Humility and a Deal: The story behind the 99 Cents Only stores

He founded a retail empire that grew to be worth about $1.6 billion, but Dave Gold, the man behind the popular 99 Cents Only Stores, lived a simple life focused on kindness to others, friends and family told the Journal.

Gold, who died on April 22 at 80, at his home in Los Angeles’ Carthay Circle neighborhood, shunned the kind of flashy lifestyle that often accompanies wealth, those who knew him said. Instead, he drove an old car, wore inexpensive clothes, lived in the same middle-class house for nearly 50 years and cherished walks on the beach with his wife, Sherry, and attending his grandchildren’s sporting games. 

He died of an apparent heart attack, family members said. 

“He was the most humble person that you could ever imagine, but he was one of the wealthiest men in America. That was the most beautiful thing about him,” said Jose Gomez, who worked for Gold for more than three decades, starting as a store clerk and moving up to vice president of retail. “He always thought about everybody else except himself. … He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Born to Russian-immigrant parents in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 5, 1932, Gold grew up working at his parents’ general store. He moved to Los Angeles in 1945 with his family and attended Los Angeles High School and, briefly, Los Angeles City College. 

A late-blooming business tycoon, Gold opened the first 99 Cents Only Store in Los Angeles in 1982, when he was 50 years old. He’d been pondering the idea for about 20 years while running the family liquor store business in L.A.’s Grand Central Market, as well as a wholesale company, his son-in-law and former company CEO Eric Schiffer said. He’d noticed that items priced 99 cents flew off the shelves, but those priced 96 cents or a dollar didn’t sell so well, his son-in-law noted.

An avid bargain hunter, Gold had honed his talent for finding excellent deals on merchandise. From day one, the store was a huge success, his son Howard Gold recalled. People lined up outside to take advantage of 99 cent television sets and other bargains Gold had on offer.

“We were jam-packed every day. We had trouble keeping the shelves stocked,” the younger Gold said.

The bright, colorful stores selling everything from chewing gum to office supplies multiplied quickly, eventually growing to more than 300 stores across California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. In 1996, the City of Commerce-based company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. 

Always a champion of his employees, Gold insisted every worker receive stock options, including the cleaning staff and part-time store clerks. As a result, many employees were able to buy homes, Gold’s children said. The businessman liked to advise workers on how to best invest their money, and looked for good deals on houses for them, his daughter Karen Schiffer said.

Gold sold the company in 2011 to a private equity group, but the family continued to be involved with the business until earlier this year.

Throughout his life, Gold was good-humored and humble, and he never let success go to his head, friends and family said. He would tell people he worked for the 99 Cents Only Stores company, not that he was the CEO. He’d pick up trash in the parking lot, and he knew the names of his office cleaning staff and the warehouse workers, family said.

David and Sherry Gold, an inseparable couple, enjoyed shopping at the 99 Cents Only Stores themselves, and were regulars at the branches on Fairfax Avenue and Sixth Street, and on Wilshire Boulevard next to Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Gold would take 99 Cents Only Store coupons wherever he went and hand them out to people he met.

A proud and progressive-minded Jew, he believed strongly in helping those less fortunate, although he was not deeply religious, his daughter indicated. He supported many charities including the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, Jewish World Watch, the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen and the California Science Center, Karen Schiffer said. He and Sherry often served meals to the homeless at the Los Angeles Mission on Thanksgiving, Gomez recalled.

Linda Stillson, development director for Hadassah Southern California, said Gold was a very generous man. “He exemplified the word mensch. He thought he was ordinary, but he was extraordinary,” Stillson said. “Not often in one’s career or life do you get to meet people like David Gold.”

Gold also loved to carry out random acts of kindness in his everyday life, family members said. At restaurants, he’d leave huge tips for the busboy, whom he felt deserved greater recognition. When taking family pictures, he’d invite whoever was around to be part of the photograph, not wanting anyone to feel excluded, his son-in-law said. Throughout the years, he helped many people struggling with financial problems or wanting to send their children to college, his daughter said.

“He did things very quietly for a lot of people who would never be able to repay him in any way. He was never out to be recognized,” Karen Schiffer said.

Many recalled Gold’s sense of humor, which played out in his business with advertisements such as one congratulating television personality Joan Rivers on a “Happy 99th Facelift,” and another listing good choices (chocolate roses) and bad choices (a colon cleanse) for Valentine’s Day gifts.

