Daniel Rubin: The move in store for The Inquirer

A 1910 postcard shows the Strawbridge and Clothier's store at Eighth and Market.
A 1910 postcard shows the Strawbridge and Clothier's store at Eighth and Market.
Posted: November 17, 2011

I was examining our old piano the other day, a 1924 Sohmer that we bought when my father-in-law died and we wanted something lasting to remember him by.

Through its serial number, we tracked its provenance to the piano department of Strawbridge & Clothier at 801 Market St.

Why shouldn't Strawbridge's sell baby grands? It had everything else: an employee chorus and radio station. Uniformed doormen and elevator ladies. Cash boys to run between the counters and registers, which is how the venerable emporium came to hire the 13-year-old W.C. Fields.

They're all gone, of course, along with corner rivals Gimbels and Lit Bros., which for most of the last century powered Philadelphia's retail primacy.

There's a certain poetry in The Inquirer's impending move into the old Strawbridge & Clothier flagship. For more than a century, newspapers and department stores proved key to each other's survival.

They were kindred souls in what they provided as well, general stores that stocked something for everyone, curated with broad sensibilities and deep expertise.

Our fortunes declined in tandem - as developments in technology and changes in tastes allowed consumers to do their own boutique shopping, whether looking for an ottoman or an idea.

When our move was announced this week, I did some reading at "That's the Press, Baby," a deep-niche blog about newspapers and department stores written by David Sullivan, head of The Inquirer's copy desks.

"It was department store advertising that largely enabled newspaper publishers to buy the rotary presses that created the modern mass-circulation newspaper," Sullivan wrote in 2008. "It was newspaper advertising that let department stores draw customers from across the community, the region and the state."

Looking through department-store ads from 1965, he noted Strawbridge's was discounting housewares, sporting goods, needlework, toys, china and glass, books, stationery, hangers, garment bags, candy, toothbrushes, umbrellas, fabrics, aluminum tables, bicycles, and treatments at the beauty salon.

"In other words, they had a little bit of everything for everyone. Sounds a lot like newspapers of the period, with their mixture of foreign-affairs articles and garden-club announcements, of political commentary and ship movements."

A few posts later, he found more similarities between papers and Strawbridge's in particular:

"Until the 1920s, it manufactured its own clothing. For years, it ran a large wholesale business. And though it grabbed on to new technologies - taking orders by phone starting in the 1900s, when many, perhaps most, families did not have a phone at home - it held on to the past as well, delivering packages by horse and buggy into the 1920s. The superintendent of the stables . . . questioned whether horses would ever be entirely eliminated."

With a move to Eighth and Market, The Inquirer will be returning to its old neighborhood. Before Col. James Elverson produced his first paper at Broad and Callowhill in 1925, the newspaper's home was at 11th and Market.

Go back a couple of generations, to the nation's centennial, and Philadelphia's newspaper row stretched along Chestnut and Seventh Streets. Eleven of the 18 daily papers were headquartered there, according to former Bulletin columnist James Smart.

The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com will share Strawbridge's third floor, which once sold garments for women of all classes, sizes, and tastes. There's hope of a renaissance on East Market, with digital billboards like those of Times Square.

Much remains to be ironed out. Like what happens to Gus and Joan Katseftis, who have pulled their lunch truck up to The Inquirer building for 20 years, making cheesesteaks, egg sandwiches, and Greek salads for the ink-stained wretches. Maybe they could move with us. Serve tea sandwiches in the old Corinthian Room


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com,

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.