It was a brisk, sunshiny Feb. 26 in downtown Reading, and the line to get into the Santander Arena — home of the Kelly Cup-winning Reading Lions ice hockey team — stretched into the street.
The digital marquee outside the venue hyped the day’s popular event, which was not a hockey game or the Harlem Globetrotters (coming next month) or the country music superstar Eric Church (May).
Rather, the crowds were there to pay tribute to one of their own: Albert Boscov, who died Feb. 10 of pancreatic cancer.
Boscov, who was 87, was the chairman of his family’s department-store empire, which was started by his Jewish-immigrant father, Solomon Boscov, as a small dry goods store at Ninth and Pike in Reading.
But what brought so many people to the arena (which was chosen as a venue after the expected crowd grew too big for the Santander Performing Arts Center) was not Al Boscov’s retail success, but his relentless commitment to the city of Reading itself — a drive that brought about a downtown resurgence with a DoubleTree Hotel, new housing for hundreds of families, the largest performing arts center in the country, an IMAX movie theater, new apartment buildings and vacant lots-turned-retail centers.
Boscov left such a huge imprint on the city, in fact, that there is a bronze likeness of him downtown — a statue that mourners placed flowers on in the wake of his death — surrounded by symbols of his success: a cluster of rowhouses, a film reel, a basket of groceries.
Dignitaries at the memorial service included U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, state Sen. Judy Schwank, state Rep. Tom Caltagirone, former Pennsylvania governors Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett, Reading Mayor Wally Scott and former Reading Mayor Tom McMahon.
Family members and friends spoke of Boscov’s playful personality, his unending cheer, his warmth and sentimentality. They recalled his cuddles, his songs, his unstinting joy.
“He was one of the happiest people I knew,” said former Reading Mayor Tom McMahon, who likened an hour with Boscov to being in a washing machine’s spin cycle — “but fun.”
Boscov was a man who sang and danced and hugged through life, even as he concerned himself with serious concerns like Reading’s racial tensions or the shifting fate of his family business.
That business, of course, was the center of his life, aside from his family, and part of a great tradition of American Jewish family-owned department stores.
Neiman-Marcus, Bergdorf-Goodman, Macy’s, Bloomingdales, I. Magnin, Filene’s, Saks Fifth Avenue — all of them, and so many more, were founded by immigrant Jewish families. In Philadelphia, the early 20th century saw the opening of Lit Brothers, Snellenburg’s, Gimbel Brothers and Frank & Seder.
Along with the (non-Jewish) granddaddy of them all, Wanamaker’s, Philadelphia’s early department stores served as vibrant centers of city life, hosting dances, celebrity performances, charity fundraisers and social events. The scions of department-store families were featured in the social pages of local newspapers, and were well known across the city for civic and philanthropic activities.
On Friday, March 17, 1950, the front-page headline on the Daily News was not a punny twist on a local crime or sporting defeat. Rather, it read: “Ellis A. Gimbel, Sr., 84, Taken By Death.”
These days, most people would be hard pressed to name the chairman or CEO of their favorite department store — if, that is, they even have one.
Lit Bros., Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s, Frank & Seder — they’re all gone. Other Jewish family-owned department stores — Bamberger’s in New Jersey, Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh — long ago got swallowed up by larger chains. And larger chains are in deep trouble.
Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney are just a few of the larger stores that have recently announced closures and layoffs, resulting in the shuttering of hundreds of storefronts across the country.
Washington, D.C.-based economist and historian Marc Levinson, who wrote The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, says large department store chains — by virtue of their size — face a number of challenges today.
“One of the difficulties in being a large company is that you cannot change what you do very easily,” Levinson said. “You’ve got a lot of real estate, you have legal obligation to pay for that real estate … and so when you face a dramatic change in the way people like to do their shopping, you can’t respond very quickly.”
And gone are the days when people would gather at a department store and while away a weekend day with friends.
“People still like to go to stores — they still like to see merchandise and touch merchandise — but the shopping is now really more a combination of in-person and online activity,” Levinson said.
That means retailers have to figure out how to mesh their physical and online identities. They also have to acknowledge that they probably have too many outlets in the wrong locations — at outdated malls in the suburbs, for instance.
“[That’s] no longer where the customer wants to be,” Levinson said.
Instead, he points to the burgeoning retail model known as “town centers,” with multiple shopping options supplemented by restaurants, entertainment venues, even municipal offices.
“They’re not meant to close you off from the world,” Levinson said. “They’re meant to make you feel you’re part of the world, some sense of being on the street. And those are doing much better than traditional enclosed malls by and large.”
Despite the fact that Boscov’s is precisely the type of department store that should be doing badly — as so many of its stores are in traditional malls — the company has been thriving since Al Boscov brought it out of bankruptcy in 2008.
This may be partly due to Boscov’s unique atmosphere — a throwback, in some ways, to way department stores used to be. Boscov’s has a candy counter in every store, for instance, and prides itself on making customers feel like they’re visiting family rather than going to an impersonal chain.
“You can have a unique business if people think you’ve got something they can’t get elsewhere,” Levinson said — and at Boscov’s, that “something” starts with the Al Boscov ethos — a joyful spirit that permeates the stores’ aisles like a spritz of scent from the perfume counter.
Can the business survive without Al Boscov? Al’s nephew Jim Boscov, who will lead the company into the future, has taken pains to make sure it will.
As for the city of Reading, that’s another story.
“Our flag carrier has fallen,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell at the memorial service, his voice trembling with emotion. “Who here on behalf of the city of Reading, on behalf of its citizens, on behalf of its great heritage and history, who here will step up and carry that flag for Reading?”
“Raise your hand!” Rendell shouted, enjoining the crowd of 2,000. “We’re pledging today to carry on the works of Al Boscov and carry that banner forward. We can do this!”
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