Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
“If you’re interested in department store history, buy his books.”
“A wonderfully affectionate look at the Market St. store whose name, for generations, was symbolic of Philly.”
Philadelphia Daily News
“The position of Official Historian of East Coast Department Stores is no longer available, now that author Michael J. Lisicky has followed up
Hutzlers: Where Baltimore Shops
Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle
Philadelphia City Paper
“[Lisicky’s books] revisit historic companies and the nation’s move away from the all-in-one shopping experience.”
Wilmington News Journal
“[Lisicky’s books] are beautifully written, obviously by someone who has an affinity for department stores.”
—Frederick N. Rasmussen,
“Equal parts history and nostalgia, complete with rare photos and recipes.”
—Donna M. Owens,
“To hear Mr. Lisicky talk, writing these books were simply his destiny.”
Baltimore Jewish Times
Published by The History Press
Charleston, SC 29403
Copyright © 2011 by Michael J. Lisicky
All rights reserved
First published 2011
e-book edition 2012
Manufactured in the United States
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lisicky, Michael J.
Gimbels has it! / Michael J. Lisicky.
Includes bibliographical references.
print ISBN 978-1-60949-307-3
1. Gimbel Brothers--History. 2. Department stores--Indiana--Vincennes--History. 3. Vincennes (Ind.)--History. I. Title.
: The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. It is offered without guarantee on the part of the author or The History Press. The author and The History Press disclaim all liability in connection with the use of this book.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever without prior written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
To Sandy: my wife, best friend, colleague, editor and anything else that I’ve forgotten to mention
I grew up in Indiana when it still had a single-class basketball tournament. With every school trying to win the same title, most televisions in the state were tuned to tourney coverage. Among the highlights of the final game was the presentation of what always was called “the coveted Trester Award” for mental attitude. Occasionally, it was mentioned that for decades the honor had been called the Jake Gimbel Award and was established by a man from the small and historic town of Vincennes.
When I was twelve, we went to New York for the World’s Fair of 1964–65. One day, my parents and I went shopping in Midtown and passed a store decorated with exotic statues for some promotion. Its name was spelled out in large letters on the front: G
. My father took a picture of it for our home movies. But it wasn’t the World’s Largest Store, so we passed it by. (Had I been looking closely at the fair program, I might have noticed that one of the organizers of the event itself was a Bernard Gimbel.)
I could never have made the connection between a giant store in Herald Square and an award for sportsmanship given each year in the field house of a small university near my home. What could Gimbels—the giant retail organization that owned Saks Fifth Avenue and had stores in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, as well as New York—have to do with some guy named Jake from out-of-the-way Vincennes, Indiana? Of course, come to think about it, why would a big chain have stores in only four cities—and why would one be Milwaukee?
We were a family that shopped at department stores and visited them in other cities, and as a somewhat strange child, I had my parents bring me out-of-town papers from a newsstand in downtown Indianapolis so I could copy the department stores’ logos and see exotic names such as Herpolsheimer’s, ZCMI and City of Paris. As I got older, I wanted to know why they were called that and how they had come to be dominant and defining characteristics of urban life. I started visiting libraries across Indiana to look at old city directories and newspapers and found that the story of department stores was broad and deep—not just a record of businesses started and buildings built but a tale of the growth of American cities, of new methods of distribution and retailing, of disruptive changes in transportation and advertising, of the redefining of women’s roles and the consumerization of society, of the growth (and decline) of the newspaper business in which I have spent my career. And there also were some great, and occasionally salacious, stories of the men and women who founded and led the businesses.
When I got to Vincennes, back in the 1970s, I found on Main Street the store of Gimbel-Bond Co., a descendant of the business founded by the peddler Adam Gimbel in 1842, when Vincennes was one of the largest cities in Indiana and the trading center for much of Illinois as well. While many of his descendants moved on quickly—Adam Gimbel had seven sons, most of them men on the make going north through Illinois to, yes, Milwaukee, and then Philadelphia, and then New York, opening Gimbel Bros. stores as they went—some Gimbels had remained in Vincennes. Among them was Jake, who had purchased the business at 202 Main Street long known as A. Gimbel & Son and reopened it as Gimbel, Haughton & Bond, from which he soon retired to distinguish himself as a philanthropist. Thus, there was a link between the Indiana basketball tournament and the New York World’s Fair, one I could scarcely have imagined.
