr. would trade with the rancher, giving him jeans in exchange for a lamb.
Joan remembered how small Chandler was in 1954.
“The downtown square was Chandler,” she said. “Ray Road was the farthest north that you would even think of going and Pecos Road was the farthest south anything went.”
David Jr. and Joan attribute their store’s longevity to treating customers well and focusing on quality merchandise.
“Our success has been quality merchandise,” David Jr. said. “We give the best service in the world and our merchandise is priced right.”
Western-style boots are a big attraction and take up much of the spacious Saba’s in Chandler. Shoppers can choose from more than 2,500 pairs of boots for men, women and children, including handmade Tony Lama and Lucchese cowboy boots.
Davey Saba, the son of David Jr. and Joan, is the Chandler store’s director, and he described Lucchese boots as like the Rolex watches of the boot world.
Children’s boots are popular for Halloween costumes, Easter and other holidays and come in different colors including pink, red, black and brown. Tourists love to get their hands on cowboy boots and they were especially popular among shoppers during the last Super Bowl in the Valley, Davey added.
Saba’s Chandler store manager Nell Huddleston, who has worked there 15 years, said cowboy boots are also popular among women, who buy them to go two-stepping or do other country-Western dances.
While Western apparel is not as popular as it used to be, it’s still in demand at Saba’s.
“We still have the older generation that wants their hats and boots,” Huddleston said. “The rodeo people are always looking for Western clothes. There’s some ranchers still.”
Saba’s in Chandler has many other long-time employees, including some who stayed with the company for 20 to 25 years before retiring, David Jr. said. Huddleston described the Sabas as “the greatest people to work with.”
David Jr. has remodeled the store three times since he and Joan bought the building, trying to create a Western atmosphere. Several pictures of actors who played cowboys in movies, including Tom Selleck and John Wayne hang on the wall in David Jr.’s office.
Belt buckles with the names of film and TV cowboy actors Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and Tex Ritter also adorn his wall.
Cowboy hats and jeans are also big sellers at Saba’s. Straw hats start at $19 and go up to about $80 and felt hats range from $50 to $500.
The well-liked Stetson and Resistol cowboy hats are quick to fly off the shelves into the hands of ranchers and city slickers channeling their cowboy personas.
Levi’s 501, Wrangler’s and Miss Me jeans to complete the Western outfits are also popular at Saba’s. Display cases reveal shiny belt buckles, watches and other jewelry.
Beyond the wide selection of quality Western wear, the store has a broader appeal, employees and others say.
“I love my customers,” Huddleston said. “I’ll have my regulars. They ask for me. It’s fun working here. We just joke and have fun here.”
A customer came in one time whom she remembered from a store she worked at in Tombstone over 20 years ago.
“He remembered me, too, and he still keeps coming here,” she said.
David Jr. said customers “love the service” Huddleston provides and customers still like to pull him out of his office to “wait on them.”
Terri Kimble, president/CEO of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, praised the Saba family for its longevity and contributions to the city.
“The Saba family has been committed to Chandler since 1927,” Kimble said. “Many of the Saba family members have served on charity and foundation boards including the Chandler Chamber, and the Chamber Community Foundation, which has graduated over 1,200 people in the Foundation’s Leadership Institute. Joan Saba was instrumental in developing the Foundations Scholarship Program for higher education. We are very fortunate that so many of the Valley’s charitable organizations have felt the generosity of the Saba family.”
Cheryl Tisland, co-owner of Burst of Butterflies Create & Paint Studio on West Boston Street, also tipped her hat to the Sabas.
“I think that it’s great that we have something in downtown Chandler that is a retail establishment because there seems to be a need I think for more retail in downtown Chandler,” Tisland said. “They have cute things for all ages; even if you’re not into Western wear.”
Tisland, who owns her store with her mother, Peggy Peters, serves on the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership Board of Directors, as does Davey Saba.
“I’m really excited that he’s so involved in the beautification in downtown Chandler and making it a destination for the masses to come,” Tisland said.
Financial advisor and owner of FORM Prosperity Wealth Advisors in Chandler, Jeremy McClymonds also praised the Sabas for their support of the city.
“As a former chairman of the Board of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, I have seen firsthand the incredible support the Saba family has given the Chamber and the Chandler community,” McClymonds said.
“Joan Saba has served on the Chamber Board and sits on our Community Foundation Board to this day, creating scholarship opportunities for Chandler’s college-bound students.”
Chandler associate broker and publisher of “Real Estate Agent Magazine-Phoenix Edition,” Lisa Schofield also sang Saba’s praises.
“Saba’s is synonymous with what you would expect in Arizona Western wear,” Schofield said, adding:
“As a member of the business community and a homeowner I applaud them for their longevity, especially during the recession. This means they have above-average quality in the products as well as their customer service. You must have both to survive the different markets.”