Albert Boscov, Pa. retailer who helped revitalize cities, dies at 87

    Al Boscov stands in the cosmetics department at his Boscov's department store in Reading

    Al Boscov stands in the cosmetics department at his Boscov's department store in Reading

    The Reading resident died at home surrounded by his family. 

    Albert Boscov led the largest family-owned chain of department stores in the country, Boscov’s, for nearly six decades. He announced that he had late-stage pancreatic cancer on Feb. 1. On Friday evening, he passed away at his Reading home, surrounded by his wife, Eunice, and their three daughters. 

    In a statement, Jim Boscov, CEO and Albert’s nephew, said, “He was a man of vision and passion and he had a profound influence on the retail business community and the community at large. We are committed to continue on the strong foundation he has created and to carry on in the spirit and philosophy he’s instilled.” 

    Boscov’s employs 7,500 workers across 45 stores in seven states, 25 in Pennsylvania. Even as other department stores are closing stores or downsizing, Boscov’s continues to grow: a 46th store is opening in Erie this year, filling a vacancy left by the closing of a Sears.  

    In addition to growing a retail empire, Boscov was known for his philanthropic spirit. His department stores didn’t just sell clothes and home goods. In many Pennsylvania cities, they helped revitalize or stabilize struggling downtowns. 

    A Reading resident gives back

    Boscov’s father, Solomon Boscov, opened the “Economy Shoe and Dry Goods Store” in downtown Reading in 1918. Boscov worked in the store growing up before attending Reading High School and what is now Drexel University.

    He officially joined his father’s business in 1954 and convinced him to rename the store Boscov’s, according to the Reading Eagle. Boscov and his brother-in-law Edward Lakin steadily expanded Boscov’s across southeastern Pennsylvania and the region. 

    Boscov remained a Reading resident throughout his life and soon began to give back to the greater Berks County region.

    He founded the Our City Reading foundation which helps create affordable housing and bring economic development to the city. Through the foundation, Boscov put up the initial funding (later repaid through state and federal grants) to build the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, a gallery and theater space on the grounds of an old glasses factory.

    According to the GoggleWorks website, “The decision to locate the GoggleWorks in the urban core of Reading, where the needs of the community are greatest, has proven a catalyst for much needed change; many other vacant buildings are being renovated and new businesses are opening, creating new jobs and a safer community environment.” 

    The foundation developed apartments on the grounds of GoggleWorks, bought and renovated homes for low-to-moderate income buyers and helped bring a DoubleTree hotel downtown. 

    Boscov also helped in smaller ways. Berks County Community President Kevin Murphy said in a statement that Boscov “helped — actually helped, and not just allowed — organizations to hold food and clothing drives, bake sales, and other events at his stores. He established a ‘Friends Helping Friends’ program for nonprofits to sell coupons for his stores, with all ticket sales going directly to the nonprofits.” 

    Boscov contributed to many causes in Reading, including the campaign of Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer, whose campaign fundraising was later investigated by the FBI. 

    In 2009, the city erected a bronze statue of Boscov on Albert Boscov Square in downtown Reading. 

    “He embraced the community, and the community embraced him”

    In 1980, Wilkes-Barre was still recovering from the devastating floods of Hurricane Agnes when Boscov bought the Boston Store downtown. It was his first venture outside of Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania, and it was a win-win. 

    “From talking to him, I understand that the purchase of the Boston Store really is what took Boscovs as a retailing chain to the next level,” said Lawrence Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership. “For downtown Wilkes-Barre, we got the benefit of one of the best retail promotional minds that we’ve ever seen. He turned Boscov’s on South Main Street into a destination.”

    Boscov’s is the only remaining downtown department store in Wilkes-Barre.

    He also invested in downtown Wilkes-Barre in other ways. Soon after he opened his store, Boscov learned about a small, grassroots effort to save a vacant downtown movie theater, the Paramount.

    “He threw his resources behind it and started personally going to people and asking for their support to turn it into a community performing arts center,” said Newman. 

    He was successful. The F.M. Kirby Center for the Arts, in a completely renovated Paramount Theater, just celebrated its 30th anniversary and, Newman says, is one of the top 100 most active performing arts venues in the country by ticket sales. 

    “It has also become this major engine for downtown revitalization because of the number of shows they are doing each year, and what that means in terms of the restaurants and ancillary spending downtown,” said Newman. “That’s a second enormous legacy he has left for downtown Wilkes-Barre.”

    His success in Wilkes-Barre led other cities in the area to court his stores. Boscov’s was one of the three original anchor stores at the Steamtown Mall in Scranton, and one of the few remaining tenants. The company tried to buy the mall when it faced closure in 2015, but was outbid by another developer. 

    Back from the brink

    Boscov initially retired from the company in 2006. But a poorly-timed expansion, combined with the Great Recession, meant he was back at the helm by 2008, buying the company out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for $300 million. 

    What followed was a turnaround so fast and so complete it stunned even the bankruptcy judge. In an effort to save 5,000 Pennsylvania jobs and anchor institutions in a number of cities, Boscov called in favors from everyone, starting with Governor Ed Rendell. Rendell got the state to kick in a loan worth $35 million. 

    Scott Esterbrook, a lawyer who helped coordinate the rescue effort, told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “I can’t tell you how many times I was on the phone with people acknowledging that, if it wasn’t Al Boscov on the other line, they wouldn’t even be having the conversation. People who helped him get out of it did it because they had the utmost respect for Al Boscov.” 

    Boscov earned that respect. Less than nine months after he took over the company, he showed up to the final hearing removing the company from bankruptcy. The brief, rubber-stamp hearing didn’t require his presence, but he wanted to be sure to thank the judge and the lawyers.

    According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, when asked why he was there, he teared up and replied, “You know why. Because we’re alive.” 

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