I was pleased to learn that Sears, Roebuck & Company will bring back its iconic Sears Wish Book for the holiday season this year. This year’s publication, of a catalogue first published in 1934, marks 83 years since its first publication. Many of us have fond memories of countless hours spent thumbing through this catalog that mainly featured toys. You may recall that the Sears Wish Book was a separate catalog from the Sears, Roebuck & Company annual Christmas catalog. Many of us marked the pages displaying items we wanted with the hope that some of them would appear under our Christmas tree on Christmas Day. As I thought about the Sears Wish Book that disappeared in 2011, my mind wandered back in time to retail stores that have disappeared from the landscape but where many of us shopped both for Christmas and for every day needs. So, travel with me today as I return to those retail stores that were quite popular for window shopping and for making purchases of furniture, household items and clothing, back in the day.
A shopping trip of this nature must begin in downtown Philadelphia. If you are in my age group, you certainly remember our famous department stores, many with a bargain basement. You could step off of the subway train and walk into a bargain basement. Around 8th and Market you found department stores such as Lit Brothers, Snellenburgs, Sterns, and Strawbridge’s and Clothier. The Lit Brothers building, on the Northeast corner of 8th and Market streets, continues to display the original Lit Brothers name on the building.
If you remember these stores, you must be wondering why Gimbel’s was not mentioned. Well. I saved it for special mention as for me, Gimbel’s was the granddaddy of them all. Is it my imagination or do you agree that Gimbel’s had the best toy department of all department stores?
Well, perhaps John Wanamaker Department Store, with its main operation at 13th and Market streets, and its memorable men’s section, was very strong competition. I recall the days when some people regarded a shopping adventure at John Wanamaker Department Store to be an intimidating shopping experience. This department store, with a variety of merchandise spread throughout several floors, was often characterized as a store for the “upper crust.” Did you meet someone at the infamous “Eagle,” a landmark on the first floor of this store? As memorable as the “Eagle” at John Wanamaker was, there was also the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ. Many still recall visits to John Wanamaker just to hear the organ concerts, especially during the Christmas season.
There were other department stores that were in and around Philadelphia that disappeared some years ago. Did you shop at Klein’s or Grants? Perhaps you shopped at Bamberger’s, Pomeroy’s and Montgomery Ward? Or, were the discount department stores such as E.J. Korvettes, Clover and Caldor the places where you shopped because you felt you would get the best buy for your money? When did you last shop in a Two Guys department store?
Someone reading this column purchased clothing, furniture, toys, appliance and many other items at this store until the late 1970s and early 1980s when the chain went out of business. If you lived in the Germantown area, the corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues was probably the place where you shopped rather than going into center city. Some of you regularly shopped at C.A. Rowell Department Store as it was a great place for shopping for all types of goods. Those of you who were too young to shop there may only know about this store from its name chiseled into the exterior of the building. Down the street from C.A. Rowell, at Greene Street and Chelten Avenue was Allen’s Department Store. Given the state of that neighborhood today, you may be surprised to learn that these two Germantown stores sold higher-end items, back in the day.
Females had favorite specialty stores in which to shop for fashionable outfits when not shopping in the women’s sections of a department store. The Bonwit Teller Store had one of its locations at 17th and Chestnut streets; a place many of you shopped for the perfect outfit to wear out on the town. Visits to this store might have been limited as it sold high-end woman’s apparel. Women who shopped at Bonwit Teller might also have shopped at The Blum Store located at 13th and Chestnut Street. Was the Fashion Bug a store that you patronized? If you worked here at The Tribune, maybe you walked around the corner on South Street, during lunch time, to shop at Jessie’s Ladies Shop? If you wanted or needed a coat, was Ridgeway at 58th and Walnut Street your favorite place for coats? Women might also recall making purchases of clothing at Lerner’s and York’s. You cannot be a millennial to recall shopping at these places.
Men also had a number of “neat” places to shop. I can vouch that they were neat as I shopped at most of them. The Arrow Store located at 12th and Market Streets always comes to mind when I think about men’s stores of the past. My sister gave me a charge account at this store when I was in college. Did some of you shop at Ripley’s, Robert Hall, Persian Tailor or Krass Brothers? I know that someone other than me purchased “imperfect” or “rejected” items at Big Hearted Jim’s on South Street. It was not too long ago when Today’s Man and Syms were popular places to shop. If you were of a “large one” size, you must have shopped at Torre located at Broad and Fitzwater streets.
There were some stores in neighborhood shopping venues such as The Vernon Shop across from Vernon Park in Germantown and Cisco’s with locations on 52nd and 60th streets that satisfied the shopping needs of many men, not only those living in and near their store locations but men from across the city. Those looking for a “Jeff” or newsboy hat also came from various neighborhoods to the vicinity of 17th and Market streets to Echoes, the hat store that cornered the market when it came to Jeff’s, newsboy hats or “big apples” as these hats were often called.
Diamonds was another store where many men shopped as well as Whitlin and Gallagher, which has been described in a Google search as the oldest men’s clothier in Philadelphia. For yours truly, Morvilles Men Store was my absolute favorite place to shop, back in the day. A store that was a favorite for men and women to supply their wardrobes in the past was Filene’s Basement. I am certain that a number of you still long for Filene’s Basement; what a store.
Today, there were stores that were frequented by many of us to purchase shoes. Ladies shopped at places such as Baker’s and Shapiro’s. Men found their way to stores such as Father and Son, Tom McCann, Flagg Brothers, Buster Brown and Florsheim. You must recall the shoe store where the “jitterbugs” shopped. Hanover’s was the place for “old man’s comforts.”
Van Sciver Furniture Store is also sorely missed for those that desire quality furniture. It was unquestionably a place for quality items. With regard to home improvement stores, you might recall purchasing materials and other items from Channels. What about Hechinger’s? We cannot ignore those supermarkets that are no longer around today. Someone remembers going with their mother to the American and Pacific Supermarket. Or, perhaps you remember this supermarket as A & P. If you remember shopping at the A & P then you must have memories of Penn Fruit. What about Shop ‘N Bag? Does anyone remember Food Fair? I was reminded that we did not have many supermarkets in the past as most of our food shopping took place at the neighborhood grocery store and the butcher shop. Of course, we cannot ignore the five-and-dime stores of the past — stores that you could legitimately purchase things for a nickel or a dime. Do you not wish that there were still Woolworth’s, McCrory’s and Kresge’s five and dime stores around today? These were fun places to spend time just browsing or looking for a specific item, back in the day.
Some of you recall those stores where we shopped for electronics such as televisions, record players, radios and other home entertainment items in the past. Perhaps you remember Crazy Eddie, Silos and Circuit City. So, what about those places where you purchased your records and tapes. The places to shop were Tower Records, Sam Goody’s, Paramount Records, The Record Museum, Treegoobs, Radio Store 437 and 3rd Street Jazz.
I know the difficulty that most of us have in finding quality places to shop today. But, if you were around in the 50s, 60s and 70s, you can attest to the desirable places located all over the city where we once shopped. One might ask the question, “how important are stores today” since so many people shop online. Not only do we miss the communication with sales staff at stores, but we also miss the experience of actually viewing the items and the actually experience of touching the clothing or other items to experience the feel of the fabric or material. Finally, on-line shopping requires that we wait for the delivery of the item to try on or display it in our homes to see if it meets our expectations. These are much different experiences from those that we experienced, and we will be hard pressed to have these experiences today. The stores where we once shopped are but faint but yet fond memories that have been left, back in the day.