Authors: Michael J. Lisicky
Sandwiched in between the Gimbel buildings along Ninth Street was Leary’s Book Store. Founded in 1836, Leary’s was not only a Philadelphia literary destination—it was a worldwide one. Leary’s moved into its Ninth Street location in 1877. Its dusty, cramped storefront contained numerous hard-to-find treasures. The seven-story building was known as the largest used bookstore in the world. At its peak, the store had over six and a half miles of shelves and contained about a million titles. Leary’s rebuilt its store in 1927, and Gimbels had to expand its store around it. Most Philadelphians just assumed that Leary’s was a part of Gimbels. That was not a big problem for Gimbels, since Leary’s drew constant foot traffic to the “Gimbels side” of Market Street.
A view of the Center City Philadelphia Gimbels at Christmastime, with the entrance to Leary’s Book Store on the right side of the main entrance.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Also in 1926, tragedy struck the family as Isaac Gimbel, the president of the company, was thrown from a horse while riding in New York’s Central Park. Isaac sustained massive injuries that resulted in paralysis of his arms and legs. He continued to act as president of the company, but it became more difficult as his health worsened. In 1927, Isaac Gimbel retired from the presidency and became the organization’s chairman. Fortunately, Isaac’s son Bernard, the brains behind the New York store, stepped into the role of president and helped bring success to “plain old Gimbels” for the next several decades.
Bernard was America’s merchant prince of the twentieth century.
His enthusiasm for life spilled over into his business. The
New York Times
referred to Bernard as “one of New York’s merchant sportsmen and civic saints.” In addition to his role at the department store, Bernard served on countless committees that dealt with off-street parking, medical research, water supply, labor disputes and subway issues, just to name a few. And like his father, Isaac, Bernard liked to run a meticulous store. Sarah Barmash, the wife of the late, well-respected
New York Times
retail columnist Isadore Barmash, remembers the New York Gimbels store as a nice store that was well cared for. “I remember Mr. Gimbel would go around and look at the merchandise to see if everything was okay and in place,” says Barmash. Leslie Gimbel, Bernard’s granddaughter, recalls that he seemed to know everybody on every floor. She also remembers that her grandfather had a greater passion for sports than he did for the arts. Leslie says her mother frequently told the story of Alva Gimbel, her grandmother, taking her husband to the opera one night. Just as he fell asleep in his box seat, the person seated above dropped their opera glasses and just missed hitting Bernard. He told Alva that he would never go back to see an opera. “It’s much too dangerous,” said Bernard.
New York Gimbels’ notorious competitor, R.H. Macy & Co., was getting bigger and stronger. Macy began to acquire stores throughout the country in a manner reminiscent of Gimbels’ purchase of Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann & Baer store years before. Within a short period of time, R.H. Macy took control of Newark’s L. Bamberger & Co., Toledo’s Lasalle & Koch Co. and Atlanta’s Davison-Paxon stores. In 1923, Macy hired a woman named Bernice Fitz-Gibbon for the advertising department. Fitz-Gibbon later assumed the role of head copywriter and famously coined the slogan “It’s smart to be thrifty.”
Like Macy’s, Gimbels New York marketed its store toward a thriftier customer. A company advertisement from 1928 stated:
New York folk like the Gimbel store. They liked it in amply-assuring numbers on the opening days. They have liked it in constantly-increasing numbers until, within the last year, it became necessary to expend four million dollars to enlarge the store and increase its facilities to properly care for the Gimbel patronage
And as the Depression years approached, New York liked Gimbels even more with its value-priced merchandise located throughout the store, including its popular basement.
In 1929, Jacques Minkus immigrated to New York from Poland. He was fascinated with the growing international interest in stamp collecting. In 1931, Minkus approached Gimbels management and urged them to allot him six feet of counter space to sell stamps. It wasn’t long before Gimbels New York store was home to the world’s largest stamp department. Stamp and coin departments became important to department stores as they helped draw the male customer through their doors. The success of the New York stamp department was repeated in the other Gimbel stores in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Minkus, a philatelic leader until his death in 1996, referred to that first six feet of counter space as “the beginning of department store stamp collecting all over the country.”
Gimbels in Pittsburgh entered the 1930s ready to address the country’s economic woes. The Pittsburgh store invited the customers to “see for yourself at Gimbels Great Sale at depression lows.” It also advertised, “Be wise, beat the price rise! Invest until your purse says stop.” In February 1932, Jacques Blum took over the leadership of Gimbels in Pittsburgh. Blum was interested in bringing special, service-oriented events to the store. That May, Blum advertised a “Lilac Time” sale. This sale served as an anniversary sale, but it had a special twist. A live brass band was accompanied by a lilac scent that was sprayed throughout the first floor. It was a huge success. The following year, the Pittsburgh store had a limited special events budget. Blum went ahead and pulled out the previous year’s decorations and held a Lilac Sale. The Lilac Sale became a Pittsburgh tradition. Special events director Kay Cushing Neuhausen fondly remembers the Lilac Sale. “The Lilac Sale was a caveat to spring. The first floor was constantly sprayed with the lilac scent. There was the lavender color everywhere throughout the store. But it gave every department a chance to put up their item of the month for that timeframe. It became an umbrella that pulled the entire store together.”
An advertisement for Gimbels’ Lilac Sale from 1967 at the Pittsburgh division. The Lilac Sale dated from the Depression and continued throughout the life of the business.
