The History of Alexander’s Department Stores looks back at one of the most loved Department Store chains to serve New Yorkers in the 20th Century. While Alexander’s Department Stores eventually opened in various locations throughout the New York area, New Jersey and a few other states, it was the chain’s Fordham Road Store in the Bronx that holds so many special memories for millions of New Yorkers. Of course, so do many of the others, however, ask any Bronx native about their Bronx upbringing and eventually the store Alexander’s will be brought into the conversation. It was the place where so many people shopped on a constant basis. Much like the A&P, the Corner Candy Store, Woolworth’s and Korvettes, Alexander’s was a huge part of the daily lives of New Yorkers in the 20th century. This article will present a short history of the store followed by tales of real New Yorkers experiences shopping and even working at Alexander’s Department Stores.
History of Alexander’s Department Stores
The History of Alexander’s Department Stores began with its founding by George Farkas. George got his start in retail by working at his father’s dress shop in Brooklyn, New York when he was just eight years old. He opened his first store in 1928 in the Bronx on Third Avenue. George named the shop after his late father Alexander. Their primary products were private label merchandise and affordable designer clothing. George put $7,500 of his own money into the first store. The store soon made sales of $500,000 and more on a regular basis.
Alexander’s expanded in the 1930’s, adding retail locations at the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road in the Bronx in 1933. This location would eventually become the business’ headquarters. The franchise soon became a bargain hunter’s paradise. One of their famous advertising slogans was “You’ll find Alexander’s has what you’re looking for; how lucky can you get?”
George Farkas decided to purchase property instead of leasing space for his stores. This helped save the company significant amounts of money, which allowed them to keep their prices low. Alexander’s locations had better sales numbers per square foot of retail space than any of their competitors during their heyday. They billed themselves as the “world’s largest apparel stores” and focused on providing quality brand name clothing at prices that many middle class shoppers could afford.
Alexander’s stores were a unique mixture of discount and department stores. Their merchandise buyers were experts in acquiring the latest fashions at discount prices. They passed these savings on to consumers. Many manufacturers did not want it widely known that people could find the same items sold at high-end retailers at Alexander’s locations for a lot less.
New Alexander’s retail outlets opened in White Plains in 1951, in Rego Park in Queens in 1959 and on Manhattan’s 59th Street in 1963. Other locations in Paramus, New Jersey and Milford, Connecticut were also added in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The seven level Manhattan location was Alexander’s flagship store. George purchased the land for the building for $125 per square foot from a business that was managed by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
A private holding company known as Fabro Corporation controlled Alexander’s Department Stores in the 1960’s. The holding company was owned by George Farkas along with his wife and their four children. One of George’s relatives, Louis Schwadron, decided to sell his 38 percent share in Alexander’s to rival E.J. Korvette. George and his family declined the offer to sell their majority interest in their company to Korvettes, which was owned by Spartan Industries at the time.
Alexander’s went public in 1968 to avoid Korvette’s takeover bid. The company made more than $40 million in its initial public offering. Around 40 percent of the company’s outstanding shares of stock were sold in the IPO. George decided to step down from the organization later that year, because of health concerns. His son Alexander S. Farkas was then named CEO of Alexander’s.
Kmart, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and other similar retailers took up more of Alexander’s market share in the 1970’s. Despite the loss in revenue, the company still continued to grow. Shopping center outlets were added in Long Island’s Garden City in 1971; Eatontown and Edison, New Jersey in 1972; Flushing, Queens in 1975 and in Mohegan Lake and Yonkers in 1977, It added an anchor retail location in the Mall at the World Trade Center in 1974. The store was under 4 World Trade Center, near the south tower.
Alexander’s primarily sold clothing and accessories during the 1970’s. Customers could only pay for purchases by check or cash until credit card payments were first accepted in 1972. The company purchased women’s apparel outlets Margo’s La Mode Inc. in 1978. The retailer had seventy stores spread across five states. Alexander’s sold that company for $7 million three years later after losing more than $9 million on the venture.
More changes took place during the 1980’s. An additional store was added in the World Trade Center in 1980. Interstate Properties took a controlling interest in Alexander’s that year following a proxy battle. Alexander would leave the company four years later. His brother Robin would become the new CEO of the company.
Alexander’s added more product lines in an effort to boost its sagging sales. The company was profitable through 1987. At that time, revenues were more than $500 million annually. However, their net revenues decreased in 1988 and all years afterwards that they were in business. Poor performance led to the closings of the Eatontown location in 1983, the Westchester store in 1986 and the Edison, White Plains and Milford outlets by the end of the 1980’s.
