Master salesman Eisenberg retires at Boyds

Howard Eisenberg works Boyds' famous suit section. "You have to explain to somebody why they're spending $5,000 for a suit," he said. Saturday is the low-key salesman's last at the high-end Center City store.
Howard Eisenberg works Boyds' famous suit section. "You have to explain to somebody why they're spending $5,000 for a suit," he said. Saturday is the low-key salesman's last at the high-end Center City store. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 06, 2013

Howard Eisenberg will open the glass doors at Boyds on Chestnut Street this Saturday morning and do what he always does: change into a pair of nice shoes, read a few newspapers, and walk up a sumptuous marble staircase to the second floor, like the host of a ball awaiting the most important of guests.

The slightly hunched man with a youthful air will stand off to the side in Boyds' famous suit section, perhaps in pinstripes but certainly in dark-rimmed glasses, and do little to broadcast that this is his last day in a 48-year career at a store that shares his remarkable longevity as a downtown retail man.

So comes retirement for a low-key salesman whose intensity brews behind a poker face. Eisenberg, 73, is a throwback to another age, but a talent that is timeless. He reads customers like an FBI profiler before matching them with $500 or $5,000 suits. And he doesn't show sentimental because, well, commissions do all the talking at the end of the day.

Sure, this Oxford Circle boy stumbled into this job, where he became the go-to guy for heirs and the self-made set. And the very mention of retirement seems to evoke ennui in him. But don't buy the act. Eisenberg, as he calls himself, would have stuck around this sales floor forever had it not been for Parkinson's disease getting in the way.

"He's number one. He has the best way with people," said former Boyds owner Gerald Gushner, 83, before devilishly adding: "He always sells them what they want - and a little more, for good measure."

"I think he's going to go out very quietly, like it's just another Saturday," said one of Boyds' third-generation owners, Jeff Glass, 57, choking back tears. "It's very emotional. You become very close."

Alexander Gushner founded Boyds in the 1930s and hired the unfocused but eager-to-work Eisenberg in 1965. They met as the newly married ice-cream-truck driver replied to a classified ad in The Inquirer, where his father worked in sales.

"Are you married? You live with your wife?" Gushner asked, even calling Eisenberg's wife, Ellen, at home to check.

"What does your father do for a living?" he continued, like a drill sergeant. "Is your family intact?"

Eisenberg, who at 11 had worked at his uncle's general merchandise store and made decent money in his 20s at a few apparel-liquidation shops, had mettle. He had served in the Navy, was a heavy smoker, loved to play hoops. Now that he was married, he wanted to start making real money.

Gushner's last question: "How's your legs?"

"They're pretty strong," Eisenberg said.

"Great," Gushner said. "You start tomorrow morning."

From Day One, Eisenberg won over customer after customer. It must have been his keen power to observe - a skill that had made him a court reporter for military trials.

"I'm a good listener," he said, while professing to not know, really, why he is so good at selling suits.

Such laconic wisdom is central to Eisenberg's magic as top-grossing associate: Too much talk is a salesman's poison. Also, know your customer and know the merchandise.

Are you a mechanic who wants to splurge for your girl's wedding? Eisenberg will pull a $700 Trussini off the rack. A surgeon? A $1,500 Canali. A CFO throwing a huge bar mitzvah? A $5,000 Brioni whose jacket took 54 man-hours to make.

"You have to explain to somebody why they're spending $5,000 for a suit," Eisenberg said in snappy, low-volume prose.

Among his students: former Rohm & Haas president and chief operating officer J. Michael Fitzpatrick, who first met Eisenberg 30 years ago and now considers him a friend. At the time, Fitzpatrick was ditching his lab coat for a marketing job and had a few hundred dollars to pick out a suit.

"It was a soft high-pressure sell," Fitzpatrick recalled as he shopped again Thursday. "Howard guided me toward the kind of suit that I needed. It was hard to say no to him."

Men, of course, can be terrible shoppers. Impatient, indifferent, indignant at the very thought. Add wealth or power to that, and you understand why they adore an all-knowing Eisenberg.

Even the 56-year-old nephew to the late Princess Grace of Monaco made that clear as he dashed to the top of the staircase Thursday, in a hurry and in need of a sash-collared tuxedo.

"I'm not a shopper," said D. Christopher Le Vine, who owns an estate in Chadds Ford and a business in Monaco, and lives in Bryn Mawr. "In fact, I hate shopping."

As Eisenberg slipped a jacket onto his shoulders, Le Vine explained that men were "hunters." Need a tuxedo? Kill it, take it home.

"I come in here because I don't have to worry about it," Le Vine said. " 'Howard, I need a tuxedo. Howard, I need a blazer.' Bang. Bang."

As the most veteran employee at Boyds, Eisenberg shares with Boyds this distinction: Both old-timers have survived decades of headwinds that sent indulgent customer service to the retail trash heap and downtown shopping to corporate chains.

Today, Boyds is a jewel in resurgent Center City, its swanky digs and outpost at 1818 Chestnut considered a Philly peer to New York's Bergdorf Goodman.

One reason for that, it may be said, is that second-generation owner Gerald Gushner had the good sense to keep Eisenberg from defecting to a competitor in the 1970s. He gave Eisenberg an equity stake, a raise, and other perks.

But a Parkinson's diagnosis 18 months ago has made the sales floor less welcoming. One day, Eisenberg took a spill, and his wife dropped the hammer. Sell the Cherry Hill house and move to Florida full time, she decreed, where the workaholic would golf, visit the racetrack, exercise - but not work.

"It's like when you lose your ace pitcher," Gushner said. "He was the very best person you have. I still don't want him to go."

Boyds is sending letters to thousands of Eisenberg's clients with the news, even offering to pair some with his son, Colin, 46, also a Boyds salesman.

Their message: "Regrettably, Howard's retiring."



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