Monday, May 11, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 29

Bowman's Department Store, at 314 Market St., was one of Harrisburg's two downtown department stores. It and Pomeroy's, the larger store, were located nearly adjacent to each other on Market Street, up which commerce had moved when it outgrew all being on Market Square on Second Street. You can't see it in this photo, but there is a large "B" on the front of the building.

Pomeroy's building is gone (it was where the new tall building is at the top of the photo), as is the main Pomeroy store in Reading, but the Bowman building still is there. There originally were Bowman brothers. One, Samuel, split off and kept the branch store in Carlisle, which also was known as Bowman's but for most of its career was run by Albert Watson, who was not a Bowman but bought the store and kept the name. John Bowman ended up with the Harrisburg store, which went down through his family -- sons William and Harry (yes, perhaps the Bowmans inspired Prince Charles), and descendants Russell Charles and John Delaney.

Bowman's from the 1950s opened suburban stores, such as one at the east end of Harrisburg near the end of Market Street, as well as expanding to other cities. In the mid-1950s it purchased Bittner's Department Store in Sunbury, Pa., and created a division called Bowman's Sunbury Inc., which not only ran a small department store in Danville, Pa., but also had a suburban branch in Sunbury -- impressive in a town of about 15,000 people. The branch bore the wonderful 1950s name "Bowman's Fashionalia." In the late 1960s, the chain picked up the S.S. Weiss Inc. store in Pottsville as well. But like most independent department stores, it became noncompetitive when the enclosed malls opened -- Harrisburg became a target of the large Philadelphia stores, such as Wanamakers and Gimbels, and while the Allied Stores-owned Pomeroy's could soldier on, the writing was on the wall for Bowman's.

In some ways, stores such as Bowman's, Wasson's in Indianapolis, and the Interstate chain of myriad Grand Leaders and Stillman's paid the price for being too quick with suburban stores -- they opened branches long before their rivals, in an effort to compete with discount stores in a car-oriented America, but then were already committed to locations and strategy before it became apparent that enclosed regional megamalls were the shopping location of choice in the 1970s and 1980s. In Indianapolis, Wasson's Eastgate-Eagledale-Meadows branch system looked OK even with there not being a Wasson's store at upscale Glendale, but when Lafayette Square, the city's first enclosed mall, opened a mile from Eagledale, it was over. (Newspapers, of course, were, despite the rap, early and enthusiastic in their attempts to make use of the Internet -- but their portal-based strategy did not adapt well to links and search. You can get to the party too early.)

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