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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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The Commack, New York Saks–Thirty-fourth Street store opened in 1956. This small location became a Gimbels when the Saks–Thirty-fourth Street division folded in 1965.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Crowds gather at the opening of the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania Gimbels in May 1966.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The addition of the small Saks–Thirty-fourth Street stores into the Gimbels fold confused Gimbels’ image in the New York area. Bruce Gimbel was interested to see if Gimbels’ future was in smaller stores that were tailored to the specific market. “If customers come into our [former Saks–Thirty-fourth Street] stores and ask for the appliance or stamp department, we will start thinking about [building] expansion,” said Gimbel.
But the increase of business or interest never materialized. Gimbels was known as a large retailer that served the middle-class shopper. It was an all-purpose store and not a fashion store. The retail scene in New York was changing. Stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s were actively trading up, and others like Korvettes and Alexander’s were actively pursuing the budget-minded shopper. Former Abraham & Straus and Gimbel executive Cary Silverstein remembers:

If you look at the placement of Gimbels stores, such as in Valley Stream, they positioned themselves in the middle-class communities. Their strength was in “value pricing” and in name brands…Both A&S and Macy’s were moving away from their core customer, leaving more for Gimbels. The problem here was that the New York customer did not see Gimbels as a viable option. They were not perceived as a fashion store. That needed to change, and it did not

Silverstein continues by saying that Gimbels never had the same cache as either Macy’s or Bloomingdales. “Their position [Gimbels] in the New York market was always an afterthought to Macy’s in New York. It seems to me that they [Gimbels] never had a clear identity nor direction.” That wasn’t so much the case with Gimbels in Pittsburgh. In July 1965, Gimbels opened one of its more popular and profitable suburban locations at the South Hills Village Shopping Center—the country’s first two-level, three-anchor enclosed shopping mall.

Mary Scranton, wife of Governor William Scranton, cut a “daisy-entwined rope” and opened the King of Prussia store on May 2, 1966. She gave the crowd of seven hundred people “warm greetings on a cold day” from Governor Scranton. The King of Prussia Plaza store marked the fifth Gimbels store in the Philadelphia area. Chairman Bernard F. Gimbel also attended the opening, along with his son, President Bruce A. Gimbel. Bernard’s health had deteriorated since he underwent cancer surgery in 1965, and this was his last public appearance On September 30, 1966, Bernard Gimbel, one of America’s most renowned merchants, passed away at the age of eighty-one. Shortly before his death, Bernard Gimbel gave a statement to his associates, saying, “I would like to express my thanks to my associates and coworkers in appreciation for the pleasures and many outstanding opportunities our business has afforded me during these many years.”

Chairman Bernard Gimbel rides the escalator at the Thirty-third Street store in 1956.
Collection of the author

The New York Gimbels decorated as the “World’s Fairest Store” during the World’s Fair of 1964. Bernard Gimbel was a director of the celebration.
Collection of the author

Pittsburgh Press
acknowledged Bernard as someone who was “known for his foresight and readiness to adapt affairs of the firm to changing conditions in the economic and social world.” Gimbel was a champion and supporter of the New York World’s Fair exhibitions in 1939 and 1964. With that support, Gimbels brought tens of thousands of shoppers into the metropolitan area, and the company rightfully earned its title of “World’s Fairest Store.” Bernard asked that none of the stores be closed during his funeral. All Gimbels stores honored Bernard with a moment of silence at noon on the day of his funeral.

