A sad goodbye to Robinson Luggage

Co-owners and sisters Nancy Center (left) and Sharon Laudenbach have worked at Robinson Luggage since childhood, when their parents ran the company. Robinson is closing its last location, at Broad and Walnut, most likely in December.
Co-owners and sisters Nancy Center (left) and Sharon Laudenbach have worked at Robinson Luggage since childhood, when their parents ran the company. Robinson is closing its last location, at Broad and Walnut, most likely in December. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 04, 2013

Manager Monica Best stood at her usual station, behind the glass counter at Robinson Luggage, near tears.

On the windows at Broad and Walnut, "Going Out of Business" signs had just been posted like a rude slap.

Customers flooded into the store, many incredulous, some equally distraught. One woman asked, "You can't be going out of business?"

But, yes, after 86 years and one change in family ownership, Robinson will close its last location when all inventory is sold, most likely in December.

The Internet, especially large discount sites like Amazon and Overstock, accomplished what the Depression, recessions, and looting after the 2008 World Series could not: It helped kill one of Philadelphia's last family-owned specialty stores.

At its peak in 2007, Robinson operated seven locations, plus an Internet business, luggageonline.com, and reported $22 million in revenue.

But that was an eternity ago in retail. The business got bumpy fast. Robinson locations quickly dropped to two. Last week, the Haverford store was shuttered.

"Before I could drive, I worked in the store wrapping gifts," said co-owner Nancy Center. Her sister Sharon Laudenbach - "our father in a skirt," Nancy said - closed her first sale at age 14. Their parents, Robert and Barbara Axelrod, purchased the business in 1981 from Ralph and Anne Robinson.

Robert bought luggage while Barbara handled travel accessories and small leather goods. "People would buy fine luggage and get so attached, a very emotional purchase," Barbara said. "Customers would spend a lot of time making a big decision."

Loyalty among customers and employees was long a hallmark for Robinson, which started as a word-of-mouth, second-floor business at Chestnut and Juniper.

Best has worked more than 18 years at Robinson. She told me, "I sell to families at all the key moments - birthdays, camping, going off to college, honeymoons, trips."

Salesman A.J. Proctor left to sell securities. He traveled, used all his beautiful luggage, but all Proctor talked about was Robinson. Colleagues asked, "You talk about that place so much, why don't you go back?" A few years ago, he did.

"We did a very nice business with a tremendous following. We had beautiful products," said Robert Axelrod, who opened the Broad Street location in 1984. Sharon and Nancy, 15 months apart, started work the day after graduation. Both majored in retail at Syracuse. Four years ago, they took over the business.

"The world is too impersonal these days," Robert said. The family and staff became aware that some customers would check out merchandise, spending as much as an hour with a salesperson, only to leave empty-handed and presumably shop online.

Suppliers came and went. The business adapted. Fulton Solight luxury luggage, with its durable Belgian fabric, gave way to Tumi's "ballistic vinyl" and Rimowa's glistening polycarbonate. Briefcases became soft. Travel bags sprouted wheels and gained tough exteriors. Smartphones did away with the need for leather agendas. Robinson continued to do repairs. In the back room was a vintage folding Fulton, still gorgeous.

Nancy and Sharon, the voice of Robinson's radio ads, are in their 40s. They don't know what they will do next. Neither do veteran staffers Best and Proctor.

Luggage has been their life.

For a quarter century, every wallet I owned came from Robinson. Going anywhere else, especially a chain or online, felt like cheating. I loved the old-world smell of the place, redolent of leather, and buying local from a family business where the service was exceptional. Best remembered me, even though it had been some time since I visited the store.

If you use something daily, yet own only one wallet, it might as well be spectacular. Once, I splurged on brown alligator. I nearly wept when, years later, it fell apart. The latest was a seductive orange, the same shade favored by the tony French firm Herm├Ęs, yet at an enviable fraction of the price.

That wallet, still intact, is now the shade of an aging gourd. So last week I bought another one, a jubilant violet and discounted 30 percent.

Salesman Aaron Alexander gave me a hug. Best did, too.

Amazon has never once given me anything close to a hug.


kheller@phillynews.com

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