Retail Stores and Outlets and the Growth of the Penn Street Merchants
by Michael Henderson
Jews in Reading made their living as merchants and peddlers dating back as early as the late 1800’s. As their businesses grew (many family owned), Penn Street was lined with expanding retail stores. These business owners were referred to as the Penn Street merchants. These stores helped bring a sense of pride and culture to the community. Their impact on Reading is important to note.
Coming to Reading
Some of the earliest known settlers in Reading were three men named Lyon Nathan, Meyer Josephson and Israel Jacobs. They appeared in tax lists in the 1750’s, and likely traded with families and Indians in the nearby countryside .They also bought products from their coreligionists in Philadelphia, the Gratz brothers. Original letters written by Josephson in Yiddish are in the possession of the American Jewish Historical Society as part of the Gratz papers presented to the society many years ago.1
Josephson, who described himself as a country shop keeper in phonetic Yiddish, came to America in about 1740 and lived in Reading from about 1755 to the early 1770’s when he moved to Philadelphia. In one letter, he speaks of going to Lancaster for Yom Kippur probably at the home of Joseph Simon, an early founder of Lancaster. He ordered from the latter most of the goods which he sold in his store. By 1836 there are records of 8 Jews living in Reading. Most of these men became merchants with various kinds of clothing stores or manufacturers of hats.2
The Penn Street Merchants
While Reading provided many different places for retailers to set up shop, Penn Street in Reading seemed to be the place that everyone gathered. It is commonly remarked, even today, that business owners, both active and retired, can remember a time in which most, if not all, of the businesses on Penn Street were owned by people in the Jewish community. Penn Street was home to a great array of different business selling everything one would need.
The grandfather of Robert Pollack, Solomon, owner of Pollack’s furs, migrated to Schuylkill County in 1900 as a Russian immigrant. He came from New York to Pennsylvania looking for greener pastures. He peddled furs and other better outerwear in the coal regions of Berks, Schuylkill and Lebanon County. He sold to beauty salon owners, madams of brothels and dress shops. Ultimately, he settled in Pottsville. He opened a second store in 1926, which served as the headquarters. He died in a car crash three months later. Robert’s grandmother, Sarah, took over the business. The Depression hit and she had to sell the busi- ness to the Geller Brothers of New York. The Geller brothers got into a car accident traveling from New York to Pottsville trying to foreclose on her.3
When Robert’s father, Harold, became 21, he got his inheritance and bought shares of the business from the Gellers’. His father and grandmother operated the store for years together and then Robert’s uncle, Bernard, came into the business in 1936. The store opened at 127 N. 5th St. in downtown Reading in 1959. In 1992, the Pottsville store closed and Reading became the headquarters. Their business is now located at 541 Penn Ave. in West Reading.4
Hyman Bloom founded Bloom Furniture store in 1914 at 339 South Sixth St. He was the only worker in the beginning, but as time passed, he added new employees and moved to larger quarters. Although it was very successful, Bloom furniture eventually closed in 1992. Jack Leifer, owner of Bloom, cited the economic slump and the decline of downtown Reading as the main reasons.5
George Gilman, a former resident of Reading, opened Gilman’s Department Store in 1960 on the Northeast corner of 7th and Penn Streets. In 1952, the Gilmans had sold their business on the southwest corner of 7th and Penn Streets and moved to Florida. They own the build- ing that they reoccupied. Gilman decided to open the store because “the public favors downtown shopping. The public wants to shop and where else can they shop better than on Penn street where the selections are the largest and the prices are competitive.”6
Jack Gerber came to Reading in 1930 as the shoe manager at Mary Sach’s department store on North 9th Street. Mary Sachs closed during the depression, and Gerber took over the shoe department at Gilbert’s, where he stayed until 1946. He then went into business for himself at 503 Penn Street and established Jack Gerber’s Fine Shoes, a specialty store for women and children. He established niche departments and was well known for hard-to-fit sizes and bridal wear. He was especially good at matching bridal shoes to gowns.
