Goodbye: Barney’s, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Filene’s Basement, Century 21.. Beloved Stores That Don’t Exist Anymore!
By Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Syosset, New York
Research shows that women who spend a lot of time shopping live longer and are less likely to suffer from depression.
In 2020, more than 6,300 stores were set to close across the U. S.
Alphabetically speaking, goodbye to A&S, Barney’s, Brooks Brothers, Gymboree, John’s Bargain Stores, Charlotte Russe, Korvettes, Loehmann’s, Lord & Taylor, Modell’s, Payless Shoes, Robert Hall, Rogers Peet, Syms, Tower Records…
The New York Times ran this headline in 2020: “Goodbye to the Way We Used to Shop.” Newsday announced in 2020: “Brooks Brothers, suit maker to presidents, goes bankrupt.”
Shown below is a trip down Memory Lane as we revisit SOME of our favorite stores:
Brooks Brothers—a 200-year-old company— dressed nearly every U. S. president. Abraham Lincoln was wearing a Brooks Brothers coat when he was assassinated in 1865. President Kennedy wore a Brooks Brothers’ two-button suit. Their flagship store was on Madison Avenue, NYC. and they made nearly $1 billion in sales in 2019. The pandemic pushed them into Chapter 11.
Barneys—Ginia Bellafante wrote, “…it is hard to describe the energy that pervaded Barney’s during the 1990s… Beyond the store’s great innovations, the garments themselves seemed to encode an entirely new understanding of felinity. The clothes weren’t for women supported by rich men; nor were they intended for anyone coming apart beneath the term of her own ambitions. Everywhere you looked you saw the sort of person who had come to New York to be: uncompromised, assured, inspired, composed.”
Throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the retailer was depicted in shows like Sex and the City and Will and Grace.
Cintra Wilson (Robb Report) wrote: “To devoted fashionistas, the demise of Barneys has been a blow almost comparable to hearing that David Bowie died again, or watching someone saw a Steinway in half to use wood for a bonfire.”
Modell’s—Morris A. Modell opened his first store on Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan in 1889. It sold hats and gloves to people getting off ships from Europe. The store was known for its catchy “Gotta Go to Mo’s” jingle as much as its jerseys and sneakers. In1992, Mitchell Modell paid $25,000 to a N. J.-based company for the jingle. Modell’s employed about 3,600 employees and claimed to be the oldest sporting goods retailer. Neiman Marcus—The Manhattan Neiman Marcus store boasted in-house aestheticians, live cooking and mixology demonstrations. Their fitting rooms were complete with interactive touch screens. The store was founded in Dallas in 1907. It became famous for its extravagant Xmas catalog. It became the first department store to hold a weekly fashion show for customers. In 1983, Frederick Wiseman made a documentary about it titled simply, “The Store.” As is true with many department stores, they had difficulty transforming itself for customers who are doing their shopping online.
Robert Hall—Robert Hall was a pioneer of the lowoverhead, “big box” store, founded in 1937 by Jacob Schwab. They flourished from 1938 to 1977. Their commercial jingle: When the values go down down down, Robert Hall this season Will show you the reason Low overheads - low overheads. Rogers Peet—Rogers Peet was a men’s clothing co. founded in 1874. What made them innovative? They attached tags to garments giving fabric composition. They marked garments with price tags (the established practice was to haggle). And, they offered customers their money back if not satisfied.
- J. Korvette—An American chain of discount dept. stores founded in 1948 in NYC. Their discounts were one-third off regular prices. They had the best record departments that was only beaten by Sam Goodys. They carried every classic and jazz album in print. The B-52s referred to Korvettes in the song, “Give Me Back My Man.” The lyrics go: “Walking out of Korvettes, Package in her hand, Motions to all the seabirds, throws divinity on the sand.” In 1977 Bette Midler appeared in person at their NYC store. She greeted her fans and autographed her newest release on Atlantic, LIVE AT LAST. Red head Midler kibitzed with everyone. They closed in 1980.
Loehmann’s—Frieda Loehmann opened its first store on Bedford Ave. and Sterling Place in B’klyn. It grew to a chain of off-price stores and was best-known for its “Back Room,” where women interested in fashion could find designer clothes at prices lower than in dept. stores. Shoppers, with names like Sylvia, searched through the racks of clothing often bearing obscure foreign labels; time to wait in line to get into the communal dressing room. Here, perfect strangers would comment: “Too loose, too tight, a schmatta, or really good value. No one minced words. Others remember the waiting area in Loehmann’s; it was filled with bored men!
Syms—This off-price retail clothing store chain, was founded by Sy Syms in 1958. The company also owned Filene’s Basement.
In late night TV pitches that began in 1974, Sy Syms became famous for his slogan: “An Educated Customer is our Best Customer.” Some have written that Syms was “America’s largest dumping ground for leftover Givenchy suits.” Syms had suits bearing labels like Givenchy and Brioni, which could be found sprinkled among lesser known garments by the dozen. Syms bought in bulk, in cash, and agreed not to advertise the brands, snipping off the labels at the checkout counter. A 1985 Forbes article said that Syms profit margin was among the highest in all of retailing, about 13% before income taxes.
Syms donated millions toYeshiva University in NY, which named the business school for him.
John’s Bargain Stores—John’s was a chain of discount housewares and appliance stores from 1927 to the mid-1970s. The founder was Harry Cohen. The store, with its big red sign and white lettering, grazed the low end of retailing, relying on paying cheap renter locations few other retailers wanted. The stores were mostly located in working class and lower income neighborhoods. “Give us your mistakes and we’ll make them pay” was a company slogan.
At its peak in the mid-1960s, John’s had 527 stores. A staple item was the accessory sets from the James Bond and Man From Uncle dolls (action figures), at 29 cents each set. By the mid-1070s they were gone. Century 21—Century 21 was a famous New York discount store chain. It attracted bargain hunters for 60 years. Its tagline: “New York’s Best Kept Secret.” “The store represented the quintessential New York deal,” said Vincent Quan. Carrie Bradshaw (“Sex and the City”) ambled through the store. Their business was in serious jeopardy due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They closed in 2020 and about 4,000 employees lost their jobs.
Tower Records—Until the 1960s, there weren’t many record stores outside of the Sam Goody chain in N. Y. Russ Solomon, of Tower Records, revolutionized music retailing until it was swamped by iPods, big-box stores and other dramatic changes in the industry. The Sacramento Bee (3/5/2018) carried this headline: Founder Of Tower Records Dies At 92 While Drinking Whiskey And Watching The Oscars.
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of two books: Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers and Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction? Yiddish Trivia.