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Book Review: To Know Brooklyn is to Remember Abraham & Straus

Brooklyn BookBeat

October 30, 2017 By John B. Manbeck Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
An Abraham & Straus delivery wagon is pulled by a horse in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library Brooklyn Collection
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Once upon a time, Fulton Street was the shopping capital of Brooklyn with grand emporiums to lure its citizens “downtown.” Along the blocks from Flatbush Avenue to Smith Street stood Loeser’s, Namm’s, Oppenheim Collins, Martin’s and Abraham & Straus, all multilevel department stores that attracted and embraced their customers with a plethora of desirable wishes.

Outside, huge display windows advertised temptations available inside. Once beyond the revolving doors, fashionably dressed salesclerks beckoned under the gaze of floor walkers. Smiling guides at tall information stands dispensed a litany of departments and destinations, directing shoppers to a bank of elevators and escalators off to the side. For those distracted by so many choices, lunch rooms offered comfort food and relaxation.

The undisputed queen of this merchandising Mecca ruled as Abraham & Straus, a welcoming source of necessities for the home and its inhabitants. From its bustling Fulton Street entrance, customers hastened past cosmetics and jewelry to the golden elevators in the middle of the building. Other shoppers drifted in from Livingston Street or even up from the basement entrance and the IRT subway platform.

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A journey through the store’s history from its origins as Wechsler & Abraham to its acquisition by Macy’s is explored in “Abraham & Straus: It’s Worth a Trip from Anywhere” (The History Press) by Michael Lisicky, available Nov. 6 in bookstores. The book and the store’s evolution will be discussed at the Brooklyn Collection Department in the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza on Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

The book unearths a font of information, much of which is unknown even to septuagenarians. While the author’s research adheres to a detailed study of A&S, it might have been subtitled “The Growth and Demise (and Regrowth) of Fulton Street — and Beyond.” Essentially, the book is a study of mass marketing from the 19th-century dry goods stores to the growth of compartmentalized, or department, stores and the resilience of one store in a burgeoning Brooklyn. The key to the success of Abraham & Straus turned on serving the new immigrant population.

Fulton Street, a major thoroughfare since Brooklyn’s inception, attracted Abraham Abraham and Joseph Wechsler to buy the Wheeler Building at 424 Fulton St. in 1883, embellish it with a Mansard roof, a three-story ornamental arch, a five-story rotunda, a glass dome, railings and pillars and a large clock mounted on a bronze stand. It opened on Feb. 16, 1885, with 40 departments, to become the largest retail store in New York state within four years.

Lisicky tracks the innovations that developed: a warehouse, home delivery, expansion, a subway entrance to the basement in 1908 and changes in the family administrators. Behind the scenes, we learn that the store introduced courses for employees — including foreign languages to help salesclerks communicate with immigrants — an executive training squad, a smoking room, a library, a photo studio, a gymnasium, a hospital, a roof garden and Garden Center (which sponsored Forsythia Day, named for Brooklyn’s flower) and an employee choral society. For the community, A&S supported a fishing contest and scholarships and established the Prospect Park Children’s Zoo and a penguin colony at Brooklyn’s aquarium. Looking toward the future at the 60th anniversary of the store, they predicted a roof landing strip for airplanes and a base for dirigibles.

After becoming a public corporation in 1920, A&S joined Federated Department Stores in 1929, which supported it in the Depression years. As a Brooklyn institution, the executives promoted philanthropy supporting local agencies, including donating an elephant to Prospect Park Zoo and, in World War II, war bond drives, Red Cross blood drives and creation of a volunteer corps.

Expansion of Fulton Street followed after the removal of the elevated railroad superstructure, opening the street as well as the skies. After A&S moved to Fulton Street, others followed: Loeser’s in 1888, Oppenheim Collins in 1906, Martin’s in 1910 and Namm’s in 1925. After World War II, department stores from other cities and states began jockeying for the suburban retail business with E.J. Korvette and J.W. Mays, joining Fulton Street regulars. A&S expanded to Long Island, Queens, New Jersey, White Plains and Pennsylvania with explorations into the Delaware market. To attract new customers, it created a Japanese Garden and an aviary in their Suffolk store and sponsored Italia Bellissima and L’Africana festivals in Brooklyn.

Then the bottom of the market fell out.

Major players closed stores or merged as neighborhoods deteriorated or gentrified. With urban blight, crime followed — both shoplifting and pilfering; two jail cells appeared in the Brooklyn store to hold suspects until the police arrived.  

Altman’s, Gimbel’s and John Wanamaker’s closed; Donald Trump bought Alexander’s, then was forced to sell it. Macy’s faced bankruptcy. Federated dissolved Brooklyn’s A&S in 1995 and Macy’s was sold to Tishman Speyer in 2016. As of 2017, Macy’s on Fulton Street will be reduced to the bottom four floors. The top 10 floors will be used as office space.

With the rebirth of Fulton Mall, Macy’s will shift to the original 1873 building and be renamed the Wheeler Building, its original name.    

Lisicky, a department store aficionado, has written nine books about the development and demise of the American department store as a significant aspect of Americana. His books examine major stores in other eastern cities.

With the A&S book, he has followed the expansion of retail business as it grew into suburban life, particularly with its focus on Long Island retail. His study of A&S as the “third largest department store complex” in America is a thoroughly readable historical study. For sources he has used Brooklyn references — the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Eagle plus the Department Store Museum and the Straus Historical Society. Photos, mostly of events, ads and suburban stores, appear throughout the book with interior shots of the Brooklyn store toward the end.

One error: Lisicky, who originates from Baltimore, relates that when the Hoyt Street entrance opened in 1908, the subway sold more than 5,000 tokens at 5 cents each; nickels were used in New York City turnstiles until 1953 when tokens initially replaced them.

Toward the middle of the book, citations of the organizational takeovers and quotes from store executives become repetitive as the story of merchandising moves toward its fight for preservation. These sections could be skimmed by all but diehard scholars. He also omits reference to today’s merchandizing behemoth — online sales. But the finale suggests a happy, if limited, ending.

Lisicky has included a useful index and footnotes from newspapers and internal store records. At the end, he cites the Great A&S Cheesecake Contest held in the 1960s with six winning recipes.

His other books have explored the history and growth of the retail market and have been favorably reviewed in major media. They trace the chronological development from small neighborhood shops to the multileveled one-stop merchandising center of today.

 


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