Boscov’s: From a ‘peddler’ to one billion in sales

Al Boscov with Zippy.

Al Boscov with Zippy.

DOVER — It was August 1982 when Boscov’s opened in Dover.

Likely never before or since has there been such a cool ribbon-cutting in Central Delaware.

Dorothy Lamour, an actress who co-starred in movies with such stars as Henry Fonda and Bob Hope in the 1930s and 1940s, was all set to do the honors, but Zippy the chimp snuck in and snipped the ribbon, stealing the show.

Zippy was a big star, having performed on “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He entertained the masses with his bike-riding talent and tricks.

Henny Youngman, king of the one-liners, was also in attendance at the Dover opening.

But the real and lasting star was Albert Boscov.

Now 85, he remains the charismatic leader and CEO of the family-owned retail chain his father started.

Our readers have said they are truly enjoying the Boscov’s 100th anniversary items on the front of the store’s weekly circulars. The series continues until the end of this year.

“We’re just a family-owned business and we’re very personable with our customers,” said Stephanie Gibson, manager of the Dover store. “I think they’re just thrilled to hear anything to do with Mr. Boscov. He’s just an incredible man.”

***

To recap the early history of the store and Albert Boscov’s rise and short retirement, here’s a few of the interesting tidbits the Boscov’s ads revealed:

• Solomon Boscov came to the United States from Russia in 1914 at age 23. He couldn’t speak English, but an acquaintance at a boarding house told him his Yiddish would serve him well in Reading, Pennsylvania. It turns out that the locals were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the language was close enough.

He bought $20 worth of merchandise and headed out across Pennsylvania, sleeping in the barns of his customers and thanking them by cleaning stables, combing horses and presenting the farmers’ wives with packs of sewing needles.

The tagline at the bottom of the store’s first history item read, “From a peddler with a bundle to over a billion in sales, thanks to you!”

• At age 24, he opened a store in Reading. Friends, worried about his bachelorhood, set him up with an introduction to sisters from Brooklyn. The Hindon family from Reading hosted the girls for a weekend. Knowing it was a setup to find him a wife, Solomon went along with it. He gave 10-year-old Sammy Hindon a dime to tell him which of the two girls, 16-year-old Fanny, or 18-year-old Ethel, was the nicest sister.
Sammy told him it was Ethel. The boy didn’t let on that Ethel also paid him a dime to back her.

• Albert was one of four children born to Solomon. At age 6, he got his first assignment in the store — catching 10 flies before noon one Saturday morning. He got six and earned a dime to take the movies. The next week, he got the same task. He had saved the six dead ones from the previous week so he would have a head start. “By noon, he had 11 very dead flies,” said the Sept. 14 story in the circular. “But someone had tipped off Solomon and instead of 10 cents for the movies, he received a lecture on integrity.”

Solomon Boscov died at the age of 80 in 1969. He had grown Boscov’s to three stores in the Reading area and $75 million in annual sales.

Albert Boscov and his sister Alma’s husband, Ed Lakin, became co-presidents and continued to build the company.

The Sept. 17 account of the transition said Albert Boscov brought the “belief that retail could be fun and a part of the community.”

New stores included auditoriums where the community could take classes and gather for events.

In 2005, Mr. Boscov and Mr. Lakin retired and reins were passed on within the family.

The company added 10 new stores after buying former May company locations in the region “with a very friendly bank.”

“Unfortunately, the recession hit, and the sales that were expected were not there,” said the Oct. 17 circular’s history item. “However, the now not-so-friendly bank was still there, expecting their loan to be paid back.”

The company went into bankruptcy. Mr. Boscov and Mr. Lakin came out of retirement, rallying support to keep the company’s 8,000 jobs at 43 stores.

Using their own money and loans from six Pennsylvania cities and counties, they came up with $100 million and won back the company in a Delaware courtroom in December 2008.

***

Ms. Gibson has been at the Dover store for about a year.

She took over as store manager after the retirement of Rich Mares, who held the position for 20 years.

“I feel like part of the (Boscov) family,” said Ms. Gibson, “but no I’m not related.”

She has been with the company for 25 years, getting her start with a one-day-a-week job in the visual department. It took less than a month for her to jump at the chance for a full-time role with Boscov’s.

She has been with 14 of its stores and worked in the company’s buying office for a while.

One of her cherished memories is from the Plymouth Meeting (Pennsylvania) Mall some years ago.

“I was working one day when he was walking down an aisle,” she said. “He saw me and said, ‘Stephanie!’ He got down on his knees and kissed my hand.”

In Dover, Ms. Gibson leads a team of 200 employees during the holiday season and 150 the rest of the year. Her 24 department heads in Dover have a combined 287 years with Boscov’s.

Like the CEO, she was among the Boscov’s team that volunteered to work on Thanksgiving Day.

She said co-workers volunteer to work the holiday or can opt to stay home and spend time with family.

Mr. Boscov, in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer story, said he planned to work, too, in one of the stores to make sure workers knew it wasn’t a holiday for him.

“We don’t like opening on Thanksgiving, because we screw up life for people,” said Mr. Boscov, who noted workers get double-time. “We’re open now because we have no choice. The business is so big, those few days that if you aren’t open, they’ll go somewhere else.”

Ms. Gibson said the atmosphere was fun on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, especially seeing customers waiting around each hour to see if they won $100 gift cards.

“My motto is ‘happiness is liking what you do,’” she said. “You got to have fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

She said the CEO has promised to visit Dover in the near future, but in the meanwhile he has noticed that things are going well in Delaware.

“He is extremely proud of the Dover store and everything we have accomplished in the past year,” she said. “We have new carpet, more shopping carts and bags, new designer merchandise and increasing stock levels. Whatever we’ve been asking for, he’s been helping us.”

***

Knowing Zippy had been in Dover for the ribbon-cutting, the Nov. 12 circular had a photo that caught my eye.

It was Mr. Boscov holding Zippy. Next to it was the heartbreaking tale of the end of their relationship.

Zippy was lined up for a Philadelphia-area opening some years ago, but his trainer wouldn’t bring him. Instead, an older look-alike Zippy was brought in.

When the trainer left this Zippy caged in a hotel room while she went to dinner, the chimp got out and expressed his ire about being left behind. He ripped a toilet off the wall and “decorated” a wall.

“Al thinks he saw Zippy again while watching a movie,” read the item in the circular. “Zippy was climbing the Empire State Building with a beautiful blonde on his back.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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