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.


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Mrs. Walter J. Katsellas said...

Oh dear, your article took me on a shopping trip down memory lane.

Retail History Buff... said...

Interesting history of the Wilkes Barre Dept stores, however, there is one blaring error in your article.. Contrary to what you state, the Agnes flood did not put an end to Lazarus. In fact, following the flood, the city built Midtown Village Plaza on South Main St and Lazarus opened a side entrance facing the plaza ... Lazarus did eventually close in 1980 as a corporate decision!!!

Unknown said...

Interesting article for me as the last survivor of Bergman's. The Narrows Shopping Center became the West Side Mall in the 1980's. We did survive the Agnes flood and eventually closed in 1991,

camwak said...

Gilbert Walker was my Gt. Uncle born in the little Scottish village of Killin , one of twenty children he could be said to have lived the"American Dream " rising from poverty to riches . I have a number of his letters home (some on Fowler,Dick and Walker headed paper) recounting his early days in the U.S. And how he travelled some 800 miles by coach to find the right site for the first store.
Unfortunately he had no children but sent some £500 per year home to his brother John a generous gesture which his widow continued until her death and which helped to keep the family afloat . if of any interest to yor local historians

honchojock said...

Folks in Wilkes-Barre are very fortunate to still have a downtown department store, Boscov's. Glad Al took back the chain and the middle market is still being served with dignity by Boscov's in the markets it operates.

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