Leon Levine, the founder of Family Dollar, a chain retailer that shaped the daily lives of the nation’s poor, died on April 5 at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He was 85.
His son, Howard, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
In 1959, with $3,000 of his own money and $3,000 from a partner, Mr. Levine opened the first Family Dollar on Central Avenue in Charlotte.
In 2015, a competitor, Dollar Tree, acquired Family Dollar for nearly $9 billion in cash and stocks. That year, Mr. Levine’s family fortune amounted to $1.4 billion, according to Forbes. Howard Levine, who in 2003 succeeded his father as chairman of Family Dollar, stepped down in 2016.
There are about 8,000 Family Dollar locations nationwide. By contrast, there were 3,572 Walmart “supercenters” in the United States as of the beginning of this year.
Family Dollar stores sell, at the cheapest possible prices, an encyclopedic array of domestic necessities and comforts, among them detergent, winter coats, party napkins, pet food, wireless speakers, rakes, strollers, wind chimes and 95-cent cans of Vienna sausage. The stores are relatively small, generally under 10,000 square feet, and locations across the country place the same merchandise in the same spots under the same fluorescent lighting.
From its early years, Mr. Levine’s stores have catered to poor people. He often told interviewers that he picked their locations by looking for oil stains in parking lots, which he thought signified the leaky cars of the poor.
He continued visiting one of his stores every other day until his 15th opened, in the 1960s. He was shocked when, in 1970, a New York brokerage company approached him about going public. He quickly did.
“I opened my first store with $6,000,” Mr. Levine told The New York Times in 2011. “For 10 years I didn’t come up for air; I had no idea how much money I had.”
By 1982, there were 500 Family Dollars. Two years later, there were 1,000. The chain expanded from the South to major metropolitan centers nationwide.
Mr. Levine retired from Family Dollar in 2003 and focused on philanthropy. By 2020, his nonprofit, the Leon Levy Foundation, had granted more than $300 million, with Mr. Levine funding antipoverty programs throughout the Carolinas, a cancer institute in Charlotte, an interdisciplinary science center at Duke University and a children’s museumin Rockingham, N.C.
The success of dollar stores has often been portrayed as something less than a happy tale of capitalism functioning well.
In 2011, an article in The New York Times Magazine proclaimed a new era, that of “the dollar store economy,” caused by “a new and eroding reality in American life.” As Howard Levine, then Family Dollar’s chief executive, told the magazine, although “not necessarily a good thing for our country, more and more people are living paycheck to paycheck,”
Some commentators have argued that dollar stores do not help address the ills of poverty so much as exacerbate them.
A 2018 report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit critical of corporate retailers, found that dollar stores harm the areas they serve by crowding out grocery stores while employing fewer people and offering less healthy food. Two years later, a New Yorker article focusing on Family Dollar argued that the stores lacked adequate staffing and security, inviting theft and sometimes violent crime.
Local governments in several places, including Cleveland and Oklahoma City, have responded to these issues by adopting measures to restrict the growth of dollar stores.
In an interview, Howard Levine said that the dollar-store industry had work to do on securing stores, but added: “What people don’t completely understand is the nature of our customer and the nature of our locations. We’re in some tough areas; we deal with some tough customers.”
He defended the goods Family Dollar chooses to sell; the company, he said, is attentive to what shoppers want. “We’ve tried to sell more healthy foods, so to speak, and our customer doesn’t buy that sort of stuff,” he said.
Some supporters of dollar stores emphasize their value in periods of inflation.
Leon Levine hoped his foundation could help the same people who had made his business a success and him a rich man.
“Leon realized his customers often lived on the margins and struggled to make ends meet,” his foundation website says, adding, “It is his hope that the foundation’s investments lead to greater economic mobility.”
Leon Levine was born on June 8, 1937, in Wadesboro, a small town in North Carolina. Like many Jews in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries, his parents, Harry and Minnie Levine, ran a general store, in their case in the nearby city of Rockingham.
Harry Levine died in 1949. A few years later, while still in his teens, Leon became the store’s executive vice president. He experimented early on with operating his own actual bargain basement, selling inexpensive items one flight down.
He later briefly attended the University of Miami and took classes at what is now Wingate University in North Carolina, but he never graduated.
Mr. Levine was inspired to open Family Dollar after visiting a chain of stores in Tennessee that sold items for under $1.
In 1958, he married Barbara Leven, whom he had met on a summer vacation in Florida. She died of breast cancer at the age of 27. A relatively brief second marriage ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Sandra Poliakoff.
In addition to his son, from his first marriage, he is survived by his wife; their daughter, Amy Dawson; a daughter from his first marriage, Lori Sklut; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another daughter from his first marriage, Mindy, died in 1987.
When he was in charge, Mr. Levine addressed the issue of crime at his stores personally.
He once walked into a Family Dollar and, finding that all the employees were in the stockroom, walked out with the cash register to teach them a lesson. On another occasion, to make a similar point, he bought a 20-gallon trash can for $1, filled it up with merchandise that he did not pay for and hauled it out of a store.
The next day, at a corporate meeting, he poured the contents of the trash can on a conference room table, he recalled in his 2011 interview with The Times. He then made an announcement to his colleagues: “Look what I got for a buck!”