Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Department Store Buildings of York, Pa. No. 1

York, Pa., a small city west of Harrisburg, was like Wilkes-Barre in that it was the home of a number of department stores, one of which had a significant impact on national retailing. That is the Bon-Ton, which still operates a large chain of stores. Here's a look at what was the main Bon-Ton store in downtown York; which became the corporate headquarters even after the store had closed.

The company name was S. Grumbacher & Son for many years, and it started in Trenton, N.J., as Grumbacher Bros., involving Samuel and Jacob Grumbacher. The brothers went their own ways and Samuel Grumbacher maintained his own store, which eventually became S. Grumbacher & Son when Max Grumbacher became a partner. Grumbacher's sons and sons-in-law spread across Pennsylvania to open their own Bon-Ton stores; Louis Samler in Lebanon was notably successful, but Max's move to York created the modern chain. The story of the Bon-Ton is too extensive to relate here; the Wikipedia article outlines how it sucked up Hess's, AM&A's, and eventually Carson Pirie Scott and Younkers after its own regional expansion that included buying Eyerly's in Hagerstown, Md., and opening branches in downtowns close to York in the 1950s. The Bon-Ton has had struggles in recent years as one of the last determinedly midrange department store chains. A new leader was named this year, the first from outside the Grumbacher family, which still owns the company. Here's hoping he can turn the Bon-Ton around. The picture shows the Bon-Ton store at 100 W. Market St. after its false front from the 1950s had been removed; it had a large Bon-Ton logo on it and the name S. Grumbacher & Son as well. Rooftop views such as this show the persistence of the skylights that let in light before there was today's level of electric lighting, and I'm assuming that all the area with the same color of roofing belonged to the store.

York also had (not pictured here) the farthest-east branch I have been able to find of the Interstate Department Stores brands, although it is rumored there was one near Troy, N.Y. In the mid-1920s, a Stillman's was opened in the building at 31 E. Market St. that had housed James McLean & Sons, then the oldest department store in York. Rudolph Blick, one of the Interstate "old hands" from the Midwest, was the first manager, and as near as I can tell another one of them, Franklyn Mason, was in charge when the store closed in the late 1960s, when lower-end department stores were being wiped out by discounters and the York market had been invaded by Baltimore-based Hochschild Kohn with a new mall store, which led the Bon Ton and another York store, P. Wiest's Sons, to make suburban moves of their own. Stillman's was to the east of the city's other department stores. In 1940 it moved into a new building right next door that was the first air-conditioned department store in York.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Die, Infurior Bieng!

Some department store buildings from York, Pa., are lined up and were to appear today, but some things are just too good to pass by.

In Canada's National Post on Feb. 13, a writer named Yoni Goldstein decided to hail what he sees as the imminent end of copy editing as a good thing for the world. That is, unless this was a piece of satire so deep that it already would have closed on Saturday night.

First, let's take it as a simple expression of his opinion. There's no point in getting into his ad hominem descriptions of we who are "cynical, gruff, and weird in social situations" or his feeling that copy editors only apply "arcane" style rules. The Washington Post once famously wrote an article in which it characterized what "all" Pentecostals are like. We all get a certain license to be idiots.

It is Goldstein's conclusion that would raise this to the level of extreme Internet utopianism. He writes:

"... Online news sites and blogs tend to be nearly completely unconcerned with the kinds of typos and grammatical errors that copy editors are paid to seek out and fix. ... Still, this is no reason to get sentimental about the lowly copy editor. If he is unacknowledged within the newsroom and a relic online, it is because we as readers have evolved. We no longer sweat the small stuff of proper hyphenation and correct usage of semi-colons - it's the ideas and opinions that we're after. If a few words here and there are misspelled, so what? We're smart enough to know it hardly matters to the quality of the story or argument."

As I said, this COULD be simply a piece of satire written with tongue so far in cheek as to not be visible.  Because it turns out that Yoni Goldstein, M.A. in English literature, 2003, at York University, former editorial board member of the National Post, former assistant editor of the Canadian magazine Maclean's, and former editor of something called the Book for Men, and current blogger for the Huffington Post Canada, also writes pieces such as this:

"Reaction to [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper's Davos announcement of coming changes to Old Age Security was predictable. "Poor old people" was the general tenor -- one day they're heading jauntily toward retirement at 65, but now, because of our emotionless jerk of a prime minister, they'll have to work an extra two years.

"Well, boo hoo. Am I the only one unmoved by the 'Won't someone think about the old people' cries? Because it seems to me that working an extra two years is the least old people and soon-to-be-old baby boomers can do for the rest of us....

