Long-time New York residents still fondly remember Abraham & Straus department stores. The chain was known primarily for having the latest fashions, although they also sold furniture, cosmetics, appliances, music, hardware, televisions and other popular products. The company even made their own teas, coffees, candies and toiletries. Their famous tagline was “don’t say you can’t find it until you’ve shopped at A&S!”
The first store opened on 285 Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York in 1865 under the name Wechsler & Abraham. The store was founded by Abraham Abraham and Joseph Wechsler. Both partners invested $5,000 of their own money in the company. Eighteen years later, their flagship store at 422 Fulton Street in the former Wheeler building was purchased. The store eventually grew to more than 100,000 square feet.
The family of businessmen Nathan and Isidor Straus bought out Wechsler’s interest in the company in 1893. The store would later be renamed Abraham & Straus. The Straus family entered into a general partnership with Macy’s in 1888. Although the organizations were competitors, they remained friendly and even shared an office overseas for several years.
Abraham & Straus was managed by Isidor and Nathan Straus, along with their business partner Simon F.Rothschild. Abraham Abraham, Abraham’s son Lawrence and Abraham’s son-in-law Edward Charles Blum were also named as partners after Wechsler’s departure. The company had 2,000 employees at the time.
The business continued to grow in the 20th century, with more than 4,500 employees by the year 1900. The company worked with different Long Island catalog store organizations to supply their locations with inventory. Isidor Straus and his wife Ida passed away in April 1912 when the RMS Titanic sank on her first voyage. A plaque in their honor would be added to their 34th Street store, which remained there for many years until it was donated to their descendents. The Straus family decided to divide the company after Isidor’s son Percy Selden Straus was married to Abraham Abraham’s daughter. Isidor’s family ran Macy’s and Nathan Straus’ family operated Abraham & Straus.
Foot traffic increased at the flagship store after the Brooklyn subway system opened in 1908. The railway line connected people living in Long Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Abraham & Straus even developed a subway station on Hoyt Avenue. The station led directly to their store’s basement. Several lavish display windows showcased many of their most popular products. The station was the first New York subway system’s private entrance. The Hoyt Street ticket booth sold more than 5,000 subway tokens on opening day at five cents a token.
Abraham & Straus started a major renovation of their Fulton Street store in 1928. The expansion was completed just a few days before the infamous Wall Street crash in October 1929. The ten story building took up much of Hoyt and Livingston Streets. More than 28 acres were devoted to retail space.
Later that year, the organization combined with Bloomingdale’s, Lazarus, and Filene’s to create the new entity Federated Department Stores. Corporate offices were established in Columbus, Ohio before eventually being relocated to Cincinnati. The business was able to avoid laying off any employees during the economic crisis at the time by reducing workers’ pay by ten percent and scheduling hours according to hourly sales statistics.
Walter N. Rothchild was installed as Federated chairman and president in 1937. He fulfilled those roles for 18 years. The business continued to grow, acquiring Loeser”s store in Garden City, New York in 1950 and opening its first Hempstead, New York location in 1952. Additional locations in Paramus, Milburn and Eatontown, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and White Plains, New York would follow over the next several decades.
Federated updated the Abraham & Straus logo several times from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. It also tried to create a more modern, upscale reputation for their stores. Some stores succeeded with this new approach.
Many of the New York locations continued to thrive, including their flagship store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. That outlet gained acclaim for hiring several local students to serve as “living mannequins” wearing some of the latest fashions for one-hour intervals during the mid-Seventies.
Unfortunately, not all of the company’s locations were quite as fortunate. The Willow Grove Park Mall and The Court at King of Prussia outlets in Philadelphia were open for less than ten years. The store in Short Hills, New Jersey wasn’t quite the right fit for the mall that housed it. Abraham & Straus had to change that store’s product offerings after watching its sluggish sale performance. It also had to respond to consumers’ objections regarding the outlet’s refund, check payment and transfers between stores policies.
Abraham & Straus was consolidated with the New England department store chain Jordan Marsh in the early 1990’s. The new A&S/Jordan Marsh division would be headquartered in Brooklyn. Federated purchased Macy’s in 1994 after the well-known retailer filed for bankruptcy. The Abraham & Straus name was dropped from all remaining locations the following year in favor of the Macy’s brand.
The Fulton Street store has remained in business for more than 130 years. The building underwent additional renovations at times from 1947 until 2014. It is now the second largest Macy’s store in greater New York, Four floors of the building are used for retail space, corporate offices and seasonal displays. The customer elevators were the last ones in the New York City area to be upgraded from manual to automatic operation.
Abraham & Straus was a unique environment. The Brooklyn location embraced the area’s rich ethnicity. Interpreters were hired in German, Dutch, Gaelic and 20 other international languages. Store employees were allowed to attend writing, spelling and math courses taught by local school teachers. It was obvious that the company cared about its community, even though it had difficulties in trying to convince consumers outside of the New York metropolitan area to make the trek to one of their stores in later years. The artistic architecture of their flagship location, broad product lines and personalized sales and service made them a highlight of many people’s days.
Whenever I think of Abraham & Strauss department stores I can’t help but remembering the many hours I spent on lines at the Ticketrons that they had in their stores. In the 1970s, there was no internet, so online ticket sales were a thing that we had not even dreamed of. Fans either brought tickets for the concert at the arena which usually didn’t go well because most shows were sold out, or you brought them at Ticketron. Occasionally, for bands like Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen, concert tickets were sold by mail order utilizing forms often placed in newspapers. Otherwise,everyone went to Abraham & Strauss or Record World to buy concert tickets. There were a few stand-alone Ticketrons, but most people knew that Abraham & Strauss was the place to usually score great tickets. It was somewhat of an odd pairing depending on the show. Having lines of Black Sabbath fans standing inside an upscale store usually on the second floor always looked rather odd. Sure the point of having a Ticketron in the department store was the hope by the store that music fans would buy merchandise also in the store. However, once you bought tickets for a concert, you were so excited to get them you just ran out of the store waiting to tell all your friends. Eventually, they closed all the Ticketrons in Abraham & Strauss.
Feature Photo: Photo: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Construction of new building of the Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/61b48340-a75d-0133-904c-00505686d14e