History of New York’s Gimbels Department Store

Gimbels Department Store History

Photo: Taken 1950 Raymond Loewy Associates, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons

Many young people today have probably never heard of Gimbels’ department stores. Older generations remember them fondly. Some may still have Gimbels merchandise in their homes. One of the company’s four flagship stores was in New York City, where it sold a wide variety of consumer goods for 76 years The company was founded by Adam Gimbel. His first retail outlet was a department store in Vincennes, Indiana. Gimbel moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1887 where the initial Gimbels department store would later be built. The success of this outlet would lead to other Gimbel’s locations.

Adam’s son Isaac spearheaded the company’s expansion efforts. A second flagship store was opened in Philadelphia. The third flagship store was constructed in 1910 in New York City. It was in the middle of several department stores that made up the Midtown Manhattan commercial district Herald Square. The facility had over 27 acres of retail space spread across ten stories.

The New York Gimbels location had an impressive advertising and marketing campaign. Its main rival was the Macy’s corporation, who had their own flagship store located just a block north of the new Gimbels store. One of the main features of the Gimbels building was the multiple doors that led to the nearby Herald Square New York City subway station.

Gimbels continued to prosper and eventually went public in 1922. Its first shares of stock were placed on the New York Stock Exchange that year, even though the Gimbel family had a controlling interest in the business. Gimbel’s acquired Saks & Co., which was later renamed Saks Fifth Avenue. The company would continue to buy stores (along with several radio stations) in the East Coast over the next several decades. By 1930, Gimbel’s had sales of more than $120 million, seven flagship stores and 20 retail locations overall. Company profits increased to more than a half billion dollars by the end of World War II.

History Of Gimbels

Photo: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Broadway and Herald Square in Manhattan” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9f479d90-a682-0133-aaab-00505686d14e

Customers were always Gimbels’ primary focus. The organization concentrated on middle class Americans’ concerns. Gimbels’ listed their company principles as “courtesy, reliability, good value and enlightened management.” They offered a wide assortment of clothing, furniture, appliances, outdoor items and more. Product lines would invariable change throughout the years to reflect changes in styles and tastes.

Gimbels maintained a competitive rivalry with nearby Macy’s for decades. Customers who couldn’t afford Macy’s higher-priced goods often shopped at Gimbels to find popular products at prices that wouldn’t break their budgets. One of Gimbel’s key slogans was “the customer pays for fancy frills.” They maintained a modern look and feel to their stores without all of the pomp and circumstance that other retailers relied on.

Some stores even hosted special collections from time to time. The New York City flagship store was home to several rare antiquities and works of art owned by William Randolph Hearst from 1939 to 1940. The store was also popularized in TV and film. It was featured in the 1947 film classic Miracle on 34th Street. At one point in the film, the Macy’s store Santa Claus advises a customer that they can find the pair of roller skates they were looking for at Gimbels. The now-defunct merchandiser is also featured in the 1967 Dick Van Dyke comedy Fitzwilly. Gimbels was mentioned numerous times as I Love Lucy characters Ethel Mertz and Lucy Ricardo’s favorite store during the show’s run in the 1950’s.

Gimbels History

Photo: Gimbels advertising creator, as published in The New York Times in 1910, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gimbels company was purchased by the British American Tobacco subsidiary Brown & Williamson in 1973. The multinational business also owned Kohl’s, Frederick & Nelson, The Crescent and Marshall Field’s department stores. Brown & Williamson would later establish the BATUS Group for its retail holdings.

Gimbles was initially left out of the holding group, and was allowed to operate its own four independent divisions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and New York. All four Gimbels divisions worked independently of one another. They did their own marketing and advertising and offered their own store charge cards that were only valid at other stores within the same division.

The Philadelphia and New York divisions of Gimbels were merged together as Gimbels East in 1983. The combination was made in an effort to lower overhead. However, the writing was on the wall for the Gimbels organization. After reviewing Gimbels store performance, BATUS elected to close all Gimbels locations in 1986 and sell their physical stores. Its sister company Saks was purchased in 1990 by the Investcorp S.A. conglomerate.

At the time of the closing, Gimbels’ New York City flagship store had the most inventory shrinkage (most of which was attributed to shoplifting) in the entire organization. The store’s many entrances and exits were frequently cited as reasons why shoplifting rates at that store were so high. The building also had a pedestrian passage below 32nd Street. This passage linked the 33rd Street and Penn Station subway terminals. That passage was later closed out of security concerns in the 1990’s after an increase in crime at the time.

The building was renovated and became the Manhattan Mall in 1989. Its first anchor store belonged to the Brooklyn-based Abraham & Straus company (also known as A&S). The store was later acquired by the regional department store chain Stern’s before closing in 2001. A two-story J.C. Penney store became the next anchor store, occupying space in the former Gimbels’ building from 2009 to 2020. Another previous Gimbels store building on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street in New York City still exists, but it was turned into apartment housing in the years after Gimbels went out of business.

Gimbels may be gone, but it hasn’t been forgotten. The Gimbels sign (missing the “G”) is still hanging on 119 West 31st Street. The New York City store was the employer of several characters in the 2003 movie Elf, although the interior shots were filmed at the Macy’s flagship location on 34th Street and exterior shots were filmed at Fifth Avenue’s Textile Building.

“Nobody but nobody outsells Gimbels” was one of the company’s famous taglines. They weren’t as flamboyant as other retailers, but the New York City flagship store had a heart and warmth that very few other establishments could replicate. Ask any New Yorker who was raised in New York City during the 1900s to talk about Gimbels and you will greeted for the most part with a warm smile. Memories of the wonderful window displays during the holidays and the magical  Christmas department where Santa Clause sat greeting all the children defined the holidays for millions forever. It was a special place where New Yorkers shopped and was a part of the lives of so many.

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