In the meantime, additional ownership changes were being made. Donald Trump purchased 20 percent of Alexander’s in 1986. Trump and Interstate’s ownership percentages in the business would each increase to 27 percent in 1988. Trump returned his holdings in the company to the guarantor in 1991, after having originally making his interest in the company as collateral for a Citibank personal loan.
Alexander’s tried new tactics to stay afloat. A new retail store opened in the Bronx in 1990. This location had housewares, luggage and automotive departments in addition to the traditional clothing offerings found in many of their locations. The company decided not to sell home electronics, because it couldn’t provide quality products to their customers at affordable rates.
The company was goaded into bankruptcy by its creditors and Interstate Properties’ managing general partner Steven Roth in 1992. Alexander’s lost about $20 million per year in 1991 and 1992. All eleven stores were closed, and more than 5,000 employees were laid off by May 1992. A decision by investors to sell a particular asset precipitated the bankruptcy filing. Alexander’s came out of bankruptcy in 1993, thanks to the improved market values of its real estate holdings. However, they decided not to return to their retail roots. The company, now known as Vornado Realty Trust, is a real estate investment trust that buys and sells property to this day.
Alexander’s was initially a family owned and operated business. They sold clothing items similar to how some supermarket chains sold food. Some locations even held fashion shows from time to time. It wasn’t uncommon to see celebrities to make an appearance at an Alexander’s store every now and then, either. Their focus on quality and customers helped endear the franchise to many people. Alexander’s retail outlets may be long gone, but they are definitely not forgotten. Proof of that is in the tales section below.
Memories Of Alexander’s Department Stores
While most people have wonderful memories of shopping at Alexanders in the 20th century, there is a select group of people who might not necessarily agree. That would be the children of the mothers and grandmothers who dragged their kids shopping to Alexander’s Department Stores. My mom June K is the most wonderful loving caring person I have ever known, but as a young kid in the 1960s I cringed when I heard her say “get on your jacket we are going to Alexander’s.” I knew that meant getting on the bus at 206th street in the Bronx and taking that ride to the Fordham Road Alexander’s in what would soon become hours and hours of browsing, shopping and pure delight and joy for my mom, and nothing but misery for me.
We would get off that bus stop at Fordham Road and there would be Alexander’s Department Store standing there waiting to engulf me for the next four hours or maybe even more. It was amazing how big that store looked in comparison to everything else on Fordham Road. For a kid like me, it felt like Will Smith entering that Alien ship in Independence Day. As we went through the front doors, that smell of clothing and wood and plastic tables would almost knock me out instantly. It seemed like the store had thousands of moms all searching for that perfectly priced piece of clothing that they could get no where else. This was over 50 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
Something very strange happened to many moms and grandmothers when they took their kids and grandchildren to Alexander’s. Many of them would forget they actually brought their kids with them. Now, maybe this was just because they were not worried so much about possible kidnappers or other devious older people in the 60s, but I think it was simply the fact that prices were so unbelievably low, it affected certain degrees of parental judgment. This is a phenomenon that should have actually been studied.
As my mom was browsing every single rack of clothing and though every wooden table looking for bargains, I would run into other kids in the exact situation. Alexander’s had tables with big drawers. Inside the drawers, us kids would find clear plastic clips that I guess were used to fold clothing. By taking these clips and pulling them apart quickly, the edge of the clip would shoot 20 feet into the air at supersonic speeds. Us kids would play war games against each other or simply just shoot them at adults and then hide. Occasionally, the other kid I was playing war games with would get smacked in the back of their head by their mother or I would hear the words “try this on.” This is how kids survived shopping at Alexander’s with their moms. And yes, of course if my mom asked me to go shopping with her today, it would probably bring me right back to that experience….and I would jump at the chance to do it again.
As I was completing this History of Alexander’s Department Store article, it was clear to me that it needed the voice of others who experienced shopping or working at Alexander’s. I joined an Alexander’s Facebook Group and asked if anyone would like to share their memories of Alexander’s. I received many responses from this incredibly friendly group instantly. Below are the exact words, unedited from those who wanted to share their experience. To me, it is not just the stories that they share, it’s the desire to want to share them that is just as important. It’s the urge by these great people to say yes! I am a New Yorker and I am part of the story…… the story of ALexander’s Department Stores….
To protect privacy only first names were used
From Cristine D
Eisenstadt, P. E. (2005). The encyclopedia of New York State/ editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss ; foreword by Carole F. Huxley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: 1995 Yale University Press