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Christmas shopping in N.J. — before big box stores & the Internet

njmall_optBY ERIC MODEL
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY

Well, seasonal craziness seems to have started. Just when you thought things were already hectic enough, here come the holidays. So much to do; so little time. I love this time of year. The lights, the music, the festiveness.

But then there is that other part.

For example, drive along our state's roads and it can be almost dizzying. All the stores, all the malls, all the congestion.

Moreover, at least to me, it all looks so much the same these days. From Route 17 to Route 18; 46; 23; 35; 73 – it's all so similar – the Jersey barrier, the fast food joints, and chain stores. Home Dept, Lowes, Target, Barnes and Noble, IHOP, Holiday Inn Express; Sleepy's, etc. Can you tell Paramus from Totowa from Marlton?

It all got us to thinking about how different it all was not too long ago.

My earliest memories involve a bus ride on Public Service's 165 bus — either into New York or more locally into Hackensack.

The big city, of course, always beckoned. After all, there was Radio City, the tree at Rockefeller Center, the buzz and festiveness of the crowd dressed for a day out. And there were the department stores — names such as Best & Co., Saks, B. Altman, Lord & Taylor and the original and authentic F.A.O Schwartz.

Closer to home Main Street in Hackensack had movie theaters (Fox and Oritani), numerous family owned businesses and some big boys: Sears (still there), Franklin Simon, Arnold Constable, Lampston's and the unique & much loved Packard Bambergers.

In a few short years, however, Hackensack started to lose its luster, as stores and shoppers started to bi-pass its Main Street and head instead to Paramus.

But even there along the highways, in the midst of all the congestion and chaos, it is very different place these days from what used to be.

My biggest holiday memory of Paramus was not of a store or a person, but of a parking lot structure – an iconic giant Santa perched on a parking lot light tower at Garden State Plaza. This larger than life inanimate Kris Kringle, armed with a sack full of toys, greeted children and parents alike approaching the then outdoor shopping center.

The department stores themselves were many but seemed to have a greater regional/local flavor and connection.

Here are but a few of the names that were so much a part of the local fabric at one time:

Alexander's was founded in 1928 by George Farkas. A Brooklyn native, he opened a store on Third Avenue in the Bronx and named it for his deceased father. The store managed to thrive during the following Depression, and another location was opened at Fordham Road (also in the Bronx) in 1933. Post-war prosperity further increased the company's fortunes, and led to a steady increase of locations throughout the area.

Locally, Alexander's Paramus store became a landmark as the building was adorned by the world's largest mural painted by Polish artist Stefan Knap. At first the mural was mostly ridiculed but over time it became an integral part of the local scene. Although the location closed in 1992, the mural remained on the vacant building until 1998 when it was disassembled and put into storage. Several attempts to relocate the mural have failed including a plan to include it in the infamous Xanadu complex at the Meadowlands.

Alexander's was a New York store that came to New Jersey. So was E.J. Korvette's. Founded in 1954, Korvette's at its peak had 58 stores stretching as far as Chicago. They were highlighted by cashiers located in individual departments, with no checkout line area. Large stores included a full supermarket, pharmacy, pets, and tire centers. I was a frequent customer of their record department.

Another was Gimbels. In its time (1887-1987) it was an American icon. The store is known for creating the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia, the oldest parade in the country. Yes — even older than New York's Macy's Parade. Gimbels was also once the largest department store chain in the country. By the time of its closure, Gimbels had 36 stores throughout the United States, including one at the Garden State Plaza that now houses a Nordstrom.

Gimbels is probably best known for its rivalry with Macy's. Those old enough can still recall a saying that took on applications beyond retailing – "Would Macy's tell Gimbels?" Also recalled is a slogan that Gimbels used to distinguish itself from its Herald Square neighbors, "Select, don't settle."

To this day generations that never set foot in a Gimbels are entertained by the rivalry in the seasonal movie classic Miracle on 34th Street. Gimbels of the 1950's was also the department store of choice of television's of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy.

New York stalwarts like Sterns, Orbachs, Lord and Taylor and Altmans had runs in the area, but many of the department stores were local.

For example, there's the Newark-based Hahne & Company. Founded by Julius Hahne in 1858 as a specialty store, by the early 20th century it had grown into a full-line department store. The store's motto was "The Store with the Friendly Spirit," and it became known as the "carriage trade" store in Newark.

In 1911, a modern flagship was opened at 609 Broad Street in downtown Newark. Occupying a 23-acre site, this single building contained 441,000 square feet of selling space spread over five floors (basement through 4th floor), with an atrium in the center of the building, which ran from the street floor to the 4th floor. An extensive Budget Store operated in the basement level until it was folded in the mid 1970s.

The store also contained two popular dining rooms, the more formal "Pine Room" located on the street floor, and the counter-style "Maple Room" (located in the basement), which was very popular with downtown office workers. The "Maple Room" closed in the early 1980s when the basement level was closed as a selling floor, while the "Pine Room" remained open until the entire store was closed in 1987.