Today, all the Gimbels stores are gone—like most of the department stores many of us remember. But we are fortunate in that we have Michael Lisicky to bring them back to life. I know a bit about department stores, but Michael is
expert. What he does not know is not worth knowing. How an orchestra musician from Baltimore has filled this role is a greater wonder than one would have seen in Gimbels’ windows around Christmas. Through his blog with Jan Whitaker, and his books on Hutzler Bros. in Baltimore and John Wanamaker in Philadelphia and New York, Michael has not only answered hundreds of questions about department stores but also reminded us of the love people had for “their store” that few have for today’s retail behemoths. And he’s also shown us the fascinating stories that can be found in what were, despite their size, family businesses with all the strengths and weaknesses that term implies.
So, return now to when the phrase “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?” was not a head-scratcher, when a popular-priced chain owned one of the world’s temples of fashion and when the descendants of a Bavarian immigrant with “a surplus of capital and a surplus of Gimbels” made the family’s name known throughout the world.
Assistant Managing Editor,
I had my own daily kids TV show on WABC TV in New York City long before I came to work for Mr. Dibley on
Cartoon Corners General Store
. In fact, I was the first local celebrity to have his own float in the New York Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In 1959, I auditioned for WCAU TV in Philadelphia, and soon after, I was on Saturday morning TV with a worm named Willie in a general store left over from a TV special. I believe that was in September, and by November, I was waving from my own float in the Gimbels Thanksgiving parade. Luckily, I was featured on the network portion, and my family in Cleveland, Ohio, saw me at holiday time.
Pixanne joined me several years later. I’m sure she remembers how cold it was even though she wore long underwear under her green pixie outfit. Often we’d invite fans to ride on the float with us. They’d be wearing their Sunday best. One girl I remember told me her mother had bought her a white rabbit fur coat to wear in the parade. “Don’t let anything happen to that coat,” her mother called out as our float took off. When we came to the spot where the network covered our float, on cue, I threw a handful of brightly colored confetti. It was raining, and the wind blew it right back in my face. As the camera cut to a close-up, I looked like a clown in shock. But worse, the little girl’s white rabbit fur coat was soaking wet, and as the confetti slid down, it became streaked with the colors of the rainbow. The girl thought it looked great, but I’m not sure if her mother felt the same way. Pixanne and I rode a float for twenty-some years, I believe.
When my favorite niece, Sheri, moved to Manhattan and asked me to help furnish her apartment, we went to Gimbels on Thirty-third and Broadway. It was about to close and was having a liquidation sale. Everything was marked down to disposal prices. Sheri, her mother, Ina, and I bought fabulous things—her bed, the kitchen table and chairs, a huge mirror, bureaus, a sofa, lamps, end tables, a large living room rug and a large decorated plaster head of an antelope. In a corner was a huge armoire with two doors, and it was covered in ugly wallpaper. But hidden underneath was a beautiful French breakfront. We bought everything she needed for less than $200, and Gimbels delivered it the next day!
Thank you, Gimbels, for making me a super hero on Thanksgiving Day and giving us such beautiful furniture for peanuts at your going-out-of-business sale.
And that’s why I’ll never forget Gimbels.
Host of the Philadelphia children’s show
also known as
The Gene London Show
I would like to thank the following people who helped me learn why “Nobody, but nobody undersells Gimbels”: David Sullivan, for his eloquent and humbling foreword; Gene London, for introductory words from a Philadelphia legend; Barbara Pizer, for helping me realize that the story of Gimbels needed to be documented; and Steve Daily and the staff of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, for meticulously caring for the country’s only remaining archive on Gimbels.
Gimbels belonged to four different cities, and I would like to thank the following people from each of those respective cities: N
—Barbara Gimbel; Leslie Gimbel; former mayor Ed Koch; Maureen O’Hara; Liz Smith; Julia Bentley of Saks Fifth Avenue; Cary Silverstein; Peter D’Ambrosio; Sarah Barmash; and the staff of the New-York Historical Society; P
—Dick Clark; Jane Norman; Stanley Abelson; Gerry Wilkinson; Diane Curley Balenti; Roseann Rubinstein; Bob Di Benedetto; John Caccese; Joel Spivak; Mercia Grassi; Mayor Michael Nutter, Jordan Schwartz and the office of the mayor of the city of Philadelphia; and the staff at the Temple University Urban Archives, Free Library of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Hagley Museum; P
—former mayor Sophie Masloff; Barbara Cloud; Audrey Roth; Kay Cushing Neuhausen; Denise Ayoob; Eric Salmons; the office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl; and the staff at the Heinz History Center and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; M
—Bud Selig, Gus Gnorski, Mayor Tom Barrett and Alexis Peterson; Barbara Markoff; Michael Hammack; Jim McCormack; and the staff at the Milwaukee Public Library and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A special thank-you goes to Richard Day in Vincennes, Indiana, and Mark Gimbel in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.