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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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The first axe fell on May 16, 1986, when Batus sold three of the Pittsburgh stores to rival Kaufmann’s. Pittsburgh chairman Daniel H. Levy broke into tears when he made the announcement to his employees. It signaled the end of the Gimbels name in Pittsburgh. The remaining stores, including downtown, would be shuttered. Employee Kathy Weber says until that announcement, “the mood was one of an uphill battle that we thought we were winning. It was a total surprise when they shut us down.” In June 1986, many Pittsburghers seemed more excited by the upcoming liquidation sale than the loss of a retail tradition. “I went to confession and the priest asked me, ‘When’s the big sale?’” joked Thomas Robinson, a furniture salesman of twenty-five years.

In Milwaukee, Marshall Field rebranded the four strongest Gimbels locations, including downtown. The future was bleak for the remaining five stores. One Grand Avenue store owner applauded the conversion. He told the
Milwaukee Journal
, “I felt like I was competing with a discounter, and not with a department store. They were running out of names for sales. It will be a pleasure to compete with a real retailer.” But it wasn’t as rosy for many of Gimbels’ longtime employees. Director Barbara Markoff recalls, “I’ll never forget some of the sales associates in their sixties and seventies asking me, ‘How do I write a resume?’ They never should have had to ask that, but we showed them how. It was a very emotional time for many.”

The Upper Darby, Pennsylvania store shows its age as it prepares to close its doors in August 1986.
Photograph by the author

The mall entrance to the Cheltenham, Pennsylvania Gimbels in August 1986.
Photograph by the author

In June 1986, Batus announced that it would sell ten of its Gimbels stores, mostly in the Philadelphia area, to Stern’s, a unit of Allied Stores. Stern’s, a former carriage trade retailer from New York’s Forty-second Street, was based in Paramus, New Jersey. Its stores targeted a solidly middle-class customer who was interested more in a fair value than the latest fashion. Two of the oldest Philadelphia stores, Upper Darby and former market leader Cheltenham, were not part of the purchase. Both stores were too large and had deteriorated along with their neighborhoods. Many Gimbels employees applauded the purchase to Stern’s. Most of them were able to retain their jobs. John Caccese says that the Gimbel workers “all thought that Stern’s was going to be a great thing.” In New York, Stern’s assumed ownership of the extremely profitable Yonkers branch, while Associated Dry Goods took ownership of the popular Paramus branch. Associated Dry Goods planned to move its flagship Hahne’s store in downtown Newark to the Garden State Plaza Gimbels. A&S grabbed the Valley Stream store, which would replace the large and unprofitable A&S in Hempstead, Long Island. The two Manhattan stores were basically all that were left. Their real estate was valuable, but their retail operations were not. The price tag for the two stores was $130 million. Gimbels’ last day of normal business was June 19, 1986. The store that “tried to make a virtue out of moderation and ended looking out of place in a changing Herald Square conducted its next-to-last day of regular business in a quiet way.”
One employee barked at
New York Times
reporter David W. Dunlap on its last day: “You’re too late. We cried months ago—but no one heard us.”
Many New Yorkers, like former mayor Ed Koch, remember when “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels” became part of the New York jargon. “I was sorry to see the store close,” says Koch. By the end of June, all Gimbels stores were holding a liquidation sale.

On August 19, 1986, the Milwaukee Gimbels stores closed. Five of the stores, including the downtown flagship, prepared for conversion to Marshall Field stores. Typical of any liquidation sale, the walls were stripped bare of merchandise, especially at the end of the sale. One loyal shopper described the death of the downtown Gimbels: “There was a quietness and sadness, and there should have been, for this wasn’t the death of an aging emporium that had lived beyond its time. Rather, it was the cutting down of a vital, progressive, useful and loved body like a sudden diagnosis of a fatal disease in a healthy person.”

In the summer of 1986, all four divisions advertised their individual liquidation sales.
Collection of the author

The shopper told the
Milwaukee Journal
, “Marshall Field, wonderful though you are, if you think that you are going to succeed in Gimbels’ dead body, just wait. Milwaukee will show you, believe it.” Milwaukee personality Gus Gnorski recalls the closing of Gimbels. “I remember when [Gimbels] closed it was the shock of all shocks. [They felt that] if a name like Gimbels goes away, things will never be the same,” says Gnorski.