Lobel’s, owned by Samuel and Hyman Lobel, was located at 518 Penn Street. On August 18th, 1936, a Reading Eagle article stated that Lobel’s was growing. In two years, Lobel’s had become the headquarters in Berks County for children’s clothing. As stated in an ad in an April 1975 edition of the Reading Eagle, Lobel’s was “First choice with mothers because we sell clothes that children like at prices that parents appreciate.”7
Boscov’s on North Ninth Street
A young man named Solomon Boscowitz left his home in a small village in Russia, crossed Europe on foot and found passage on a boat to America. He arrived in 1911 in his early 20s. After struggling as a vendor in Washington D.C. and then delivering Western Union telegrams, he moved to Reading due to the heavy Yiddish speaking population there. It turned out the particular dialect was actually Pennsylvania Dutch. But Solomon Boscov, the shortened form of his surname, found that not only could he grasp the language, he was welcomed by the people who spoke it. Boscov established himself as a peddler, selling different merchandise such as handkerchiefs, underwear and suspenders.8
By the late 1910’s he had become a partner in a general merchandise store, and in 1921, he opened his own store in a row house at 1401 N. Ninth St. The living room was the storefront and Boscov, his wife and three kids lived in the back of the house and upstairs. As it became successful, the store grew. Boscov bought out the neighbors on Ninth Street and converted the homes to retail use, ultimately occupying 1401-1413 N. Ninth St.9
Solomon established the very first Boscov’s store at 9th and Pike Streets in Reading in 1921. Through hard work, honest and loyal co-workers, fair prices and quality merchandise, the small store expanded every year. In 1954, Solomon’s son Albert and son-in-law, Edwin Lakin, joined the company, and the original store was renovated and enlarged. Albert Boscov’s love of advertising had an immediate impact on the company as the newspaper ads were enlarged and made more exciting.10
November 1962: The company began its expansion program with the opening of an exciting, contemporary “Boscov’s West”.
August 1965: It was then followed by a “North” located in the Reading Fairground Mall in Muhlenberg Township.
February 1967: A fire destroyed the 9th and Pike street store, called Boscov’s East.
November 1967: Boscov’s West was destroyed by a fire, and the new Boscov’s East opened in Exeter Township.
November 1968: There was a re-opening of Boscov’s West.
August 1972: The first Boscov’s store outside of Berks County opened in the Lebanon Valley Mall.
January 2002: Boscov’s announces purchase of Strawbridge’s store at the Berkshire Mall.
Today: Boscov’s Department Stores currently have 39 stores reaching across 5 states in the Mid Atlantic region of the country.11
Albert Boscov, the child of a retailer, discussed how other children did not have to stay in the same business as their parents. “There was no requirement for the children to stay in the business. Some did it because they liked it. A lot of them became professionals. Lawyers, doctors, all of the things you couldn’t do here.”12
Albert also discussed how the Jewish holidays affected the industry. “In those days, when there was a Jewish holiday, Penn Street was closed. Because you have to remember the early generations were very religious and so they were closed,” said Boscov. This stands in stark contrast to the way stores operate today.13
Penn Street Today
The decrease in the amount of these Jewish owned retail stores has taken away something that meant a great deal to them. According to Holocaust survivor Sidney Bratt, “You used to go in the store, and they greeted you by name. They knew your taste in clothing. It’s not what it once was.” Bratt is probably not alone in this feeling; that the increase in regular malls has taken away from the social and personal feel that these retail stores were most known for.14
Retail was a huge part of Jewish culture and everyday life. Other stores such as The Boys Shop, The London Shop, Jeannette Shop, Heather Shop, Kagen’s, The Clothes Tree, Gilbert’s furniture, Joseph’s Men’s Store, and Martin’s Dress Shop provided places where people could purchase goods and find job opportunities that were not always readily avail- able in other industries. The development of shopping malls caused many of these stores to be phased out, but they will always be remembered.
1 Paul A. Leisawitz, M.D. A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County(1990), 2.
3 Robert Pollack, interview with Christine James, November 6, 2010.
4 Robert Pollack, in an interview. Reading Eagle Company Archives. September 24th, 2002.
5 Reading Eagle Company archives. May 23rd, 1939.
6 Reading Eagle Company archives. May 19th, 1960.
7 Reading Eagle Company archives. August 18th, 1936.
8 Reading Eagle Company archives. January 17th, 2002.
11 “About Boscov’s,” December 14, 2010.
12 Albert Boscov, interview with the author, November 18, 2010.
14 Sidney Bratt, in an interview with author on December 15th, 2010.
“About Boscov’s”. http://www.boscovs.com/static/about_boscov/stores_locations.html.
“Bloom Furniture Has Complete Hotpoint Line”, Reading Eagle, May 13th, 1939, pg 17.
“Founder Lived the American Dream” Reading Eagle, January 17th, 2002.
“Gilman’s to Take Over Reading Store”, Reading Eagle, May 19th, 1960.
Leisawitz, Paul. A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County (1990), 2.
“Pollack: Furrier plans to leave the downtown, open store in suburbs”, Reading Eagle, September24th, 2002.
“Realtors Honor Rachman”, Reading Eagle, April 25th, 1975.
“Tomorrow Berks County’s Old Fashioned Dollar Day”, Reading Eagle, August 18th, 1936.