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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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In 1969, New York president Bernard Zients acknowledged the company’s image struggles. He noted the company’s lackluster financial performance over the past several years and questioned its proportional share of the market. But he still felt that Gimbels offered “the kind of goods that the customers wanted to find.” Gimbels commissioned a marketing study to examine locations for building new stores in the New York area that would target the right customer and improve overall image. The study recommended building new stores in Rego Park in Queens and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Bruce Gimbel decided against the recommendation and chose to invest in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Third Street Gimbels-Schusters store in Milwaukee began its closing sale in August 1970.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society


The Eighty-sixth Street store was awful. It wasn’t well designed and it didn’t have that nice old feeling that the other store had. It just didn’t have personality

—Leslie Gimbel, granddaughter of Bernard F. Gimbel

On August 4, 1966, Gimbels was approached by General Property Corp. to build a new store at Eighty-sixth Street and Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was an opportunity that excited Bruce Gimbel. Gimbel saw this area as “the richest suburb in the world.” He hoped to tap into Bloomingdale’s high-end customer base. The new Eighty-sixth Street store couldn’t be “plain old Gimbels.” It had to be something new and fashion forward, and it wasn’t meant to replace the Thirty-third Street store. In order to set its image apart from the rest of the chain, the Eighty-sixth Street store was called “Gimbels East.”

Gimbels East was originally designed to be an eight-story building situated on an awkward L-shaped lot. It would be located in one of New York’s most popular German neighborhoods, where delicatessens and Bavarian restaurants lined the streets. The neighborhood neither wanted nor needed the department store, but in 1968, Bruce Gimbel paid $5 million to build his dream store.

Over the next five and a half years, neighborhood leaders challenged the zoning laws and activist groups protested the lack of minority workers hired for the construction of the store. Construction delays hampered the timetable for completion. In order to accommodate an anticipated increased flow of foot traffic, improvements to the local subway station near the store were agreed upon. During those five and a half years, Gimbels decided to almost double the size of the store, and the eight-story height grew to fourteen windowless stories made of white marble and black slate. Gimbels East was the company’s largest branch store, both in size and cost.

The Gimbels East store on Eighty-sixth Street in New York’s Upper East Side.
Collection of the author

A fashion salon and pianist were featured in the new Gimbels East store on Eighty-sixth Street.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

On February 24, 1972, Mary Harrison Lindsay, wife of Mayor John V. Lindsay, cut the ribbon and made the first purchase at Gimbels East. Once she acquired a ten-dollar silk tie for her husband, the store was officially opened for business.
Unlike the Thirty-third Street store, Gimbels East was set up as a series of small shops and boutiques. The business also offered extra amenities, such as a party-planning department, epicure shop and an expanded interior decorating service. The store featured a rooftop restaurant and cocktail lounge. It was the only department store in New York City that served liquor other than the Gertz store in Jamaica.
And fashions from designers like Dior, Guy Laroche, Betsey Johnson, Halston and Oscar de la Renta proved that this store was definitely not “plain old Gimbels.” Gimbels East also included a Basement Store with high-end merchandise that drew customers to the new department store.

A promotional sign for the opening of the Eighty-sixth Street store.
Collection of the author

Bruce Gimbel told the
New York Times
, “If you believe this city’s going to hell in a hat, then we’re making a big mistake.” Gimbels East was the culmination of a trading-up policy that the company initiated in 1971. Bruce was happy to view and serve the wealthy neighborhoods that were within walking distance of the Eighty-sixth Street store. Less time was spent wooing the black and Puerto Rican residents who also lived within easy reach of the business.

Gimbels East was designed to provide an entirely different type of shopping experience than that of the Thirty-third Street store. Gimbels East had a buying and merchandising staff that was separate from the rest of the Gimbels corporation. The store’s initial customer response was overwhelming, and sales exceeded expectations. It seemed that it would easily meet its $30 million a year sales goal, even though the Thirty-third Street was ringing up annual sales of $84 million. Although the merchandise carried at Eighty-sixth Street was more upscale than that at the Thirty-third Street store, many people felt that Gimbels East never went far enough to cater to an upper-end clientele. Barbara Gimbel feels that Gimbels East was unable to effectively compete with nearby Bloomingdale’s. Gimbel says, “I don’t think that the Eighty-sixth Street store was aggressively merchandised for a different audience. The Eighty-sixth Street store had a fashion department that the Thirty-third Street store didn’t have. I just think that the Eighty-sixth Street store should have been merchandised more high end.”

Former A&S and Gimbels Midwest executive Cary Silverstein also feels that Gimbels East was an upgrade from Thirty-third Street but it just didn’t go far enough. “There was never any excitement at Gimbels until they went uptown. Their strategy was to flank both Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and be in the heart of the fastest-growing area of New York. The problem was, it was just still Gimbels,” says Silverstein.

Within a few months after its grand opening, the crowds subsided, and the sales figures no longer “ran ahead of dreams.” Shoppers who were interested in value over fashion were drawn to Gimbels East. The trendy Upper East Side shopper tended to shop elsewhere, and merchandise was downgraded to keep the cash registers ringing. A report from
Dow Jones
in late 1972 noted that the entire Gimbels organization was posting a wider loss than was originally forecast. The report stated, “Although the 86
Street store got off to a good start…it operated at a loss and contributed substantially to the poor showing of the company.” For the next several years, Gimbels East was referred to as a “losing operation.” It wasn’t long before Bruce Gimbel’s dream store was regarded as an unusually shaped and poorly located branch of “plain old Gimbels.”

An architectural drawing of the new Gimbels in Center City Philadelphia.
Collection of the author

In Philadelphia, plans moved forward to replace the aging Center City store. Initially, Gimbels reported that its new operation would be built on Market Street between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets. However, the company signed on to become part of a $200 million redevelopment project on Market Street and decided that its new store would be built on Market Street between Ninth and Tenth Streets. City officials praised the plan, and Mayor James Tate said that the company’s decision to remain in Philadelphia was “momentous for the city.” Tate said, “It would have been a grave disappointment if the store had withdrawn to the suburbs.”

It took many years for the new Philadelphia store to come to fruition. Beginning in May 1970, Market Street businesses fought the anticipated condemnation of their properties to accommodate the new Gimbel structure. One business owner said, “They don’t have enough money to give the teachers a raise and to improve the schools, but they can find enough money to build a store for Gimbels.”
By 1973, the project included not only a new Gimbels but also a three-level enclosed shopping mall that would connect the store with its neighbor and rival, Strawbridge & Clothier.

During this time, Gimbels built other stores in its East Coast markets. In February 1970, Gimbels opened a 210,000-square-foot branch at the Lafayette Plaza shopping mall in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut. Bridgeport was an economically depressed city, and the mall was built to help revitalize the downtown shopping district. Gimbels not only competed with longtime retailer D.M. Read Co., which was located in an aging building opposite the mall, but also one of the country’s highest-volume Sears stores. In 1967, Macy’s turned down an offer to locate in the Bridgeport mall because it didn’t want to compete with its own branch in New Haven. Gimbels also opened stores in the central Pennsylvania cities of Harrisburg and Lancaster. Both Pennsylvania stores struggled to meet sales goals right from the beginning. Former manager John Caccese says, “Harrisburg was a mistake because people in Harrisburg didn’t know Gimbels. Both of the stores [Harrisburg and Lancaster] were too far from the city and struggled most of the time.” Director Roseann Rubinstein recalls the Harrisburg store always being viewed as a “stepchild.”

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