Collection of the author
Blum’s efforts to bring special events to the Pittsburgh store did work, and the Gimbels market share in the city increased from 13 percent to 20 percent throughout the course of the 1930s.
March 1936 proved to be a difficult time for the Pittsburgh Gimbels, as well as all the department stores in the city’s downtown. On March 17, massive rainstorms hit the area, causing the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to overflow their banks. The rain didn’t stop, and the rivers continued to rise. It wasn’t long before Pittsburgh’s commercial heart was under water. When the floodwaters receded, almost seventy people were dead, and damage was estimated at $250 million. Also affected by the flood, Gimbels closed on March 17 and didn’t reopen until March 27. When the doors reopened, Gimbels advertised, “No goods touched by flood waters is or will be sold.” Gimbels was located in the “unrestricted zone” but reopened with limited light and elevator service.
Although the Pittsburgh store had minimal damage, the impact of the store’s brief closure hurt the bottom line of the entire corporation. Sales at Gimbels department stores dropped from the previous levels of 1932, 1934 and 1936. However, the brightest star in the Gimbels organization was the Milwaukee store. Gimbels was a true Milwaukee tradition. Former director Michael Hammack stresses, “Gimbels-Milwaukee had its own buyers, and they merchandised for the Milwaukee people. People in Milwaukee are different.”
Bernard Gimbel visited the Milwaukee store in November 1936 and praised the store’s sales figures. Gimbel said, “All stores of the company had shown substantial increases over last year’s business, but Milwaukee ran off with the honor of showing the greatest percentage increase of sales.” He also noted that the Christmas sales showed a splendid increase over the Depression years.
In 1939, Gimbels announced that for the third straight year, the Milwaukee operation had stronger sales increases than the other three competing Milwaukee stores. The company cited its “value leadership” program and thanked the thousands of thrift-wise Milwaukeeans for making Wisconsin’s largest store “their” store. The store featured three popular restaurants for its shoppers: Tasty Town on the street floor, the basement lunchroom and the eighth-floor Tea Room. Tasty Town was a Milwaukee tradition. Steve Daily, curator at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, says, “People say that Tasty Town was the best food.” Between the success of the Gimbel Days sale every spring and the Anniversary Sale in September, Gimbels established itself as a mainstay of the commercial heart of Milwaukee.
In 1939, a group of investors purchased the bankrupt Mark Store in downtown Miami. Mark’s had taken over Miami’s Cromer-Cassel store in 1932. The store needed some new retail leadership, as well as a new name. The Miami owners thought Richard Gimbel, Bernard’s cousin, was the perfect choice. They brought him on board and proposed that the store be renamed Gimbels. Years before, Richard had infuriated Bernard when he dismissed executive Arthur C. Kaufmann from the Philadelphia Gimbels store. Bernard reinstated Kaufmann, and in 1935, Richard was exiled from the Gimbel Board of Directors.
The New York headquarters was outraged when the Miami plan was announced. In July 1939, after a heated legal battle, the store’s name was changed to Richards. Richards became a popularly priced department store that served the Miami market for over four decades.
All four Gimbels department stores were successful, yet Gimbels suffered from inadequate advertising style. “The Gimbel headlines were never pompous and dignified. They were worse—violent, black-type, hard-sell, dreary, and uninteresting.”
By 1940, that would all change, and Gimbels would enter its most popular and profitable decade.
During my location shoot in New York City for
A Miracle on 34
I had absolutely no contact with anyone from Gimbels. I did, however, interact with many Macy representatives and they were absolutely wonderful. To this day, Macy’s still rolls out the red carpet for me. They are very loyal
—actress Maureen O’Hara
The year 1940 was a turning point for Gimbels. The New York store helped dictate the nation’s perception of the entire company, due to its prominence and stature in America’s largest city. But the New York store needed some help. “In 1940, Gimbels was at the lowest point in its history—lowest in looks, merchandising, advertising, and general acceptance. It had sunk way down.”
That all changed when Bernice Fitz-Gibbon walked into Gimbels’ doors.
Bernice was the publicity genius who had made her mark at other New York stores. She coined the famous phrase “It’s smart to be thrifty” during her tenure at Macy’s. By the time she joined Wanamaker’s as the head of advertising in 1935, Fitz-Gibbon was able to call her own shots. On a shoestring advertising budget, Fitz-Gibbon revitalized the dowdy New York Wanamaker’s store with her gift of prose. When the Philadelphia headquarters of Wanamaker’s balked at her unconventional style of advertising and marketing, she left on her own accord. That’s when Gimbels came knocking, and Fitz Gibbon joined the store as publicity director.
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon wanted to challenge the store’s “plain old Gimbels” image and capitalize on the company’s “Number 2” position in New York. Gimbels tried to offer “everything to everyone” in all four of its stores, but it was the thrift-based customer to which the company appealed most. Macy’s had its slogan, “her” slogan, and Gimbels needed its own catchy phrase. Fitz-Gibbon was particularly taken by A.A. Milne’s poem “Wind on the Hill.” During a heated price war with Macy’s, Fitz-Gibbon created the famous saying “Nobody but nobody undersells Gimbels.” It was modeled after part of Milne’s poem. She wanted to give credibility to the store’s lower-priced image even though Gimbels tried to carry some higher-end merchandise. Gimbels did not have a high fashion image. Fitz-Gibbon felt that “Macy’s fashion departments ran circles around Gimbels.” So she decided to directly address the store’s secondary image. One Gimbels headline pronounced: