Frances Cohen Berlin, 98; store owner and world traveler

Frances C. Berlin
Frances C. Berlin
Posted: March 03, 2014

When Frances Cohen Berlin would go to New York City to buy material for her family's variety stores, she could work a bargain, son Lawrence said.

At wholesale firms selling gloves, the usual order might be for 100 dozen.

"They would always give her a better price if she bought 20 dozen more," he said. And so she did.

But she refused to bear the cost of shipping the goods home.

"Where the buyer pays the freight," he said, "she would never pay the freight."

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, Mrs. Cohen, 98, of Atlantic City, a former owner with her husband, Robert, of a chain of Berlin and Berlin-Spillane variety stores, mostly in Montgomery County, died of pneumonia at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.

Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Berlin graduated from Kensington High School for Girls.

Though she had skipped two grades through elementary and high school, her son said, "she couldn't even dream" of further education. "There was no money for anything."

In 1938, the year she turned 23, Mrs. Berlin and her husband opened their first Berlin store at 48th and Spruce Streets, in West Philadelphia. They sold it in 1954.

They bought a replacement store, at York and Moreland Avenues in Hatboro, in 1956 and ran it until 1988.

While owning that and another on Ogontz Avenue in Olney, the Berlins in 1964 bought the six-store Spillane chain in Montgomery County - three in Norristown and one each in Bridgeport, Jeffersonville, and Royersford.

Over the decades, "we closed some stores and opened some stores," said Lawrence, who with his brother, Harvey, gradually took over the operation in the late 1970s.

"Add up all the locations" of stores named Berlin or Berlin-Spillane, he said, and there were "10 or 12."

The family got out of the business in 1993, he said.

The stores sold clothing, toys, stationery, "the five-and-ten stores' usual stuff," he said, as well as what were called yard goods.

Those were bolts of cloth, from which sweaters and such could be sewn.

"She would go down to Philadelphia and buy bolts of fabric," he said, "and when she got back to the store in Hatboro" and was unloading a package, the store was popular enough that customers "were ready to pick through it."

In 1961, he said, she was the founding president of the Hatboro chapter of the Business and Professional Women's Clubs.

After her husband died, for 12 years she spent 41/2 months each year on a globe-circling cruise.

In England, she had met a couple from South Africa who had invited her to visit, if she ever got there.

Years later, when her cruise ship was at a port there, she called their home to find that the couple were not there.

"They're not here," a daughter-in-law told his mother. "They're on a cruise" and named the ship.

His mother replied that she too was on that ship.

And after all those years, they finally found one another.

Only when she was 96, he said, did she give up her annual trips.

Besides sons Lawrence and Harvey, Mrs. Berlin is survived by five grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband.

A funeral has taken place.

Donations may be sent to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at

Condolences may be offered to the family at

610-313-8134 @WNaedele

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