Ellis Gerson Wachs, who built a small women’s clothing store into a major international chain and contributed to numerous charitable causes — many within the local Jewish community and in Israel — died Aug. 9 from Parkinson’s disease in his Center City home. He was 88.
Having overcome a meager upbringing to become a financial success, his wife of 59 years, Peggy Wachs, said it was important for her husband to share that wealth. That led to the creation of the Peggy & Ellis Wachs Family Foundation in 1985.
“The foundation was for educational purposes,” she said. “Mainly, he wanted to encourage young people. He had a strong Jewish feeling and a strong feeling for history.”
Much of that feeling developed because of the harassment he and his older brother, David, faced growing up in West Philadelphia.
“It was difficult for Jews at that time,” 91-year-old David Wachs said. “Being Jewish in an Irish neighborhood, we were always scrapping because people didn’t like you. So we always both supported Jewish stuff.”
For Ellis Wachs, in addition to his foundation, those causes included the Anti-Defamation League, the Wachs Noy Archives of Israeli and Yiddish Music at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center and Nativ. He also was an avid supporter of the Free Library of Philadelphia and The Parkinson Council.
In 1950, the Wachs brothers joined Morris and Arthur Sidewater, who founded the company in Northeast Philadelphia a decade earlier, to open Charming Shoppes in Norristown. From there, Charming Shoppes, which provided merchandise for juniors and plus-sized women, began to expand, eventually exceeding 1,200 stores in more than 40 states and several countries.
“He really knew his customers,” said his daughter, Esther Book. “He understood what they were looking for in terms of fashion for lower- and middle-class women at affordable prices. He had a loyalty program, which encouraged layaway, and he’d go to Europe to find the latest styles.”
Ellis Wachs retired from the company in 1990, although Charming Shoppes remained in existence until it was sold to Ascena Retail Group for a reported $900 million in 2012. In the interim, he became involved with real estate investment venture Rodman Properties, which specialized in helping budding entrepreneurs build their own businesses.
“My father was a scholar who knew a lot about Jewish history,” Book said. “It was a large part of who he was, and he took multiple trips to Israel. He was a loving father and husband, who inspired everyone around him.”
Ellis Wachs was buried at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose on Aug. 13. He is survived by his wife, Peggy; daughters Esther Book, Elizabeth Sahlman and Marjorie Weingarten; his brother, David; and eight grandchildren. Donations in his name may be made to the Free Library of Philadelphia or The Parkinson Council in Bala Cynwyd.
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