NEW YORK — When Bruce A. Gimbel brought his young California bride, Barbara Poulson of Long Beach, to this retailing mecca after World War II, she spotted a few medieval tapestries and chairs scattered among the usual merchandise at his family's department store.
These were remnants of a fabled event in 1941, when Bruce's father, Bernard, bought William Randolph Hearst's multimillion-dollar art collection and offered the entire lot for sale on Gimbels' fifth floor in Herald Square. Shoppers had their pick of paintings, sculpture, china, jewelry--everything from Benjamin Franklin's spectacles to a 15th-Century Spanish monastery, a steal at $50,000.
"Those were exciting and imaginative times," Barbara Gimbel recalls.
They were also easier times--and glory days--for traditional downtown department stores. Macy's and Gimbels were engaged in a fierce but friendly game of one-upmanship, suburban sprawl had scarcely begun, and years would pass before stores such as The Limited and K mart would complicate merchandising.
Now, after several years of sharp declines under a British owner that bought the chain in 1973, Gimbels is holding a different kind of sale. Liquidation ads proclaim: "20% to 40% Off Everything! Nothing Held Back!" With sad irony, a doorman at an elegant apartment building on the Upper East Side noted that New York was "celebrating the centennial of one institution, the Statue of Liberty, while another dies."
Even though the Gimbel family's ties to the business have long since been severed, it is "very nostalgic for us" that the stores will soon be closed, Barbara Poulson Gimbel said in an interview. "Gimbels was so much a part of my whole life." Her husband, who died almost six years ago at 67, ran the company for more than two decades and was the last family member to leave his imprint.
Indeed, Gimbels has been a part of many lives in New York, where the legendary feuds with Macy's gave rise to the expression "Does Macy's tell Gimbels?" It was probably coined by Eddie Cantor in vaudeville but has become the accepted response to any nosy questions about company secrets.
Both stores enjoyed the rivalry for its publicity value. Hollywood popularized the idea in "Miracle on 34th Street," a whimsical 1947 film featuring a Macy's Santa Claus who would steer customers toward Gimbels for better bargains and selection. Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, an advertising copywriter who worked over the years for both merchants, recalls in her book "Macy's, Gimbels, and Me" that Gimbels once published an ad saluting Macy's:
"We congratulate Macy's on their 100th birthday. (They certainly don't look it.) We're only 115. (We certainly don't feel it.)"
For a time, Gimbels became known for a Fitz-Gibbon ad campaign stressing that "nobody but nobody" would undersell the store.
Yellowed newspaper clippings show that the competition often reached a fever pitch. On the day Macy's started a price war in 1951, bargain hunters pushed in opposite directions on a revolving door until it collapsed. Over at Gimbels, when a woman in front of the book counter overheard reporters noting that the price of a best seller was the same as Macy's, she said: "Well, I'm from Macy's, and it's going to be less in a few minutes."
Valuable Real Estate
Those days are long gone, and Gimbels joins a list of those succumbing to the vagaries of New York retailing--Franklin Simon, Wanamaker's, Best & Co., Korvettes, Alexander's and Ohrbach's, a Dutch-owned store that announced its closing the same week as Gimbels. In many cases, especially Gimbels and Ohrbach's, the old stores are worth more dead than alive because of their choice real estate locations.
Observers say the stores declined because of a combination of inept management, the high costs of running big stores, competition from discounters, specialty and designer boutiques and a failure to adjust to customers' changing needs.
Of the dying department stores, Gimbels seems to have secured a special spot not just in the memories of its customers but also in the lore of American retailing. The Gimbels were generally regarded for decades as solid merchants to the middle class with a flair for innovation. The company's Philadelphia division, for example, bought the first horseless delivery wagon in the country and in 1901 installed the first escalator.
When goods such as nylon stockings and soap were getting scarce in the early days of World War II, Gimbels stocked up on hard-to-get merchandise and leased warehouses to hold it. While other retailers apologized for bare shelves, Gimbels' ads touted: "Gimbels HAS all the things you can't find elsewhere."
Innovation was what set Gimbels apart in the beginning. In 1841, a 16-year-old Bavarian immigrant named Adam Gimbel started working his way up the Mississippi from New Orleans, carrying a knapsack with a small stock of goods. Frontier women were delighted with the bolts of cloth and hairpins.