In 1929, Hahne's was the first of Newark's department stores to open a branch on Church Street in Montclair.

Starting in the 1950s, the company began to focus slowly on suburban growth. The Montclair store was replaced with a larger full-line branch, designed by Fellheimer & Wagner. In 1963, a location in Westfield was added. But Hahne's, in hindsight, is now criticized for having remained too focused on its Newark Store in the 1960s. The firm did not enter the growing mall market in New Jersey until the 1970s, and this is said to have cost the chain valuable time in keeping up with its competitors.

Although the Westfield store was attractive, Hahne's lacked the customer base to compete with the nearby Lord and Taylor in Short Hills.

Newark declined badly in the 1960s and 70's and the store, with most of its sales volume coming from the one Newark store, went down with it. The Newark store lacked parking, and was in a location that suburban shoppers felt was unsafe.

During the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the chain attempted to reach out to a broader shopper demographic with mixed results. New ideas came but proved to be too little and too late to save the chain. By 1986, they had closed shop and disbursed into suburban malls locations such as Livingston, Rockaway, Woodbridge and Paramus. Eventually the Hahne name disappeared into Lord & Taylor. Finally, the architecturally significant Montclair store (built in 1951) was replaced by a new development housing condominiums.

Perhaps New Jersey's best known and remembered department store remains Bamberger's.

Founded in 1893 by Louis Bamberger as L. Bamberger & Company in Newark, in 1912 the company built its landmark flagship store on Market Street. At its height this flagship included dry cleaning, pharmacist, fur storage, travel services, ticket services, watch and jewelry repair, personal shopping services, and a butcher department.

The Newark store was also the original home of WOR Radio. WOR was started Bamberger Broadcasting Service 1922 in an effort to sell more radios. The studio was located on the sixth floor. The station (FM and TV) stayed within the corporate family until sold in 1952.

Eventually the studios moved to the famous 1440 Broadway ("Times Square Crossroads of the World" address). Ironically, WWOR-TV would years move back to New Jersey (Secaucus) in an effort to appease New Jeresyans who felt slighted by a lack of VHF station of their own, but that's another story for a different time.

Early suburban branch stores were built in downtown Morristown and in Plainfield and at the Princeton Shopping Center in Princeton, NJ. With the post-World War II population shift, Bamberger's built additional stores in suburban locations such as Brunswick Square Mall, Garden State Plaza, Monmouth Mall, Nanuet Mall and Menlo Park Mall. The 1960s and 1970s saw expansion throughout New Jersey and into the Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan area, while the 1980s brought entry into the Baltimore, Maryland Metropolitan area.

On October 5, 1986, the Bamberger's stores adopted the name Macy's New Jersey, and in 1988 Macy's New Jersey was consolidated with sister division Macy's New York to form Macy's Northeast (now Macy's Inc.).

Another name the elicits positive nostalgic feelings is that of Steinbach. At one time it was a fixture in Newark and down the Shore.

Steinbach was founded in Asbury Park in the late 1800's and was a fixture there until it left town in 1979. Its flagship store on Cookman Ave. was billed as "The world's largest resort department store." This building initially contained five floors (basement level through fourth floor), and by the 1930s, a fifth floor and clock tower were added.

Steinbach also maintained branch stores along the New Jersey shore, and in the central part of the state, especially after the area started to suburbanize. But the downtown store remained popular even after several nearby shopping centers opened. It was the Asbury Park race riots of July 1970 that cast a shadow over downtown, and ultimately doomed that store and eventually the chain.

Then there was Two Guys (known as Two Guys from Harrison when I was little in the 1950's). It was founded in 1946 in Harrison by brothers Sidney and Herbert Hubschman and originally sold major appliances such as televisions. Many locations originally included a discount store with a supermarket, as well as complete hardware, major appliance, and automotive service departments. The Two Guys supermarkets were full sized "stores within a store." The Newark store even had a cafeteria. At its peak, there were more than 100 Two Guys locations nationwide, including Upstate New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Maryland and Virginia as well as New Jersey.

Eventually Two Guys was liquidated by the entity that has become a real estate powerhouse Vornado.

Other great shopping names of the not too distant past include Great Eastern Mills, Valley Fair M. Epstein, and more recently The Wiz and but their stories will have to wait. I have to go out to the highway head to the mall to get this year's holiday shopping done.

Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten" on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at journeysinto.com.

 
Comments (1)
1 Tuesday, 30 November 2010 11:03
A. Robert Johnson
Living and working in Plainfield through the 1940s - 80s I found Plainfield a shopping "Mecca", with the family owned Tepper's in the center of downtown, Rosenbaum's a block to the east and Bamberger's another block east. Between these department stores were the many local specialty stores. Working downtown at Lou Spiegels Buck and Bennie's sports goods store in the 50's, I saw an interesting from train and bus travel to the automobile. Many shopper would come to Plainfield on Thursday night and Saturdays from towns to the west along the Jersey Central Line. Downtown would be mobbed with people. The 70s saw all that disappear. Perhaps the energy problems of today will renew the local and mass transit shopping of the past.

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