"Oldies have already been working for 40 years; they're used to the routine and it's my understanding that old people love sticking to routines -- that they turn into shriveled head cases when their daily schedules don't follow predictable patterns. So staying at work (combined with regular consumption of prunes) is actually the healthiest option for them....

"We know that we know more than you -- we've grown up in a world where all knowledge is available at the click of a mouse. The collective wisdom of the Internet trumps your meandering stories of personal hardships. We're the wise ones, not you.

"So, old people, it's time to get up off the couch and make yourselves useful. No more free rides here."

So at this point, I might be saying: Yoni, what you would truly need a copy editor to tell you is, I didn't know Jonathan Swift, but you're not Jonathan Swift. At some point, you've got to put a phrase in, a wink-wink, that says, "Hey, folks, I'm writing this as satire." Simply being over the top no longer counts, because people who really believe what you're poking fun at have been there before you and have said it already. Part of the collective wisdom of the Internet is that it is impossible to be over the top. Someone will try to surpass you just to show he or she can. And despite the old saw, words can harm.

When the Internet era was just catching fire, Mickey Kaus, one of the earliest big-name political bloggers, wrote enthusiastically about the layoff of copy editors (in what by today's terms would be small numbers) at the Los Angeles Times. I can't find it in a search of Kausfiles, it was years ago. Kaus' point was that some reporter he knew at the Times could write, as he saw it, flawless copy on a wristwatch keypad, and that all that copy editors did was mangle this 100 percent wordsmithing with their useless questions and "arcane" rules. It was clear that Kaus had had his subjunctive modes tied up in a knot about this for some time. He was not being satirical.

In this, he reminded me of a former editor at a newspaper far, far way and his tale to me of why he had abolished the local copy desk: "I'm a smart guy. I was a reporter for 20 years. Copy editors asked me a lot of dumb questions. Savvy?" Well, I savvied, and praised the stars I was leaving.

He may have been a smart guy, though I must humbly admit it was not apparent to me. He may have written flawless copy. He may have had copy editors who were obsessed with small points or arbitrary rules they couldn't back up. My experience in 35 years in newspapers is that most reporters do not write flawless copy, and about two-thirds of them know that. Those who do write nearly flawlessly for the most part appreciate the backstop. Those who do not and know it appreciate that someone is there to make their work better or at least stop it from being misinterpreted. Those who do not appreciate it tend to see writing as a form of masturbation -- I'm giving myself pleasure, and man, it feels good.

So either Yoni Goldstein thought he was aiding the cause of copy editing -- but did so too subtly that it was too easy to believe him, in a world where business-side cost cutters, egomaniacal writers, editors in chief obsessed with "feet on the street" are constantly looking for justification to get rid of all those picky, delaying, self-righteous copy editors who don't understand today's world -- because if you spell the prime minister's name Steven Harbor and follow it with "He're one superdooper dickhed," you'll get more web hits than a reasoned piece of political commentary will draw. ("Fuckin'-A! The prime minister's a dickhead! Pass me another Molson.") Canadian humor can be more savagely cutting than American. Or perhaps Yoni really does spend his days doing hand jobs. Perhaps he will enlighten us. A contribution to support the American Copy Editors Society -- which does have Canadian members -- would be a nice way to show it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Department Store Building of the Wyoming Valley

Enough philosophizing about newspapers. Time to return to looking at buildings that once housed the department stores that were a city's pride.

Wilkes-Barre, Pa., "the heart of the valley that warms the nation" in the days of anthracite heating, was a great city for department stores -- there were five locally owned major stores in the mid-1950s on one block of South Main Street and around the "diamond," as Public Square is sometimes called. Of those, two buildings remain, one of which amazingly is still a downtown department store.

First, the fallen. Bergman's Department Store was founded during World War I by Justin Bergman. I have not been able to discover whether he was related to the Bergman who owned the Bon-Ton store in Altoona, one of myriad Bon Tons not related to the York, Pa.-based and still-existing Bon-Ton chain. While Bergman's remodeled in 1950 and held an open house, by 1958 it was gone from downtown, having moved to the area's first major shopping center, the Narrows in Edwardsville, which drew from all the towns in the area. Often this sort of thing followed a fire in those days, but I can't see any reference to one. The Bergman family, including "Mike" Bergman Jr. and relatives Seymour and John Dimond and Charles Pfifferling, ran the store until the Hurricane Agnes floods that so devastated the city.

