Friday, December 2, 2016

When the Holiday Season Gets Out of Control, it's Time for me to Read About Department Stores - a Review of Linda B. Forgosh's "Louis Bamberger."

As a bookseller for many years, I have always found it interesting to spot trends. This comes in handy at Boswell, of course. Even though I don't do the buying, I can certainly make some good predictions about what's going to work. Honestly, I can also make some bad predictions. It can sometimes make for good displays, and it often gives me something interesting to say when I am speaking to groups about books, such as at my Shorewood Public Library talk on December 3, at 11 am.*

This interest in trends is certainly not limited to books. I have followed retail stores for all of my adult life, which is one of the reasons Boswell has a display of private label bandage tins. They'd all be store brands if I could have found enough - alas, I had to fill it out with Curad and the like. And having just done a bit of retail browsing, in stores, catalogs, and websites, I have noticed, for example, three pushes in menswear.

1. Fancy flannel. The nicest casual shirts in retail seem to be flannel. I don't have the numbers, but there's clearly been a resurgence this season. But it's not just the percentage of shelf space - I have noticed more retailers and websites featuring less rugged, more streetsmart options. Some shirts seem ready to wear with a sports jacket or even a suit. I remember seeing this in a Dayton's in St. Paul a number of years ago, and still have a snazzy sample from the display.

2. Dull colors with doodads. This is something I noticed this season when trying to replace a ratty cardigan and a wool car coat with a broken zipper. "Sir, would you like that in black, charcoal, or a navy so dark it actually looks black? Nevermind, we actually don't have navy - it's just annother shade of black. But we have sweater inserts and tabs and contrasting knit patterns and fabrics and buttons on top of zippers." I spotted what I wanted in one catalog - a plain cut wool coat in an interesting but still dark color, but there was only a topcoat option, just a car coat. I know the sportier down and performance winterwear comes in lots of colors, but that's not what I want. So I may spend the $30 estimate and fix the zipper, even though the coat is not in great shape and came from a discount store with the original cost being not much more than the price of repair.

3. Pleats are sneaking back up on men like the Jaws theme. I've seen this in The New York Times and am now noticing "how to wear pleats" features in fashion catalogs. Of course they never went away for some, but once the pleatless look became dominant, something has to change. Sort of like tie width. It certainly hasn't gone widespread yet, but within a couple of seasons it should be ascendant again.

I guess I was in the mood to talk about fashion because I just finished reading Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, by Linda B. Forgosh. Bamberger's (or Bam's, I've now learned) was the leading department store of New Jersey, starting in 1892, with the nameplate disappearing in 1986. It was only independent until 1929, when Louis, having lost his business partner Felix Fuld, 74 and with no heirs, he sold to Macy's. But it was such a strong name that despite Macys rebranding their Kansas City and San Francisco operations almost immediately,** they kept the Bamberger name in tact for almost 50 years, using it for new suburban branches as well.

Here's how I know that Forgash, the Executive Director of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, and Brandeis University Press, were more interested in his work as a philantropist - no list of branches! I'm sure there's a History or Arcadia Press book for that, or I could visit the Department Store Museum website.

Bamberger's really was an amazing feat. Newark grew to the 14th largest city in America, but Bamberger's was the sixth largest store in America, all in the shadow of New York City. If you grew up in New York, you know that New Jersey was another world. They read different newspapers - the Newark Star Ledger and the Jersey Journal. I once took the PATH to New Jersey, to visit Hahne's and the just-renamed-to-Macy's Bambergers, and remember paying an outrageous long distance charge for a phone call. Fortunately Louis B's restaurant was still open. I ate there of course.

Did you know that L. Bamberger and Company had the first department store radio station, WOR, which still broadcasts to this day? Did you know that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade actually was a Bamberger's ritual from 1924, and moved to New York in 1929? And while their magazine that went to their better customers, Charm, folded in the depression, per Forgosh, it was actually folded into Glamour, which also continues to this day?

I'm not playing down the philanthropy. Bamberger contributed to and participated in all sorts of charitable endeavors. While not religious, he understood the plight of Jewish immigrants and funded Newark's YM-YWHA (the equivalent of Milwaukee's JCC). Jewish doctors couldn't practice so he helped with the Jewish hospital. Newark. Newark needed culture so Bamberger started the Newark Museum. The Bamberger Award for Scholarship went to deserviing high school students for many years after his death.

Perhaps his greatest non-retail achievement was the Institute for Advanced Study. While he hoped it might be situated in Newark, Bamberger was convinced to move it to somplace with a stronger university culture, which is how it wound up in Princeton. If you want to know more, including how Einstein became part of it, Forgosh tells you all about it.

As detailed as the book was, I wanted to know more. Louis grew up the child of Hutzlers, who had their own department store in Baltimore. Why was he left out of that, having to head to New York and then Newark to make his fortune? A bachelor who lived with his business partner and his sister (who married his partner after her first husband died!), I can only imagine the story Renee Rosen (What the Lady Wants, on Marshall Field) could find in the historical archives, had her literary interest not been focused on Chicago.

There is clearly another story in Mr. Bamberger's life, but alas, being that few people outside of New Jersey probably even know who he is, it might be written, but probably won't be published, unless Philip "Mr. Newark" Roth decides to write another book. But for retail junkies*** like myself, there's plenty to enjoy, such as Bamberger's annual poultry show!

*That's tomorrow, for folks reading this essay on the day of posting.

**In Kansas City they bought O'Connor Moffatt and Company, and in San Francisco, their acquisition was John Taylor Dry Goods.

***Because of my junkie nature, I have to point out that when listing stores with distinctive clocks, the author mentions Ayer's of Indianapolis. I know she meant Ayres (or formally, L.S. Ayres and Company). Lyman's last name ended in s, so were you to use the possessive, it would be Ayres' or Ayres's, depending on which style guide you used. But the store itself did not use an apostrophe, until the last sign was removed, circumventing this issue.

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