Sunday, April 5, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 28

The Bon-Ton is still an active department store chain today and is still run by the Grumbacher family. The store began in Trenton, N.J., under its longtime corporate name, S. Grumbacher & Son. The son -- Max -- quickly relocated to York, Pa. (there was some connection between Trenton and York, as the Hydeman family owned Yard's in Trenton and Wiest's in York). Max named his store "The Bon Ton," which means both "the smart thing to do" and "the social elite." This was actually the name Louis Samler was already using for his store in Lebanon, Pa., but no matter. Research!

The Bon Ton initially expanded in the 19teens, but those branch stores either closed or were sold to their managers -- the longest-lived lasted in Hazleton, Pa., into the 1960s. Thereafter the Grumbacher empire consisted of the York store and Eyerly's in Hagerstown, Md., until in the late 1940s Max Grumbacher, Jr., started looking for new opportunities. There was no strong local department store in Hanover, a city in the same county known for its shoes; all the stores that had been there had closed. Grumbacher came into the market, but he didn't use a former department store building, he went in at a new site right at the heart of Center Square. This success led to a Eyerly's in downtown Chambersburg, Pa., and a Bon Ton in downtown Carlisle, Pa., in the 1960s, as well as the purchase of the McMeen store in Lewistown, Pa. And then came the mall boom, and Bon Tons started opening up across Pennsylvania, Maryland and beyond. But this store was the first in the Bon Ton's second wave of expansion.

Hanover offers a clear link between department stores and newspapers. Until the Depression, one of its leading stores was J.W. Gitt Co., founded before the Civil War by Josiah W. Gitt. The Battle of Gettysburg was not kind to him, but he prospered and sold his business to his sons. His grandson, also Josiah W., went into the newspaper business. Although he always lived in Hanover, he published the York Gazette & Daily, which during the McCarthy era became known as possibly the most left-wing daily in the country short of the Daily Worker.

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