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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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Gimbels also made an impact with its suburban Pittsburgh stores. Denise Ayoob was a buyer at the Gimbels in Beaver Valley Mall. She recalls the talking Christmas tree, Breakfast with Santa, a real Christmas shop with Santa and his elves and classes that taught girls grooming, fashion, modeling, manners and etiquette. “It was like old-time department stores used to be,” says Ayoob.

It was a different story in New York. The store struggled to find its identity and purpose as its competitors became stronger. Cary Silverstein states, “Macy’s stands out in my mind as fashion forward and new. Gimbels was fashion backward and old. Yes, the Gimbels building was old, but so were A&S and Bloomingdale’s buildings. They elected to update their interiors on a regular basis. Gimbels did not.” Four years after its doors opened, Gimbels East on Eighty-sixth Street changed its merchandise strategy. The Thirty-third Street and Eighty-sixth Street stores had separate management and buyers. When new leadership saw the company as a “schizophrenic operation,” Gimbels decided to merge the positions.
The Eighty-sixth Street store was no longer the store that Bruce Gimbel had envisioned. He continued to serve as chairman of Gimbel Brothers after the merger with British American Tobacco, but in August 1975, Bruce A. Gimbel retired.


The new store looked like Bloomingdale’s. They brought in artifacts from many different countries. The store did well in the beginning. I don’t know why it didn’t work, but it wasn’t for lack of effort

—Roseann Rubinstein, Philadelphia communications manager

British American Tobacco initiated major corporate restructuring when it took control of Gimbels. In October 1973, Manny Rosenberg assumed the role of chairman of Gimbels Philadelphia division. In general, the Philadelphia stores held their own, but Gimbels had not improved its aging Center City store for quite some time. The
Philadelphia Bulletin
referred to the old Gimbels store as a “dingy old hodgepodge red brick markethouse that has been a familiar center-city landmark since 1894.” For nine years, Gimbels Center City lost about $1 million a year. Although management felt the branch stores were meeting the customer’s demand, they saw how much money the downtown store was losing. By mid-1975, Gimbels started construction of a brand-new flagship store in Center City, and Manny Rosenberg led the transformation. It couldn’t happen soon enough. Sales at the Center City store continued to decline, dropping from $31 million in 1975 to $28.7 million in 1976.

Rosenberg came from Filene’s in Boston and was mandated by British American Tobacco to update and upgrade the Philadelphia stores. He initiated a division-wide renovation of all the locations and also began to bring in better goods. One of the most popular and profitable Gimbels stores in Philadelphia was the Great Northeast store. Smack in the middle of a solid working-class neighborhood, Gimbels Northeast brought in strong sales. Rosenberg was used to serving a higher-end clientele, and the Northeast store was a personal challenge. Manager Bob Di Benedetto remembers that Manny Rosenberg never had an understanding of the Northeast store. Di Benedetto says, “The Northeast store had the Butter Bowl Restaurant, and Manny would look at the customers and say, ‘How do you eat in this restaurant? How do you stand it in here?’ Manny Rosenberg wanted to get good stuff into the stores, but it didn’t work. It wasn’t Gimbels.”

A quiet day on the main floor of the old Philadelphia store in March 1977.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

But the new Center City store was his store to design. Rosenberg changed some of the merchandise offerings downtown and eliminated the stamp and coin department, major appliances and, not surprisingly, the restaurant. Rosenberg dictated the tone of the new store and made all decisions with President Kai Frost at his side.

Gimbels and the Gallery at Market East, a four-level shopping mall, set an opening date of August 11, 1977. Joining Strawbridge & Clothier, the Gallery hoped to bring suburban shoppers back to Center City. The new five-story, $35 million Gimbels was designed to make that possible. The Gallery at Market East was viewed as a “suburban concept plunked in a once-decaying city environment.”

