‘To Boscov’ is to live as Albert would

Albert Boscov had a flair for entertaining store openings and events. Shown here, he dazzles customers with his dancing.

DOVER — With one story after another, Albert Boscov’s legacy flows through the pages of a new book his grandchildren have produced.

The title is “Did you Boscov today?”

Use of his name as a verb now means much more than “to shop” at one of the stores that bears the family name.

Mr. Boscov, who died in February, built a chain of stores in the region, and did so with business smarts, endurance, zany promotions, sincere care for his employees and customers, and love of his family.

“Al Boscov was the Energizer bunny of retail,” wrote his grandson Josh Aichenbaum. “He was a gentle giant at five feet, five inches tall, the last real merchant, a mensch, and so much more, but to me and all my cousins, he was and always has been our ‘Granddaddy Al.’”

Back in January, Mr. Aichenbaum, 29, donned a chaffeur’s cap and served as a driver for his grandfather when cancer was trying to bring Mr. Boscov down.

Mr. Boscov still wanted to work. Even at age 87, he was engaged in the store and deeply invested in revitalization efforts in his home city of Reading, Pennsylvania.

“My grandfather spent his life giving workaholics a good name, and he wasn’t going to stop now,” Mr. Aichenbaum wrote in the book.

When word got out about Mr. Boscov’s illness and later his death, there was an outpouring of support.Hundreds of stories and memories flooded in.

In June, Joanne Barker, a Boscov’s East store manager who has been with the company for more than 40 years, remarked that someone should put them in a book.

Mr. Aichenbaum, who is early in a career a screenwriter, stepped up. He solicited the help of cousins Amelia Xanthe Boscov and Jonah Boscov-Brown to compile the stories. About 100 made the book.

It is now on sale at all Boscov’s stores and online. Proceeds will go to the nonprofit Mr. Boscov created — Our City Reading, Inc.

As you might guess, there are tales of Zippy, the chimp that stole the show at store openings, examples of his unusual business style, and stories of his warmth and care for so many people.

Some will make you laugh. Others will bring a tear to your eye.

***

Thirty-five years ago, Dover welcomed the Boscov’s Department Store to its “new” mall.

It was the ninth Boscov’s location and first in Delaware.

The unforgettable day featured Mr. Boscov joining comedian Henny Youngman and actress Dorothy Lamour for entertainment and a ribbon-cutting. During all the official chatter, Little Zippy the chimp swept in and cut the ribbon, stealing the show.

Mr. Boscov held a special place in his heart for Zippy the Chimp.

Zippy, a star guest of the Ed Sullivan show, was a favorite of Mr. Boscov.

One of the funniest tales in the book relates to Zippy getting sick and not being able to make it to a new store opening in Pennsylvania. Mr. Boscov was beside himself and had staff working the phones to find a replacement chimp.

By luck, they found a retired Zippy, but by then was an adult and every bit as tall as Mr. Boscov himself. Mr. Boscov was fine with the substitution, as long as the aged Zippy could still roller skate.

“I don’t know what Albert’s obsession with chimps was,” wrote Tammy Mitgang, a marketing executive with Boscov’s. “But he loved Zippy.”

Fill-in Zippy didn’t charm the opening day show’s audience with cuteness, but he made quite a story the next day. The fire department had been called to a local hotel where Zippy was hanging off a balcony after wrecking a room.

“The good news is that the original Zippy was ready for our next store opening,” Ms. Mitgang wrote, “and I think that made Albert very happy.”

His grandson, Josh, said Mr. Boscov loved children and animals. He recalled a vacation when the two of them were swimming with dolphins and he greeted each one with a “Hi Sweetie,” “Hi Cutie-Pie” or “Hi Honey-Bunny.”

“Those were his terms of endearment and it made sense that he would be that way with Zippy, too,” said Mr. Aichenbaum.

***

You just never knew, it seemed, what Mr. Boscov was going to do next.

There was the tale of Mr. Boscov crawling under a table to shake the hands of the Vanity Fair president in the New York City company’s stuffy board room. A reporter, who accompanied him on a trip, was surprised and comforted when he took an unwrapped bagel out of a coat pocket and took a few bites.