Gold implemented rules such as opening stores 15 minutes before schedule and closing 15 minutes late so customers wouldn’t feel rushed. “He just thought about things in a different way,” Eric Schiffer said. “He’d come up with these solutions that were simple, but they were elegant.”

Gold is survived by his wife, three children — Karen Schiffer, Howard Gold
and Jeff Gold — and five grandchildren. Another daughter, Sheila, died of leukemia at age 27.

Snagging bargains for shalach manot

Falling between the giving season of Chanukah and the getting season of tax refunds, Purim time finds households like mine searching for ways to keep holiday expenses down to earth without losing the mirth.

What with the cost of fancy, professionally made kosher shalach manot (from “mishloach manot,” “sending of portions”) baskets going for 50 bucks and up, I wanted to find a less expensive way to share the joy with more people.

I wanted to make my own basket of goodies, but what were the basic requirements? I mean very basic. On Purim, according to Jewish law, you should send at least two food items to at least one person, both to ensure that they have food for a Purim feast and to promote friendship between Jews.

So what kind of friendship could I promote for, let’s say, 10 bucks or less? I wanted variety, abundance, novelty and kosher. I wondered, could I fill my basket at that purple island of bargains, the 99 Cents Only Store?

I really didn’t want to give a basket filled with clearance cookies, weird candy and obscure snacks. Yet since these stores promote themselves by saying “Shop us first … for everything,” with perfect Purim logic I reasoned why not shalach manot?

Admittedly I had my doubts. That is until while searching the Valentine’s Day chazerai for some kind of box to hold my discoveries—once they put out the Easter baskets, the pickings are easier—I saw a kippah-wearing man also eyeing the stuff.

“Do you ever shop in here for Purim?” I finally asked, desperately wanting a co-conspirator.

“Yes, for shalach manot they have all kinds of stuff, sometimes even close-out Jewish things,” he replied.

“There’s kosher apple juice, food, and you get so much more here. You found the right meshuginah,” he added, pointing me toward a red plastic container that he claimed was “holiday” looking.

As he gave me his phone number, in case I needed more details, I discovered he was a rabbi. I felt so relieved.

The rabbi was right. Walking the aisles, I easily found packages of nuts, cookies, candies and pretzels, all certified kosher. But that wasn’t enough; I also wanted a theme. The best Purim baskets have some clever connecting idea, like “A night at the movies,” the theme of a plastic movie popcorn box filled with candy and popping corn that my synagogue sent me one year.

I brainstormed for a minute, and after tossing aside a theme of Shushan nightlife (I didn’t want to give a basket of 99-cent booze), I settled on a more sober theme (or so I thought) of the Megillah’s four main characters.

An accompanying text would help explain my theme, but since a 99 Cents Only store is unlikely to carry a Megillah Esther, I would need to be flexible. Luckily, in the book aisle I found a soft cover King James version of the Bible that had the Book of Esther.

“Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus,” the text began. What could I find to represent the king, ruler of 127 provinces, and by royal decree the instigator of a search for “fair young virgins”? In the drink aisle I found a bluish plastic bottle of G2, Gatorade Perform, which the packaging said would “replenish vital nutrients and energy”—just the thing to represent an active ruler with a “second house” just for his women.

“Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai,” the text continued, going on to say “And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter …”

To represent Esther, I found a package of Hannah Montana Milk Chocolate Sticker coins. The Hannah Montana/Miley Stewart double life characterization (played by Miley Cyrus on the Disney show) reminded me of Esther’s double life as a secret Jewish maiden who is also Ahasuerus’ queen.

For Mordecai, who saves the king from an assassination plot, and ultimately emerges as victor in a power struggle with Haman, I thought some bling would show off his new status. In the candy aisle I found a package of Ring Pops, the “wearable candy.” I imagined the sunlight glinting off them as Mordecai sat by the gate.

But first he would need to escape the shadow of Haman.

“After these things did King Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite … And all the kings servants bowed and reverenced Haman … But Mordecai bowed not …”

For Haman, by tradition I needed something like a grogger to properly blot out his name. On the toy rack I found just the thing: a hand-shaped clapper that even had a large sticker that read “Make some Noise!”

