Rediscovering Retail’s Past: Ohrbach’s
March 2, 2012 § 16 Comments
I’ve always loved to hear my mom tell me about the NYC department stores she grew up being taken to by my grandmother. Many of the stores she brings up, such as Gimbel’s, B. Altman and Ohrbach’s, were situated on 34th Street, where H and M, Gap and Zara now reside. It’s difficult to imagine what a shopping experience might have been like then, only a few decades ago, versus the mad dash for fast fashion that currently exists in that area. In any case, our chat led me to look into Ohrbach’s history and to try to find some images of the store my mom could so vividly recall as being one of her favorites. Some of these images are small, but they’re a nice peek inside Ohrbach’s.
The pictures above show Ohrbach’s 34th Street store, but it wasn’t their original location. Nathan Ohrbach and his partner, dress manufacturer, Max Wiesen, opened their first location in less-tony Union Square in 1923. Famed architect Paul Laszlo designed Ohrbach’s original location, as well as many of their following stores. After an early falling out between partners, Wiesen sold his stake in the company, and Ohrbach continued on with expansion plans. The NYC location actually remained in its original spot until 1954, when it moved to 34th Street, to a space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
Prior to opening the 34th St. store, Ohrbach had opened stores in California, beginning in 1945. They had a conservative approach, leasing three floors and a mezzanine on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, where stores like Desmond’s, Silverwood’s, May Company, Seibu and Coulter’s were situated. Ohrbach’s succeeded in the smaller location, and went on to open stores in Downtown LA, La Mirada, Panorama City and Cerritos. Jerome Ohrbach, Nathan’s son, had been largely responsible for the company’s westward expansion.
Nathan Ohrbach was known for his sales and marketing techniques. Instead of the high level of service often associated with historic department stores, Ohrbach’s used a more minimal business strategy, and sold their goods on cleverly organized tables and racks. Over time, Ohrbach moved into higher-priced merchandise and sales tactics, but continued to price his goods with even numbers, compared to the odd ones his competitors used, and to keep a close eye on overhead. When the NYC store opened, Ohrbach lured in customers by selling “French Couture Originals,” copies of runway fashions that had been shown in Paris only a few months earlier, by appointment. Here is a link to a fantastic archived piece from the NY Times, which reported on the arrival of these licensed copies at the 34th St. store. It’s a bit easier for me to understand this kind of excitement for affordable, wearable and luxurious clothes, rather than the lines to see Lady Gaga’s wonderland at Barney’s that appeared this past Christmas here in NYC.
Like so many other historic department stores, things got more complicated around the time that the founder retired. The Brenninkmeyer Company of the Netherlands began buying shares in Ohrbach’s in 1962, and had complete control of the company by 1965, when Nathan Ohrbach retired. Brenninkmeyer opened stores in Newark and in Bergen County. The Newark store failed rather quickly and operations were folded back into the Bergen and NYC offices and stores. The California stores and the New York store, which changed ownership many times in later years, were closed in 1986. The final owner, Amcena, reopened some of the locations as Steinbach department stores.