Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
The two Manhattan Gimbels stores did not remain vacant very long. The Eighty-sixth Street store was purchased and converted for residential use. In April 1987, plans were unveiled for the conversion of the former Thirty-third Street landmark store into A&S Plaza. A vertical shopping mall, A&S Plaza featured a 300,000-square-foot, multilevel Abraham & Straus department store. A&S was a Brooklyn landmark. Not only was this new store its first and only foray into Manhattan, but it was also the first department store to be built in Manhattan since Alexander’s opened its World Trade Center location in 1980. The 1910 Daniel Burnham building was gutted and outfitted with skylights, atriums, stainless steel, neon lighting and glass. On September 14, 1989, A&S Plaza opened for business. At the store’s opening, A&S chairman Chaim Y. Edelstein said, “Gimbels didn’t fail because of the location.” He told reporters that Gimbels was hurt by its discount policy and its failure to modernize the store. A&S Plaza slowly earned a following. When A&S and Macy’s merged in 1995, the A&S store was converted into a Stern’s, and the center’s name was changed to Manhattan Mall. Stern’s lasted until the chain dissolved in 2001, and Manhattan Mall is now home to Manhattan’s only JCPenney store.
The former downtown Milwaukee Gimbels was reborn in October 1986 as a Marshall Field’s store. Field’s also took over former Gimbels stores in Northridge, Southridge, downtown Appleton and the Hilldale Mall in Madison. These stores joined Marshall Field’s longtime branch in Milwaukee’s Mayfair. Gimbels/Field’s director Michael Hammack says, “When Marshall Field’s absorbed Gimbels, there was outcry and fear that they were going to upgrade too much and it wouldn’t be able to serve the community.” After Dayton Hudson acquired Field’s, the downtown store struggled with appearance and merchandise. Historian Steve Daily says, “People saw Marshall Field as a shell of Gimbels. It had its strong points, but I think that people were just in shock that Gimbels had left.” Former executive Cary Silverstein blames Field’s market research for its struggles in the Milwaukee market. Silverstein says, “Marshall Field’s based their knowledge of the Milwaukee market on their experience with their Mayfair store—poor market research on their part. They did not understand the Milwaukee market and what motivated the customer.”
In 1988, Marshall Field’s sold its Northridge and Southridge stores to Sheboygan-based retailer H.C. Prange Co. In the meantime, Boston Store acquired all but one of the remaining Gimbels stores in Milwaukee. By 1988, Boston Store was the largest retailer in Milwaukee, with eight department stores. The downtown Field’s store was cited by shoppers for its “dowdy appearance, poor selection of merchandise, and poor access to the store.” In September 1997, Marshall Field’s closed the Grand Avenue location, effectively ending the building’s life as a department store. An investment group purchased the building and converted it into a multipurpose structure that housed offices, a hotel and a bookstore.
For many years, the former downtown Pittsburgh store remained vacant.
columnist Barbara Cloud remembers, “The [Gimbels] corner was an eyesore and a sad memory for Pittsburghers.” In 1993, retail businesses returned some life to the building and to Pittsburgh’s struggling downtown retail district. But the Pittsburgh area holds the distinction of being home to the final Gimbels department store. When Batus put the chain up for sale, it sold the lease to the Century III store in West Miflin, Pennsylvania, to a subsidiary of Schottenstein Stores of Columbus, Ohio. Schottenstein was well known for its off-price discount stores, and the company wanted to try its luck at running an off-price department store that combined value and service. Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation, the mall’s owner, took Gimbels to court as it tried to block the sublease agreement. Schottenstein reopened the Century III store under the name Gimbels, and mall owners challenged whether a quality department store was being operated, as stipulated by the lease agreement. Shop owners in the mall complained about the low quality of the Gimbels store.
In December 1987, the Century III Gimbels store lost its lease. The Century III store was the company’s last branch to open and became the final store of the famous chain to close. The newspaper advertisements said, “It’s the end of an era! Goodbye Pittsburgh! The last store of the once world-renowned Gimbels chain falls by the wayside as the lease is canceled. In a few short weeks, the Gimbels name will be just a fond memory. Here is our way of thanking you for your century long patronage.”
The Gimbels in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania remained open until June 1988 as a private liquidation store.
Photograph by the author
A labelscar appears on the closed Century III store in suburban Pittsburgh. It was the final store to operate as a Gimbels department store.
Courtesy of Eric G. Salmons and C3Nostalgia
It was the end of the Gimbels name in retailing. The store that brought value to a mass market lost its relevance. Unfortunately, the “Store of a Million Gifts,” with its famous slogan, “Nobody but nobody undersells Gimbels,” was defeated by changing times, changing society and changing shopping patterns.
I remember Gimbels and Schuster’s very very well. My mother and I would go shopping at Gimbels downtown and also to Schuster’s, where I remember they had a marvelous delicatessen. They had the best German potato salad I have eaten. They were two marvelous stores and were really important in the history of Milwaukee
—Allan H. “Bud” Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball
It has been twenty-five years since Gimbels closed its doors. Since then, dozens of storied department store names have left the marketplace. Some were gobbled up by larger department store companies, and some were unable to compete in a changing marketplace. The era of the middle-of-the-road department store ended, and Gimbels was the industry’s first major casualty. However, those who depended on Gimbels as a workplace and a part of the city’s fabric have ever-lasting memories of the business.