Also a victim of Agnes was the Lazarus Department Store, 57 S. Main St., which had nothing to do with the larger Lazarus chain in Ohio. The store was founded as Lazarus Bros. by Asher and Henry Lazarus in the early 1890s after Asher Lazarus ended his partnership with Solomon Langfeld, who with his own brother Feist operated a department store in Wilkes-Barre for a number of years. In the World War I era the store was sold and reorganized as the Wilkes-Barre Dry Goods Co., which became part of the giant Claflin bankruptcy that spawned two chains. It ended up in the hands of the Milliken family's Mercantile Stores. While Mercantile, which had a strong commitment to its downtown stores, kept its chain going until 1998, the flood damage was too severe for Lazarus to reopen. Lazarus had also had a branch in Pittston.

Then there was the Isaac Long Store at 17 Public Square, one of two major stores founded by Longs in Wilkes-Barre. Isaac Long's descendants Harry and Julius Stern ran the store until 1955, when it was sold to the Cleland-Simpson Co. of Scranton, operator of the Globe Store and for a time owned by John Wanamaker. It also was a victim of the flood.

The large building in the photo in the upper corner of the diamond is the other Long store, which was begun by Jonas Long and then continued as Jonas Long's Sons. The store's original address was on Market Street, which until the 1890s was as prominent a shopping street as Main Street. Jonas Long's sons Charles, Louis, Bernhard, Arthur and Edward took over the store and expanded into Scranton. That may have been too much, because the Scranton store was sold to Isaac Oppenheim and became the Scranton Dry. William MacWilliam, an executive of Fowler, Dick & Walker, then took over the Wilkes-Barre store and for a brief time it was MacWilliam's, which also had a branch in Nanticoke. In the late 1920s Allied Stores purchased it and made it a Pomeroy's unit, thus this is one of the three surviving former downtown Pomeroy's stores, with the others in Pottsville and Easton. Harry Adamy, a spokesman for Pennsylvania merchants in fighting the sales tax in the 1930s, was later pulled away from Lazarus to manage Pomeroy's -- a cross-chain switch that was very rare, people generally moved from store to store within one company..

Pomeroy's opened a suburban branch on Route 6 in the 1960s, but the Great Macyization happened at the Wyoming Valley Mall, where what is now a Macy's was previously a Kaufmann's (Pittsburgh) and a Hess's (Allentown) and had been opened as a Zollinger's (also Allentown). Whew.

Finally -- and still operating -- at the bottom left of the photo, with the greenish front, is the aforementioned Fowler, Dick and Walker, the Boston Store, now a Boscov's branch. George Fowler, Alexander Dick, and Gilbert Walker created the partnership in Wilkes-Barre in 1879 after having worked together in Meriden, Conn.. In 1881 Fowler and Walker moved to Binghamton, N.Y., to open a second store. Walker later opened a third in Evansville, Ind., and the men remained partners even though they were spread across the country. FD&W had other branches across Pennsylvania, New York, and Indiana at various times. In Wilkes-Barre, descendants of Alexander Dick took prominent roles, among them Malcolm Burnside and Millard DeMun; in the 1960s the chairman of the store was named Alexander Dick. (FD&W was clearly a Scots store, although not part of the great Scottish-American department store chain Syndicate Trading.) My colleague Jim Remsen, who grew up near Scranton, remembers radio ads mentioning "Fowler, Dick & Walker." In Binghamton, however, the store was called "Fowler's," perhaps because that was where the Fowler heirs mostly lived. FD&W was sold to Al Boscov in 1980.

A couple of the links here are to a fine local history photo site called "Wyoming Valley Photos" posted by someone I can only see identified as James.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Onward, Part Three

In the early days of “TTPB” it tried to make the point that print offered a pipeline into readers’ homes, and that the newspaper business could forget the concept of a pipeline at its peril. It is cheered by the endorsement of print by Halifax Media, the new owners of the former NYT Regional papers. It hopes the new owners in San Diego find their way. At the same time there are decisions such as that of Booth Newspapers to cut back home delivery to such an extent as to try to force people to get the news online (or at their own inconvenience), which, as Doug Page notes in a controversy-drawing article in News & Tech, simply changes them from one among 1,400 daily newspapers to one of about 100 million websites.

These moves say that the newspaper business is no longer just a one-size-fits-all model in which the New York Times and the Kingman Daily Miner essentially do the same thing. Different companies try different strategies. Time will tell which succeed. And the end product is that cities that now have daily newspapers may not have them, while other cities will – a daily newspaper may be like an Olive Garden, there’s one here and one there, but not one way over there. Not every town big enough to have a daily newspaper has a Macy’s, and nowadays not every town big enough to have a Macy’s has a daily newspaper.

