End Of A Family Era In Tacony With Department Store's Closing

Posted: November 19, 1989

Benson Kessler, proprietor of Kessler's Department Store at 6932 Torresdale Ave., has decided to pack it in.

The day-glow orange "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS" banners wrapped around the display windows and the bright yellow-and-red sale tickets on the merchandise leave no doubt.

Carefully lettered signs announce that prices have been cut for the sale. But don't ask by how much.

"Come in and look," he tells questioning customers. "See for yourself."

It's not that Kessler is being coy. Even when dealing with conflicting

emotions - making a break with customers with whom he shares lifetime friendships - he can't resist the first rule of merchandising:

Get them in the door, put the merchandise in their hands and you're ready to close the sale.

At 56, Kessler has spent 50 years in the business. He began working in his father's store down the block, next to Woolworth's, when he was barely tall enough to see over the counter. That was, as he recalls, shortly before his seventh birthday.

In those days, Charles Kessler's store was the only clothing store in Tacony, a factory town. His father opened the doors of his shop on Monday, May 25, 1924, the day after he married Rae.

The store evolved into a social center of sorts. There was nothing like it on Torresdale Avenue between the Disston Estate and Frankford. The business of Tacony, such as it was, was on Longshore Avenue.

Those were the days before there was a Mayfair. Roosevelt Boulevard ended in cornfields and open pastureland, and there was nothing but farmland above Cottman Avenue.

To keep kosher for the family, the Kesslers had to do their shopping in Logan. To buy eggs, they had to travel up the pike to Bristol.

Little changed as time passed in Tacony, a town that had the first post office in Pennsylvania in a building down the road from the store and where the first stop on the Underground Railroad was still a familiar spot a full century after the Civil War.

For excitement, occasional flights of Ernest H. Buehl, the Flying Dutchman, in his biplane and the drone of passing dirigibles were near their peak.

So the ebb and flow of customers, the conversations, the jokes, the passing of time made the store a place of entertainment as well as a place of business. Charles Kessler made his son part of the scene as soon as he thought the boy was ready.

Benson's first job was picking up pins and otherwise tidying up. It was a while before he was allowed to wait on customers. He gained experience early while the family was gathered during the dinner hour, when jumping up from the table to wait on a customer "out front" was almost a daily experience. The workday was long, ending at 9 or 10.

Young Kessler grew up working in the shop, after classes at the Disston School, Central High School and, until he decided he wanted to enter another field, Temple University Law School. Then came a stint in the Army.

Remembering the days, Kessler started tracing the time as he opened the doors Thursday for the start of the "Going Out of Business Sale."

"I hope that we're sold out by the first of the year," he said. "That would give us a balance. My father operated the store for 30 1/2 years and I'll have operated for 30 1/2 years when I close the doors for the last time."

When the doors close, it will mark the end of the Kessler era in Tacony shops. His two daughters and a son didn't follow in his footsteps. Nor will his lone granddaughter, in faraway Connecticut.

With no plans to sell the business, Kessler will walk away from it ''cold," he said, taking nothing with him but leaving a lot behind.

"There's got to be something more than standing behind a counter," he said. "I'm going to go out and find it. And if I don't? Well, I still play tennis three times a week."

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