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Happy to Be Here: Brick and mortar shopping is alive and well in Bucks


This month, a Target store is set to open in Doylestown. It’s the closest thing to a department store like the Bon-Ton, which closed in 2018. The new store is built where the Bon-Ton used to be.

I grew up in the era of department stores that lined Market Street in Philadelphia between Eighth and 13th streets – Strawbridge and Clothier, John Wanamaker, Gimbel’s, Frank and Seder, and Lit Brothers.

Before we moved to Bucks County, my mother took the El downtown for shopping. We kids would stand at the first car’s door to look out as the train went underground then emerged to the sight of the PSFS sign and William Penn.

Strawbridge’s was Mother’s favorite store. Later, I would prefer Wanamaker’s. Mother would shop and carry nothing home. It was all delivered at no charge.

In high school, we members of the World Affairs Council trekked downtown for meetings and ate in Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room, a huge room on the top floor, filled for lunch with businessmen in suits and groups of women, in high heels.

I loved going floor to floor, looking at everything, finding bargains in the basement, and buying not so much but seeing high quality merchandise and learning to appreciate it. The department stores had restaurants, which were tuned in to service for the all-important customer.

All of those Philadelphia stores are closed now, or torn down. The future of the historic, almost vacant Wanamaker Building is uncertain. The building, which became Lord and Taylor and Macy’s when Wanamaker’s closed, was divided into two sections, offices and shopping. According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, “Rubenstein Partners, owner of the nine-floor office portion of the Wanamaker, confirmed to the Business Journal that it has had ‘significant’ discussions with TF Cornerstone Inc. about the property. TF Cornerstone already owns the Macy’s department store space that occupies the first three floors of the building.”

The Wanamaker organ overlooks the Grand Court, where “Meet me at the Eagle” was once a standard call from the suburbs. The 6-foot tall bronze Eagle is the centerpiece of the court. John Wanamaker purchased it from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, where it was Germany’s entry.

Big city department stores, founded around the turn of the 20th century, thrived until the growth of suburban malls with their free parking facilities took much of the urban business away. Shopping malls also threatened many suburban communities as they grew. Doylestown was one of the places that suffered with the development of shopping malls in the 1960s.

Funny how “what goes around, comes around” happens. The Bon-Ton Department Store in the Doylestown Shopping Center was one of the stores that was leading an epidemic of boarded shops in the town. In 1963 when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) came up with a plan to demolish 39 “obsolete structures,” the town woke up.

In-town businesses reacted by developing “Plan 64.” The borough council rejected a redevelopment proposal and a HUD offer of $500,000, and set about revitalizing the town – and it’s what you see today.

Bon-Ton, founded in 1898 by Max Grumbacher as a millinery and dry goods store, grew rapidly through the 1920s, acquiring other chains and expanding beyond Pennsylvania. It had another growth period after World War II.

According to Wikipedia, during the 1960s, the company opened new Eyerly’s and Bon-Ton stores in several Pennsylvania communities and one in West Virginia. During the 1970s, as the popularity of shopping centers grew, The Bon-Ton opened 11 stores in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Eventually, it purchased Pomeroys’ which had a store in Levittown, and the landmark Hess’s of Allentown, which it operated until 1996 after 100 years of operation. The Bon-Ton Stores chain doubled in size in 2005 with the $1.1 billion purchase of the 142 stores of Northern Department Store Group, headquartered in downtown Milwaukee.

From 2011 through 2017, Wikepedia notes, the company did not post a net profit. In February 2017, the chain announced it would expand to at least 100 stores in 25 states. In February 2018, The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company was sold to in 2021, “operating an e-commerce site under the brand name. Along with Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s, and Younkers, the names of most of the defunct retail group’s department store chains are owned by BrandX.”

The department store in one of the malls that threatened historic Doylestown Borough saw big changes in its lifetime – eventually closing.

Neshaminy, the Bucks County Historical and Literary Journal, tells the story of the borough’s refusal of federal funds in favor of leading its own rejuvenation in the Spring/Summer issue. Copies are available at local bookstores and the Doylestown Historical Society headquarters.

By retaining its buildings and developing its arts and entertainment resources, Doylestown survived the threat of the ‘60s.

And the shopping centers that were built north and south of the borough floundered and are being enhanced today. Both include a 21st-century version of a department store, scaled down, but welcome.

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