This seems inevitable, though regrettable. But then, the files of the Library of Congress are filled with old titles that when they closed left their cities without a daily newspaper. Here in New Jersey, Union City, Hoboken, Dover, Passaic, Long Branch, Toms River, Elizabeth, Red Bank, all had local daily newspapers that foundered for one reason or another. Typically a larger nearby competitor would pick up part of the slack, but no one covered the heck out of the town in the same way. And local people said, “Sure was nice when we had that Elizabeth Journal,” and either read another paper or watched “Good Morning America.” Somehow for most the gap was filled. (The people in City Hall, of course, varied between exultation – we no longer have someone watching our every move – and agony – we no longer have someone doing a story every day about our every move!)

News is not a necessity. The closing of their local Food Fair or Wrigley Market did not stop people from going to the grocery. Newspapers’ Achilles’ heel has always been their sense of indispensability, because for the most part the people who work for them, business side or news side, find them indispensable and therefore feel, wrongly, that they need do little to promote their use. (Remember the downbeat Renault ads in the 1970s at the end of which George C. Scott intoned, “It sells itself”? Sure are a lot of Renaults on the roads here.) Most of us believe in what we do, and many of us are terrified that we are doing the wrong thing. We need to listen to owners who say, yes, there’s a future for print as well as a future for newspapers in digital. We also need to look for owners who are willing to support that with marketing, with promotion, yes, with progress editions if they want, with intelligent efforts focused on the desires of readers and not the importance of the First Amendment. (The First Amendment is vital, but it’s not going to make me buy a newspaper.)

Newspapers are too un-hip to do a Cadillac-style reinvention to the voice of Robert Plant, but they need to avoid how Oldsmobile spiraled into the grave by having a choir out of a 1950s soap ad sing, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Because we cannot simply change ourselves into the Huffington Post. And we need to not listen to the people who say, there is no future for you unless you do exactly what I say, which, amazingly enough, is exactly what I want to do.

We need to remind ourselves that a website got it wrong about Paterno, CBS got it wrong about Paterno, and yes, some newspapers got it wrong about Paterno, but the AP didn’t, the New York Times didn’t, my own newspaper didn’t, most newspapers didn’t, not in print or online, and the reason is that we don’t see ourselves as organizations throwing out the baby to have the coolest 21st-century bathwater you’ve ever seen. At the same time, we need to remember that Hearst’s people made things up, Pulitzer’s people made things up, there have always been and always will be journalists who make things up or publish half-baked rumors because they’re good stories.

Part of the reason newspapers cracked down on this was that their advertisers wanted a reliable, truthful, respected medium in which to advertise so that their own ads would be seen as believable. Left to ourselves, we could have kept on writing the legend. Storytelling is easier when you can fill in the gaps with speculation or obtain the information by, say, tapping into someone’s voicemail illegally; when you can say, “Hey, someone told us this, what are we going to do, not publish it?” Yes. Someone will publish it anyway these days. It just shouldn't be you.

We need to acknowledge that in many ways we will always be unhip and that even if we end up publishing only a tablet-based product with an associated website, what we do is compile, create, and distribute a product to customers, and the ideals of journalism and the needs of the writer are part of that but are not the core or only competency of the industry. We want to meet people’s needs for a journalistic product, but we are not foundations to underwrite journalism. It just seemed that way when newspapers were licenses to print money. A foundation may be a successful journalistic model, on a small scale with a tight focus. But it has not been terribly successful in the newspaper business and it would be folly to try to make ourselves into it. As Page wrote, “Your job as a newspaper executive is to figure out how to successfully operate in these tricky times while still holding your business true to what it is: a newspaper.” It is easier to ignore this if you believe that your business is simply journalism.

If you want to be a pure journalist, with no strings holding you back in your service to society; if you want to analyze the communications patterns of a wired world and write articles on paradigm shifts; that world offers you more opportunity than ever before. Good luck to you. And then there is the newspaper business, which, despite what its many critics say, does not exist only as a sort of catalyst to allow the creation of journalism. Unlike the motto of “Newspaper Death Watch,” the death of newspapers would not necessarily bring about the rebirth of journalism. It would just be the death of newspapers. Journalism might be better. It might be worse. Newspapers are not what holds journalism back from the salvation of the world. The inherent limits of journalism and human nature do that. Newspapers exist to bring a community together and they exist to sell dry goods. They exist to shine a light on society and they exist to not gratuitously offend longtime readers. They exist to take principled stands against the misuse of power and they exist to be part of the town’s power structure. They exist to quote professors decrying the hold sports has over their campuses and they exist to run 16 columns of college sports results on Sunday. Newspapering is a business, and journalism is an idea.

Newspapers employ journalists, but do not exist simply to enable them. If that becomes the case, the focus becomes them and not the customers. Which of the business practices being trotted out now will be successful, we will see. But newspapers need to remember what they are about, even though scores of journalists will deride them for that and work to make them feel uncomfortable about themselves.