Pittsburgh was devastated by Gimbels’ closure. Former special events director Kay Cushing Neuhausen thinks “a lot of people felt that a light went out in the city when Gimbels closed [in 1986]. It was an omen for the whole retail industry.” In May 1994, Lazarus, a division of Federated Department Stores, purchased Pittsburgh’s fabled Joseph Horne Co. At the time of the purchase, the Lazarus chairman said, “Horne’s has been a wounded puppy. Horne’s simply did not have enough bullets to load the rifle.” Pittsburgh actress Audrey Roth fondly remembers both Gimbels and Horne’s. For years, Roth portrayed the character Miss Paulificate on the famous Pittsburgh-based children’s show
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
. She recalls that Fred Rogers never made an appearance at the department stores in Pittsburgh. “Fred Rogers was the least commercial person in the world,” says Roth. “He felt that he would lose control [by making commercial appearances].” But she does feel strongly about the loss of some of Pittsburgh’s largest retailers. “I felt terrible when Gimbels and Horne’s closed. It was sad. But was I sad because I was getting older or was I sad about things just changing?” asks Roth. For many years, Barbara Cloud covered the news in fashion for the
. She says that, like most people, she took department stores for granted. “I could see changes coming, but I never thought we would lose Gimbels, and certainly not Horne’s,” says Cloud. She adds, “Loyalty and trust were built with department store trading.”
Stanley Abelson was the final chairman of Gimbels Philadelphia, as well as a former president of Macy’s New York. When asked what he remembers most about his time in Philadelphia, Abelson answers, “The Gimbels employees and the spirit of the store.” Former King of Prussia manager Barbara Pizer agrees with Abelson. “We [Gimbels employees] knew everybody in every other [Gimbels] store. I’ve worked for quite a few places, but I’ve never seen an organization that worked so well together,” says Pizer. John Caccese, once an employee of Gimbels, now works for the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. For many years, Gimbels operated and expanded the Saks Fifth Avenue nameplate, and the Saks stores continue to be successful and profitable. Caccese says, “At Saks, we get to know our customer. Employees are ambassadors. We learn how to develop and handle a customer.” During his tenure at Gimbels, Caccese spent many years working for the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade continues today under different sponsorship, and many former Gimbel employees still participate in the famous event.
Milwaukee historian Steve Daily recalls that Gimbels was showing its age by the end of the store’s run. “They tried to keep up the inside of the store, but it wasn’t as flashy as many other stores. It had lost a little of its luster,” says Daily. “But ask many Milwaukeeans what they miss most about Gimbels and they answer ‘the potato salad!’” Director Cary Silverstein states that Kohl’s picked up the torch in Milwaukee when Gimbels closed its doors. Many former Gimbels employees went to work for Kohl’s department stores and were able to hold onto the traditional value-conscious Gimbels customer. Silverstein says, “The Gimbels Midwest retailing philosophy is what made Kohl’s so great. Their constant promotions and value pricing has built a strong retail organization. The foundation of Kohl’s philosophy is rooted in Gimbels Midwest’s approach to business, ‘Customers Are Really Everything,’ Gimbels CARE program of the 1980s.” Former employee Jim McCormack feels that too often Gimbels stories focus on New York, “but Gimbels in Wisconsin was the true success story. People still talk about how they miss the store, and it was the only division that was making a solid profit.” McCormack considers Kohl’s to be the store that Gimbels Midwest would have morphed into, with brand names at good prices.
Barbara Gimbel, Bruce Gimbel’s widow, remembers when the New York Gimbels stores ended their run. “I felt very depressed and very unhappy when the store closed. I think the other family members felt the same way but less so. They were not as intimately linked to the company as my husband Bruce was,” she says. Leslie Gimbel is the president of the Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation. Incorporated in 1943, the private foundation provides grants for “charitable, scientific or educational purposes.” Leslie Gimbel says that the foundation was very unstructured for many years and only in the past fifteen years did specific program areas develop. Though it is not closely related to the store, the foundation continues to uphold the philanthropic ideals set forth by Bernard and Alva Gimbel.
Mark Gimbel continues to operate the Gimbel & Sons Country Store in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. When the Thirty-third Street Gimbels closed in 1986, Mark unsuccessfully tried to acquire one of the store’s famous brass nameplates. “When I called [Gimbels chairman] Matthew Serra and told him that I was interested in a nameplate, Serra asked for my name. When I said ‘Mark Gimbel,’ the phone immediately went ‘click.’ He was still upset over the bad publicity from the name war.” In 1997, Mark Gimbel acquired the expired Gimbels trademark, and a sign displayed outside his Boothbay Harbor store proudly states, “Now affiliated with Gimbels department store.” When New Line Cinema wanted to use the Gimbels name for its 2003 movie
, Boothbay Harbor was contacted for permission.
For 144 years, Gimbels offered its customers “everything for everyone.” The company was determined to let shoppers know that “Gimbels has it.” The Gimbels name defined American middle-class retailing. A company brochure from the late 1960s best explains the company’s story:
Few business houses in America can boast a history of more than a hundred years. And no business could have preserved the loyalty of its co-workers, the cooperation of its resources, and the deep-down confidence of its community for that time, unless it really had “something.” We claim that “something” for Gimbels is confidence in our name—and all America acknowledges it