Stern’s department stores were fixtures in New York City for over 100 years. They specialized in clothing for men, women and children. You could also find home furnishings, appliances, televisions, stereos, glassware, furniture, books, toys, musical instruments and many other items for sale. A few locations even had full service restaurants and bars. The company has been gone for twenty years, but they haven’t been forgotten by their loyal customers.
The company was created by brothers Benjamin, Isaac and Louis Stern in 1867. The founders were sons of German immigrants. They initially went into business with their dry goods store in Buffalo, New York.
The Stern brothers moved their operations to New York City the following year. They opened their one-room location at 367 Sixth Avenue where they remained for twelve years. The store moved to another location in the city at 110 West 23rd Street in 1877. Stern’s quickly outgrew that space, and a brand-new building at 23 to 35 West 22nd Street and 32 to 36 West 23rd Street was constructed for them a year later.
The new facility would become Stern’s first flagship store. It was developed by architect Henry Fernbach, based off of initial drawings created by W.M. Schnickel. The new store sold luxury items, designer clothes and many items that working class individuals and families could afford. It also had an upscale look and feel. The six story structure was designed in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture. It wasn’t uncommon at the time to see doormen wearing top hats and several members of the Stern family greeting customers as they arrived at the store.
The flagship store soon became a very popular tourist attraction. People would travel from miles away just to get a glimpse of the new building. It was also a part of what was known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District. This was a section of retail space that spanned several blocks in which women could buy and browse without needing the accompaniment of their fathers or husbands, which was commonly required at the time by many establishments.
Stern’s continued to grow in popularity in the following years. Their Paris fashions brought in female customers from all around New York state and surrounding areas. The company eventually needed even more room to accommodate customer demand. A new flagship store was built in 1913 close to West 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The new location had nine floors of retail space and purchasing offices in the basement. The new location focused more of their attention on clientele from the nearby Theater District and the Carriage Trade. Many local actors stopped by the store while on break from their theater production. The store was busiest between the hours of 11 am to 2 pm, when people working in and around the area were on their lunch hours.
Arthur D. Brandeis joined the Stearns organization in 1914. Brandeis’ daughter Aliss was married to Irving C. Stern, grandson of Stern Brothers founder Louis Stern. Arthur was also president of the large Midwest department store chain J.L Brandeis and Sons at the time.
Stern’s was a family owned and operated company for many years. The founders and their family members ran the business and filled many internal positions. The business was no longer entirely controlled by the family by 1925. Common stock was issued by a local banking conglomerate, but the company still continued to thrive despite the change.
Stern’s Department Store on 42nd Street in Manhattan
Additional locations would be added across the eastern United States in the following decades. Stores in Paramus, New Jersey; Wayne, New Jersey; East Hampton, New York and Woodbridge, New Jersey would be opened from 1957 to 1971. Despite the growth, the company’s sales started to sag as more of their New York City clients moved out to the suburbs and shopped at stores in their local areas.
Stern’s moved its corporate headquarters to their Paramus, New Jersey location after closing their New York flagship store in 1969. The organization had established strong retail roots in that state, and their successes seemed to make up for the losses experienced at their New York locations. The company opened additional outlets in Wayne and Paterson, New Jersey in the 1970’s.
Stern Brothers merged with Gertz department stores in 1982. Gertz was owned by Allied Stores Corporation at the time. Stern’s added stores in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1986 after purchasing several former Gimbels locations. Later that year, Allied Stores was purchased by the Canadian real estate investment and development company Campeau Corporation.
Campeau bought Federated Department Stores in 1988 and soon closed all remaining stores in Philadelphia. Allied Stores was completely merged into Federated Department Stores by 1992. Stern’s would re-enter the New York market in 1994, when the former Abraham & Straus Manhattan Mall location was converted into Stern’s flagship store.
Unfortunately, Stern’s return to New York would be short-lived. Federated decided to shutter the Stern’s division in 2001. All remaining Stern’s stores were either closed, liquidated or turned into Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s stores. Some stores have since been converted into Boscov’s outlets.
Their six-story building on West 23rd Street in New York still stands today. It houses a Home Depot location on the first floor and several showrooms on the other floors. You can still see the Sterns Brothers’ initials on the front facade above the Home Depot sign.
Loyal clients shopped at Stern’s because of their vast product selections, dedicated customer service and commitment to excellence. It was one of the few department store chains in New York City that prided itself on being family owned. People still remember their experiences and conversations with Stern family members at one or more of their locations. They genuinely cared about their customers, and it showed. In an era where the vast majority of department store chains are owned and operated by large corporations and conglomerates, it was nice to be able to connect names with faces. Their simple approaches to doing business keep them in many New York residents’ hearts to this day.
Top Picture: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Stern Brothers.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 12, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-05bc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
History Of Stern’s Department Stores article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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