A Shopping District Fades Away Last Markdown At Bonwit Teller

Posted: April 12, 1990

Bright orange signs screaming "Going Out Of Business" and "All Sales Final" greeted the more than 200 shoppers waiting Saturday to get into the Bonwit Teller department store in Jenkintown for its final sale.

How long the store's doors stay open will depend on how long the merchandise holds out, store officials say.

"I hate to see this happen," said Eloise Reinhard of Elkins Park. "It's sickening."

While Reinhard and others were concerned with where they would do their shopping, others were concerned about the diminishing economic vitality of the Jenkintown-Abington shopping district.

That area was once the premier shopping district in the region, known to some industry analysts as the Golden 2 1/2 miles. It stretched from what was formerly Lord & Taylor, just south of Jenkintown, to Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Abington.

But the opening of the Willow Grove Park mall in 1982 marked the beginning of the end of that area's popularity. Bloomingdale's immediately closed down its Old York Road operation and moved into the new mall.

In 1987, Sears made a similar move. Strawbridge & Clothier closed its Old York Road site soon after that and reopened in the mall in 1988. Lord & Taylor

closed its doors in April 1989, leaving its Main Line store on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd as its only Philadelphia area outlet.

The closing of Bonwit Teller leaves John Wanamaker as the area's only link to the pre-mall era of the large independent store.

Bonwit Teller's parent company, L.J. Hooker, has been under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since August, when its Australian parent company entered provisional liquidation, an Australian legal proceeding similar to bankruptcy.

Even in the wake of these far-removed circumstances, the Jenkintown Chamber of Commerce is attempting to apply local remedies.

"It is a question of economics these days. Independent department stores can't make it outside of a mall," said Darrell Painter, executive director of the Jenkintown Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber hopes to start service soon on a trolley that would carry shoppers from Wanamakers to the Benjamin Fox Pavilion, where a host of smaller stores, including a flower shop, a bridal shop, two restaurants, a fur salon, a card store and a Weight Watchers diet center, are. That trolley also would connect with some of the local train stations.

Trolleys may carry future shoppers in the area, but now there is no one who will carry the weight of the mercantile tax revenues lost when Bonwit Teller finally leaves.

Businesses in the area pay a 1.5 mill mercantile tax. Abington gets $1.50 for every $1,000 of gross sales. Abington officials would not say how much Bonwit Teller paid last year because the amount of mercantile and business privilege tax revenues is confidential information and not open to public record in Pennsylvania.

"That results in an income for a community and a school district. When anything like that closes all of a sudden the expected money is lost. . . . That is an alarming thing," said Dwight A. Dundore, director of the Montgomery County Department of Commerce and Economic Development.

There will be no loss of property tax revenue by the closing because Bonwit Teller rents, rather than owns, the property. Fox Management Corp. owns the land.

Bob Rosenthal, vice president of Foxcroft, said that negotiations to fill the approximately 50,000-square-foot space were under way with an upscale women's clothing store. He would not disclose the name of the prospective tenant.

The loss of Bonwit Teller will hurt the image of the area, Dundore said.

"When you have stores like that that close, the whole area starts to decay. The first thing you know some vandalizing may occur. The property becomes unattractive. Some of the stores in that area had some beautiful buildings. It can have a deteriorating effect on a community," Dundore said.

While the future of the site was unclear, Saturday's shoppers were certain of their mission - bargain hunting.

Women sporting mink and raccoon coats, alongside others in plastic rain hats and cardigans, rifled through racks of casual wear. All of the merchandise was reduced 20 percent, but that wasn't enough for some people.

"Twenty percent? You can get that anywhere," whispered one woman to her husband as they looked at lingerie. "When they mark down 50 to 75 percent, then I'll buy something."

Because previous markdowns had already been taken, there were some bargains to be found. A black silk gown originally priced at $750 went for $120, and lizard-skin belts were marked down from $225 to $135. Devotees of the popular Bontell Deluxe stockings were buying them by the dozen. Lines up to 20 people long stretched from every dressing room door and cash register.

A black-haired mannequin was posed near the cosmetics case. All she wore was a pair of pantyhose with runs that were pulled half-way up her thighs. Other nude mannequins stood in a group beneath a mirror that reflected a room of abandoned fixtures. Shoppers stopping to gawk wondered aloud at the price of the mirror and the chairs.

Several shoppers said they would start traveling to New York City to buy their clothes. All regretted the loss of Bonwit Teller.

"It's so sad," said Sandy Ramsue of Philadelphia. "I love this store. I'm going to miss it."

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