Thinking about Haman always makes me hungry for hamantaschen. Suspecting that the 99 Cents Only Store would be short on three-cornered pastries, I searched the cookie aisle until I found a fill-in: Knott’s Berry Farms round raspberry shortbreads, each with a dollop of red showing in the center. I imagined if you trimmed them to a triangle, they would look close. I did say flexibility would be key.

Now to add the final touch to my shalach manot, and to fulfill the Purim tradition that one should drink on Purim until they don’t know the difference between Mordecai and Haman, I found an unlikely solution: Larry the Cable Guy Beer Bread. Just add Beer and Butter.”

According to Larry, who is featured on the package wearing his trademark sleeveless plaid shirt, “This recipe calls for a can of beer … just be sure to use the beer and not drink it!”

It’s Purim. Of course you can drink the beer. But my Purim basket will carry this warning: When you can’t tell the difference between Larry and Miley Cyrus, it’s time to stop.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at

A divided town, where the pursuit of bargains brings together Israelis and Palestinians

In these days of frozen peace negotiations, most Israelis and Palestinians have little contact. Palestinians need a special permit to enter Israel, and Israelis need army permission to enter the parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

In fact, just a mile north of this small West Bank town, a large yellow sign reminds drivers that “it is illegal to hand over cars for repair to the Palestinian Authority or to enter Palestinian areas.”

But in Barta’a, Israelis and Palestinians mix freely. The town is legally divided, with West Barta’a inside Israel and East Barta’a in the West Bank. But there’s no physical barrier between the two sides, and East Barta’a has developed a thriving market of hundreds of small stores selling everything from coffee sets to sheets to food to special teddy bears for Valentines Day.

“They have a good selection, and the prices are much cheaper,” said Sharon Ben Harosh, a 43-year-old Israeli Jew who frequently makes the four-hour trip from Eilat to buy textiles for his shop.

“There’s a feeling of authenticity here. I buy everything here—rugs, furniture, dishes, curtains,” he said. “I really feel at home here.”

Palestinian store owner Ali Hamarshi, 48, grins and nods his head.

“I bring things from many countries—China, Turkey, Italy, the Philipines, Vietnam,” Hamarshi said. “India and China make the best kitchen goods, and many Israelis come here to buy.”

His words are echoed by Yusuf Zahar-Din, 52, who came to Barta’a from the Israeli Druze village of Usfiyya with his wife Hediye.

“We changed the tires on our car, bought some gifts and had a great meal of lamb,” Zahar-Din said smiling. “The people here are so nice. I love coming here.”

He added that prices are 50-60 percent less than inside Israel.

But not everyone benefits equally from the throngs of Israelis driving into Barta’a, says Zidran Badran, the mayor of the Israeli section of Barta’a.

“The commerce is all over there, not here,” he said. “We just get all of the dust.”

Prices are higher in the Israeli section of Barta’a because store owners there have to pay higher taxes.

The shops line a narrow twisty road, and there is no designated parking lot. Badran says an estimated 80 percent of the shoppers are Arab citizens of Israel and 20 percent are Jewish Israelis.

“Before I knew about this place, I was really afraid to come,” said Ben Harosh. “Now that I know about it, I don’t want to leave. I don’t know anything about politics, but this is the way things should be.”

Most of the citizens of Barta’a are from one large clan, the Kabaha clan. On the Israeli side, there are almost 4,000 residents; on the Palestinian side, about 6,000.

From 1948 to 1967, East Barta’a was part of Jordan, and families here were divided. In 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, families were reunited; many families are mixed, with one spouse from Israeli Barta’a and the other from the Palestinian side.

Rafat Kabaha, the head of town schools on the Israeli side, says about one-third of the students come from the Palestinian side. If one parent is an Israeli citizen, the children can study in the local Israeli school even if they live on the Palestinian side.

Kabaha says 62 percent of the high school students receive a matriculation certificate, which enables them to attend university. That figure is almost double the overall rate of other Arab citizens of Israel.

“Both our teachers and our students live here in the village, and our teachers are very committed,” Kabaha says.

Barta’a is easy to reach—it is just a few minutes away from a major Israeli highway. Badran hopes that Israelis will continue to come but that Israeli Barta’a will develop as well.

“I have a dream,” he said. “I’d like to see people from all nations over the world coming here. In China they’ve already heard about Barta’a because we buy so many Chinese goods. We could even build a hotel here.”