In May 1977, Gimbels parent company made some major changes to the Philadelphia division, replacing Manny Rosenberg with former Macy’s New York president Stanley Abelson. Abelson also spent two years at Philadelphia’s Lit Brothers, which began its final liquidation that April. Abelson remembers, “Lits had a very long tradition in the Philadelphia area. They struggled, but they had a good corporate management.” Kai Frost remained to assist in the operations of Gimbels, but the main decision-making was in Abelson’s hands. Also that month, Gimbels announced it would discontinue its central buying office in New York. It was a decision based on cost savings. New York’s Mutual Buying Syndicate was hired to handle local merchandising choices.

Moving a flagship store was a monumental task. Diane Curley Balenti found herself spearheading the project. It took a year of planning to accomplish the move. No part of the business could stop while the files, offices and computers were being relocated across Market Street. On August 7, 1977, sixty-four burly men and three tractor-trailers began the transition between the two stores. It took two and a half days of constant activity. “I don’t know how it happened,” says Balenti.

She also took the first group of spectators into the new store before it opened. Balenti says, “I would take groups of employees over to the new store so that they felt that they were part of it. But many longtime employees retired. For them, it was a double-edged sword.”
On August 6, 1977, Stanley Abelson and Kai Frost poured champagne for the store’s five hundred employees. It was the final day of operations at the old store.

Two workers prepare to close the old Philadelphia store on its final day of operation in August 1977.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

On August 11, 1977, Mayor Frank Rizzo, top officials from Gimbels and Strawbridge & Clothier and 250,000 curious shoppers entered the doors of the Gallery at Market East. Rizzo hailed the Gallery as the first suburban-like enclosed shopping mall in a major city’s downtown shopping district. Also joining the dignitaries were developer Jim Rouse and a group of Mummers. In addition to the new flagship Gimbels store, Strawbridge & Clothier opened its own doors, complete with a $10 million renovation.

An interior view of the busy Gallery shopping complex in Center City Philadelphia.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

David Lee Brown poses next to his sculpture
outside the new Center City Philadelphia Gimbels.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Gimbels claimed that its new flagship store was the first department store to be built in a major city in over fifty years. The company called it “a new kind of store for an old kind of city.” Display director Andy Markopolous outfitted the store in art and artifacts from around the world. The store’s entrance at Tenth and Market Streets was home to David Lee Brown’s
sculpture. The soaring stainless steel design symbolized the joining of the old and new Philadelphia. An impressive tapestry designed by Philadelphian Charles Madden also was an interior highlight. Hand-carved elephants from India, iron mobiles from Guatemala, baskets from Upper Volta and Mali and a seventy-inch porcelain doll named Maggie May helped outfit the store.

The Gallery did not open without controversy. After the first year, sales figures at Gimbels were respectable but not spectacular. Manager Bob Di Benedetto says, “Our performance at the Gallery store didn’t kill us, and it helped with our image.” Critics commented on the physical appearance of the new store. Most saw the interior of the store as “posh, contemporary, and understated,” although the store lacked an architectural focal point. Wanamaker’s classic term “Meet Me at the Eagle” would only work as “Meet Me at the Escalator” at Gimbels. The exterior was a different story. The windowless, five-story structure acted as a plain, unappealing box on Market Street.
Philadelphia Bulletin
art editor Nessa Forman wrote, “For motorists or façade watchers, the exterior of the new Gimbels is tomblike. Even if you call it a square hatbox on free standing plinths, it is still a deadening, whitish grey suburban store nestling on an alive city street. Let’s hope it is not the first link of a Chinese wall for Market Street East.”

In 1978, a number of disturbances occurred at Philadelphia’s Gallery when people protested the lack of minority shop owners and workers at the downtown mall.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Being windowless posed a problem for the store. Since the 1920s, Santa had walked up a fire truck ladder right into the window of Toyland at the conclusion of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. But now there was no window for Santa. Bob Di Benedetto says this issue was thoroughly considered. “They even discussed installing one window just for Santa Claus.” The company decided that Santa would climb the ladder to the roof of the store instead.

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