A world without I. Goldberg Army & Navy: the iconic store’s final days

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Shoppers line up at check out at I. Goldberg, which will close on Friday after 100 years in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Shoppers line up at check out at I. Goldberg, which will close on Friday after 100 years in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The checkout line at I. Goldberg Army & Navy in Center City was 12 people deep — less than 24 hours after the store announced plans to close. It stayed that way the rest of the day.

“I immediately told my wife, ‘I have to get down there and get some things,’” said Naji Muhammad, a 20-year patron and one of the customers in that line Wednesday morning.  

Naji Muhammad of West Oak Lane stocks up on his favorite items from I. Goldberg. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He had learned of the news Tuesday afternoon, and though the mercury hit a balmy 90 degrees Wednesday, Muhammad showed off his final winter haul — a hefty jacket, a raincoat, and thick gloves.

“I mostly work outside, and there’s a lot of odd things this store has the other stores don’t have,” he said. “You go to a store and buy these type of gloves that I have, and you’re going to pay some money.” 

It wasn’t just Muhammad stocking up. Across I. Goldberg’s three stories, several more shoppers picked at racks of shoes, wool coats, and camping gear.

“It’s sad we have a line going to the back of the store because we’re going out of business. Where were these people other days of the week?” said Nana Goldberg, a third-generation owner.

A Philly institution in decline

I. Goldberg has been around for at least 100 years, with the first recorded location being 429 Market St., Nana Goldberg said.

The business originally sold dry goods, then incorporated Army surplus with what she called a focus on the useful and durable.

Goldberg said the business moved in 1968 to 902 Chestnut St., then again in 2002 to 13th and Chestnut streets, before that corner became coveted retail space.

A year and a half ago, Goldberg said, the business moved to its current location on Chestnut between Seventh and Eighth streets, after it could no longer afford rising rents.

On Facebook and at the store, customers have been sharing memories of shopping at I. Goldberg with their parents, as teens and over the decades. Many expressed shock despite past news coverage that the store was struggling.

Michael Tearson, the longtime Philly radio DJ who became a patron while in college in 1966, said though he personally enjoyed the store, he was surprised it remained open this long. 

“Ever since they moved from the ancestral location a block and a half up Chestnut Street, they’ve been kind of floundering time and again,” he said.

 Still, that didn’t make him less sensitive to the closure. 

“I wanted a last look at the store,” Tearson said as he left to catch a PATCO train back to Haddon Township, New Jersey, with his final purchase — a winter coat.

I. Goldberg Army Navy store, an institution in Philadelphia for 100 years, will close for good. All merchandise is 50% off. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Anthony Reilly, who’s been coming to the store since his late teens, was less sentimental. It’s hard to compete with the internet, he said.

Despite stories of heading straight for the basement of the store at its previous location, which was “just like a treasure trove of surplus gear,” Reilly said he started coming less frequently because the store stopped stocking the items he liked.

“I honestly left empty-handed most times I came over the past couple of years, which really wasn’t the case prior,” he said, taking home just a couple of pairs of socks Wednesday. 

Nana Goldberg lifts an old military saddle, one of the few items left on the shelves at I. Goldberg. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

  

“As time went on and our financial situation became more dire, we couldn’t bring as much merchandise as we wanted to,” Goldberg said. “So people would come in, but they couldn’t find what they wanted.”

 Still, she said, once people stepped into the store, they would come away seeing the value of what it could bring — affordable everyday items with unmatched customer service.

“It’s the opposite of going to a McDonald’s or a Walmart, you’re going to something special and different, and people need to realize that they need to support small business, family business, if they want them to flourish,” she said. 

Even while all the items in the store were marked 50% off, Goldberg held onto hope that an angel investor who believes in the brand would help save the business by 6 p.m. Friday, when the store is slated to close. 

“I couldn’t imagine a world without I. Goldberg,” she said. 

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