Martin Sneider turns real life experience into suspenseful novel about selling shoes in St. Louis


Martin Sneider.

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Father and son Max and Josh Feldman have a complicated relationship. Max is a loving father, ruthless businessman and Josh’s boss. The Feldmans are a Jewish St. Louis family with a successful shoe business known as Fratelli Massimo. They and the business also are completely made up, created in the fertile mind of St. Louis author Martin Sneider.

In mid-April, Sneider launched his new novel, “Shelf Life,” during a reading at Washington University, his alma mater. The book traces the rise and fall of the Feldmans’ shoe empire.

Sneider, who is Jewish, knows a thing or two about that industry. He started out in high school as a salesperson at Baker’s Shoes on Sixth Street in downtown St. Louis. He progressed in his career and eventually became CEO of Edison Brothers Stores, whose brands included Baker’s, J. Riggings, Jeans West, 5-7-9 Shops and Dave & Busters.

“Shelf Life” was published in April by Forefront Books, a division of Simon & Shuster. For Sneider, 80, completing the novel was “a dream come true.”

“I always felt that I could write,” he said. “It was around 2018, pre-COVID, and I said, ‘I want to write a book that tells the story of what happened to retailing in the last half of the 20th century.’ I had never read a book about that. I’d been teaching retailing for years. I wanted to make it about a family business and I wanted it to be a book that has a heavy proportion of interpersonal relations and tension that revolves around the business.”

The book also name-checks many familiar local institutions, such as the Parkmoor and Steak ’n Shake.

The Feldmans live in Clayton. It’s fiction, but there are many parallels to Sneider’s life. Protagonist Max Feldman was born in Omaha, Neb., as was Sneider. And of course, they both have an intimate knowledge of shoes and retailing.

“Shelf Life” is told from the point of view of Josh Feldman, the son and presumed heir of Max’s company. Asked how much of Josh is really Martin Sneider, the author said with a wink:

“Only the good parts. There are touches of me in Josh, there are touches of me in Max. Obviously, the family is fictitious. But the historical references to retail businesses really happened. That includes the rise of shopping malls, the role of the internet, and the big box stores like T.J. Maxx and others who have found other ways of doing business than being in a mall.”

The plot centers around a family, not unlike the fractious relationship between Logan Roy and his adult children in the hit HBO series “Succession.” Sneider avoided watching the show while writing “Shelf Life” so he wouldn’t be influenced by its characters. He did a considerable amount of rewriting before arriving at a final manuscript that passed muster with a major publisher.

“I wrote about 14 drafts,” he said. “I can show you a sheaf of rejection letters. I thought I had a good product. I sent a copy to Michael Levin (a New York Times bestselling author), and he loved the plot.

“He said, ‘I think this has potential — but boy, do you have work to do.’ He taught me about tension, the things in fiction that you want, like conflict. You want things unresolved for a while. The reader needs to wonder what’s going to happen.”

One reader of “Shelf Life” who is a fan of Sneider’s writing is Jerry Tullman, a member of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation. Tullman has also known Sneider for 60-plus years.

“I very much liked it,” said Tullman, 80. “I think it’s sensational. It’s a stunning intellectual accomplishment. I generally read nonfiction. Martin gave me and my wife, Gail, a copy, and we both started reading it independently and neither one of us could put it down.”

While fine-tuning the book, Sneider got expert editing assistance from Levin. Sneider also received coaching from his late wife, Jill Frank Sneider, a Henry James and Edith Wharton scholar.

“She would say, ‘Why does the reader care?’ ” Sneider said. “She’d write sweet notes like that off to the side. She really helped me transform what was a nonfiction book into fiction.”

Sneider previously wrote a nonfiction exploration of the shoe business in 2009. “TOAST: How a Leading Retailer Went From Toast of the Town to Just Plain Toast,” traces the rise and fall of Edison Brothers Shoes, including his tenure at the helm. At its peak, Edison Brothers had 3,000 stores and more than $1.5 billion in revenue.

After leaving the corporate world, Sneider was an adjunct professor of marketing at Olin Business School. At Washington University, those accomplishments led to his first novel.

“I was a freshman at Central High School in Omaha, and we had to do a 300-word theme on ‘The Yearling’ by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,” Sneider recalled. “The teacher asked me to see him after class. He said to me, ‘You’re going to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite this until you get it right because you’ve got the talent to be a much better writer than this.’ After five drafts, he said, ‘I never want to see a paper from you that isn’t written like this.’

“He saw something in me and he was merciless. My mother was a copy editor for the New York Times, so I had the advantage of indirect tutoring. I had the DNA, and I had people who read my stuff and weren’t afraid to say, ‘You can do better.’ ”

“Shelf Life” is available at Left Bank Books and online booksellers. Martin Sneider has already written three as yet unpublished sequels that will continue the Feldman family story.

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