The following October, both Gimbels and Lit Brothers announced to Philadelphia’s Market Street East Redevelopment Authority that they wanted to replace their current structures with new buildings. The Gimbels building was a rambling collection of storefronts that were outdated. Chairman Stanley Abelson remembers, “It was too much space for the amount of volume that was being generated. The expense of running the place was just inefficient. The real estate was more valuable than the store.”
Although the store was in need of updating, it was still maintained. Manager Bob Di Benedetto says, “The old store wasn’t a pig sty. It was clean, but it certainly wasn’t sophisticated.” The Chestnut Street side of the store was home to a Saks Fifth Avenue branch that had been in business since April 1952. Saks kept a quiet profile at the location, had its own separate entrance and had no exterior sign. The Saks presence helped elevate Gimbels’ image in Center City, but the company ended its operations at the Center City Saks in 1967 as it prepared to move to its new store in Bala-Cynwyd. In January 1969, Leary’s Book Store, the legendary used bookstore, closed its doors on Ninth Street after 132 years in business. Gimbels, whose store surrounded the bookstore, was able to purchase the building but not the business. Leary’s owners were not interested in having its business be an ongoing concern. Its time had passed.

Former director Roseann Rubinstein says, “The old store [Gimbels] was not very attractive, but it looked better than Lits.” John Caccese remembers that, at the time, Gimbels always wanted to be a little better. Caccese says:

The Philadelphia store always wanted to move up a step and distance itself from Lit Brothers. When Wanamaker’s promoted its Tribout Shop, Gimbels opened “Showcase 5.” It was the best of the best from Europe. But Gimbels still did a $10 Dress Sale. Every April, there would be thousands of $10 dresses on the main floor

Even though the store, with its dirt basement floors, needed a massive renovation to remain competitive, it was several years before Gimbels relocated into a brand-new structure.

After forty-four years at the helm of Saks Fifth Avenue, Adam Gimbel retired on February 1, 1969. His wife, Sophie, left shortly afterward and closed her legendary custom dress salon. Saks Fifth Avenue was at a crossroads. The Saks stores contributed over 40 percent of all sales to the Gimbels organization, but they needed to attract a younger customer into its stores. Unfortunately, Adam Gimbel passed away later that year, leaving Bruce Gimbel as the only family member working in an executive capacity.

Other members of the Gimbel family drifted away from the business. They did not reinvest in the stores, and their stake in the company’s stock dropped. Competing retail businesses actively sought executive talent, while Gimbels tended to promote from within and did not aggressively recruit. Former A&S and Gimbels executive Cary Silverstein cites this as a fatal mistake. He adds:

A&S had the strongest executive training program, and Macy’s was just behind us. It was rare that an A&S executive would go to Macy’s or a Macy executive to A&S. There was just an understanding between us. If someone from A&S went to Gimbels, it was because there were no opportunities for them at A&S. You never saw a Gimbels executive actively being recruited

Silverstein continues by saying that the Gimbel family seemed to ignore the need to update the Thirty-third Street store and only invested enough money to keep it afloat.

Gimbels continued to open new department stores. A very successful and popular branch was opened in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville in May 1969. The Monroeville Mall store was advertised as a “complete new store of shops designed with you in mind.” (Monroeville Mall was the site of the filming of the movie
Dawn of the Dead
in 1978.) Later in 1969, a talking Christmas tree greeted shoppers at the new Gimbels at the Beaver Valley Mall, outside Pittsburgh. It was the first Pittsburgh-area Gimbels to be located outside of Allegheny County and billed itself as a “showplace of shops for everyone.”

The Monroeville Mall Gimbels in suburban Pittsburgh. The mall was the set for the 1978 movie
Dawn of the Dead. Collection of the author

But the biggest change occurred in the Milwaukee division. After several years of trading as Gimbels-Schusters, the company decided to drop the Schuster’s name. It also decided to drop the main old Schuster’s flagship store on Upper Third Street. The neighborhood around the store had changed, and Gimbels was criticized for “not running the store for a black neighborhood.” Others said, “Gimbels wasn’t catering to Negro people. They did retain a few East Side white shoppers, but they didn’t want to change their image.” Some said that the closing of the former Schuster’s store was more psychologically devastating than economically devastating. After eighty-six years of service, the Third Street store closed its doors on August 22, 1970.
The closing did not mark a retrenchment from the Milwaukee market. In the coming decade, the Milwaukee Gimbels division experienced the company’s largest growth spurt.

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