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Gone But Not Forgotten

Strawbridge's - The Last of the Great Philadelphia Department Stores to Close


When I was growing up in the Philadelphia area, one of my favorite times of the year began with Thanksgiving and lasted through the Christmas and New Year's holidays. The Gimbel’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was never as big or grand as the parade in New York City sponsored by Gimbels' competitor, Macy's, but it was our parade and we loved it. My family would always take one day to go downtown, shop and visit the Christmas displays at the city's major department stores: Gimbel’s, Lit Brothers, Strawbridge and Clothier and John Wanamaker's.

Gimbel’s had a great toy department and their Santa was the "real" Santa, since we all had seen him in the parade. Lit Brothers had the Enchanted Colonial Village with 18 great scenes like the Toymaker, the Bakery, the Blacksmith and many more. Strawbridge and Clothier was the most decorated store and the employees were always so friendly. Wanamaker's had their Christmas Light Show that we had to see every year, even though it never changed.

In 1977 the Gallery at Market East opened and everything began to change for the city's great department stores as downtown welcomed its first mall. Lit Brothers filed for bankruptcy and soon after closed its stores. Gimbel’s, which had opened in 1894 moved from their stand alone store at 8th and Market into the Gallery, but by 1986 they too went out of business, eventually replaced by a K-Mart.

Wanamaker's opened in 1876 and was the first department store in Philadelphia and one of the first, if not the first department store in the United States. It was known for its honest reputation and for innovating many retailing firsts in America. In 1978, after years of declining sales, the Wanamaker family trust sold the stores to Los Angeles, California-based Carter Hawley Hale Stores. In 1986 Carter Hawley Hale sold the stores to Detroit real estate businessman A. Alfred Taubman who in turn sold them in 1995 to May Department Stores. The downtown Wanamaker's was turned into Lord & Taylor and another great department store name was gone. (At least the Christmas Light Show remains.)

The final blow to Philadelphia's great department store tradition happened in late July 2005 when Federated Department Stores, Inc. announced that it will be doing away with the Strawbridge’s name as part of it's merger with May Department Stores. Sometime in 2006, the Market Street Strawbridge’s store will become a Macy's and in local malls where a Macy's already exists along with a Strawbridge’s, the Strawbridge’s properties will be closed.

Justus C. Strawbridge first opened a store in Philadelphia in 1861 and then partnered with Isaac H. Clothier in 1868. For the next 128 years Strawbridge and Clothier remained a family owned and run company known for its great relationship with its employees and customers. It was where I first applied for a job after graduating from college in 1976.

The 1980's were difficult for Strawbridge and Clothier which became the target of a hostile takeover organized by one of the family's own members who was disenchanted by the store's declining sales and poor bottom line results. Finally in 1996, the board of directors, made up mostly of members of the Strawbridge family, agreed to sell their stores to the May Company. The May Company renamed the stores as simply Strawbridge's - which was how most shoppers had long nicknamed the stores. I've often joked with my wife that by the time we die, there will be just one bank, one insurance company and one department store left. Mergers and acquisitions are part of our lives today, but it's sad to see the old names of our youth disappear. Unfortunately, there are no signs that this trend will stop anytime soon.

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