The Pittsburgh stores closed for the final time on September 13, 1986. Described as “a lingering death” by liquidators, the downtown store was reduced to a dumpy shadow of its former self. By the last day, most of the floors of the downtown store were dark and empty. One employee told the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
, “The last announcement that ‘the store is now closed’ is probably going to be very traumatic. You’re going to see liquidators with tears.”

Perhaps the store that felt the closing the hardest was the New York store. The once-popular landmark was dowdy and obsolete. Its middle-class customer base was gone, along with the store’s relevance. Many employees felt abandoned by the company and its traditional customers. Saleswoman Kate Kirchein said, “Nobody’s said ‘goodbye’ to us or ‘thank you’. It’s the coldest thing and I’ve worked here for 8 years. We had to learn that we were going out of business by reading it in the newspapers. We’ve been living on rumors for weeks. Our nerves are shot.”

Peter D’Ambrosio, an employee at the Bay Shore store, says, “The last month was really sad. We were a family, and the realization that it was the end was really sad.” On September 26, 1986, Gimbels ended its life as a New York institution. The Philadelphia stores made the transition to Stern’s, and employees hoped for a long-lasting relationship with its new owner. However, by 1987, only one Gimbels store remained open—Pittsburgh’s Century III. A great American name in retailing had ended its 146-year run.


Mind your own business and run the store

—management’s response when Bob Di Benedetto, Center City Philadelphia store manager, asked if Stern’s would take over Gimbels’ role of running the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade

On August 10, 1986, Allied Stores completed its purchase of most of the Philadelphia-area Gimbels stores. The doors were locked that evening, and the stores prepared for their conversion to Stern’s. King of Prussia manager Barbara Pizer remembers, “The sale to Stern’s went down really fast. We locked the doors the night the sale was finalized and closed the stores for three days. Auditors from all sides [Gimbels and Stern’s] came in. About fifty tractor trailers containing new merchandise arrived from Stern’s warehouse in northern New Jersey.”

The purchase by Stern’s gave hope to the Gimbels stores and employees. Stern’s was a well-run company with a proven track record in northern New Jersey and Long Island. However, Stern’s made some critical mistakes with its purchase of the Philadelphia Gimbels stores. There were no plans for a 1986 Thanksgiving Day Parade. “Philadelphia didn’t accept Stern’s when they didn’t take the parade,” says Barbara Pizer. Stern’s also did not bring any excitement in merchandise and presentation to the former Gimbels stores. “Stern’s was beige. We even had beige tape to fix the carpet,” says former Center City manager Bob Di Benedetto.

Further complicating the conversion was the November 1986 takeover of Allied Stores by Canadian developer Robert Campeau. Campeau did not want the new Stern’s stores, and neither did the new management team at Stern’s. Di Benedetto remembers that Stern’s headquarters regarded the Philadelphia stores with an attitude of “now we have to worry about them down there.” Shoppers stayed away from Stern’s in droves. Estimates showed sales figures at the Stern’s stores actually lower than Gimbels’ dismal numbers.

The Gimbels sign is removed from the Echelon, New Jersey store as it prepares for its transition to Stern’s.
Photograph by the author

The former Center City Gimbels as a Stern’s store.
Photograph by the author

Allied’s owner, Robert Campeau, grew impatient with the Philadelphia stores and, in May 1988, pulled the plug on the Philadelphia Stern’s stores. He wanted to focus his energy on acquiring Federated Department Stores. Several mall landlords protested the announced closure of the Stern’s stores, claiming that their leases prohibited such an action. Mall developers such as Kravco and Rouse Co. were fighting in court while the stores began their liquidation. Former Gimbels/Stern’s King of Prussia store manager Barbara Pizer supervised her store’s closing before being transferred to Granite Run for its closure. “Granite Run was supposed to close in a few months [early 1989], and a judge made us stay open even after we began liquidating,” says Pizer. “The landlord took us to court to prove every week that we were bringing new merchandise into the store.” By mid-1989, mall developers had released Stern’s from its lease obligations. Only the Rouse Co., with its malls at the Gallery in Center City and Echelon in New Jersey, forbid Stern’s to break its leases. The two stores were forced to remain open. Center City manager Bob Di Benedetto says, “Sales were terrible. The only event that worked there was the Super Sale. We did a great job with direct mailing that brought in a different demographic for the Super Sale. We had some good days; I was quite surprised.” When Campeau filed for bankruptcy in 1991, Stern’s was finally able to break the leases at its two remaining Philadelphia-area stores. In March 1992, Center City and Echelon closed their doors, and the last vestige of Gimbels in Philadelphia ended.

BOOK: Gimbels Has It!
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