“Did You Boscov Today?” is now available at Boscov’s stores. Proceeds from the book benefit Our City Reading, Inc., a non-profit Mr. Boscov founded.

And, there is Pat Cinfici’s wild story about him speeding down a highway to stop three buses headed for the Philadelphia airport. The people had booked a Disney trip through Boscov’s, but had to leave in the wee hours of the morning. To make up for the inconvenience, he promised McDonald’s breakfasts for all of them. Well, the drivers of the buses got tired of waiting for his breakfast delivery and took off.

Hearing this, he wasn’t going to let his customers down and sped off in a rickety old Ford Falcon.

“We were going sideways on 422 at four in the morning, and three buses filled with people slammed on the brakes,” Ms. Cinfici says in the book. “You could see over one hundred people getting whiplash. On 422, the Falcon was horizontal. The three buses were parked. He got on the bus, and he said, ‘Good morning, I’m Al Boscov.’ Nobody knew who he was, but he charmed every one of them. He even charmed the bus driver. He went up and down the aisle, handing out breakfast sandwiches and thanking everyone.”

***

For every crazy story, there is another that showed his warmth and care for others. Todd Gimbi-German, a Boscov’s associate, recalled going through a serious illness and hospitalization.

“Mr. B came in to see me,” Mr. Gimbi-German said. “He sat next to me, and he held my hand for hours. Literally for hours he held my hand and talked to me about me about how he once had a heart condition but overcame it. For the first time in our relationship, he was no longer my boss or my idol. He became a real person, who had taken the time out of his busy schedule to be with me.”

Mr. Aichenbaum said his grandfather had a wonderful way of making people feel special. Somehow, he could tune work in and out. That’s how it was with his family.

“I don’t quite know how to explain it,” said Mr. Aichenbaum, “but I think he was always present wherever he was. The store was just like air to him. It was what he breathed and did. There was no real separation of the store and his family.

“He always had time for everyone. He was so busy, but he wasn’t busy. He was able to have one-on-ones with everyone and be there for them, no matter who they were. He had a tremendous amount of empathy and caring, and that showed in everything he did.”

Mr. Boscov’s wife, Eunice, told a story about how they once happened upon an accident scene and he offered the distressed motorist a blanket. “Al always had a blanket for anyone in need,” she said.

Albert Boscov led his retail stores with high energy and positivity.

***

For Mr. Aichenbaum, his brother and cousins, the book was a chance to learn and appreciate the Boscov family heritage.

Albert followed in the footsteps of his father, Solomon, who came to America from Russia in 1911. He found a home and welcoming place for a business in Reading, Pennsylvania. Solomon’s first store was called Economy Shoe and Dry Goods and it grew into the department store with the family name.

“Part of the project was learning the history of the store, learning about the energy and warmth to grow the store into what it is, and just being amazed by his persistence, his warmth, love, and everything he did,” said Mr. Aichenbaum.

“It’s truly an American story in its essence,” he said. “One of the lessons my grandfather learned from his father, and now my cousins and I have learned, is to be appreciative of the community for everything it gave you.”

Mr. Boscov’s had three daughters and five grandchildren – Josh, Jonah, Amelia, David, and Chloe. They were given the gift of his wisdom.

Some inspiration from Mr. Boscov include “you haven’t failed yet, you just haven’t succeeded” and “success is never one person.”

Those are the things that help define the family name as a verb.

“The most basic way, and the way most people have been thinking of it, is just to shop at Boscov’s,” said Mr. Aichenbaum.

“For us, to Boscov is to live as he would and be your best self on a daily basis. An easy way to think of it is ‘What would Albert do?’

“It’s to wake up in the morning thankful for a new day.

“Every day he would wake up and often be singing a song. I remember him singing ‘Zippity-doo-da’ or ‘Good morning, good morning, what a lovely morning.’”

Albert Boscov and his wife, Eunice, had three daughters, Ruth. Meg and Ellen, and five grandchildren.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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