Rediscovering Retail’s Past: Ohrbach’s

March 2, 2012 § 21 Comments

Ohrbach's Department Store

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.

Ohrbach's Department Store, 34th St.

Ohrbach's Infant Wear Department

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.

Ohrbach's Coffee Shop

Ohrbach's Shoe Department

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.

Ohrbach's Ad, 1964

French Couture Originals at Ohrbach's

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.

 

 

 

§ 21 Responses to Rediscovering Retail’s Past: Ohrbach’s

  • Lucy sykes says:

    Amazing love the vintage pics, who needs wholesale! Brilliant.

    • jose ruiz says:

      Some of the early New York-city produced soap operas dressed the characters in clothes from Orbach’s. Example: Dark Shadows, Love of Life. Clothing provided by Orbach’s

  • Mindy Gold says:

    Thank you for posting this as a dedication to my farfetched memories. Times were not easier when these department stores flourished but they served as an escape where a person could shop for a wide range of goods and generally get excellent quality and service. I miss those days.

  • Amazing how just the spaciousness of the sales rooms lends an air of luxury!

    There’s some great info for vintage clothing lovers: Take a good look at any mid 1960s garment with an Ohrbach’s label. It might just be a good Chanel copy!

  • Lynn says:

    There are wonderful accounts of the influence of Ohrbach’s in Bettina Ballard memoir, In My Fashion. These photos made it all come to life!

  • Marjorie Berk says:

    I find it incredible that you could give a history of Ohrbach’s without mentioning David Berks, the executive V.P. who ran the stores when Nathan Ohrbach retired. It was he who changed the philosophy of the store, making it more upscale by selling copies of European designers, while maintaining at the same time other quality merchandise at bargain prices.
    Jerry Ohrbach, the son of Nathan, as CEO delegated most operations and decisions to David Berks.

    • Jessica Gold says:

      Marjorie: Thanks so much for finding Truth Plus and for commenting. It was difficult to gather information about Ohrbach’s so I thank you for sharing this information with me and my readers!

    • Deirdre Cooney Bonifaz says:

      Marjorie – How do you know about David Berks? He was one of my favorite relatives – by marriage to my cousin Marley, Did you know they had a child named Marjorie? One summer I had a job as a “floater” for Ohrbach’s. Thank you for your comment re” David, known to me as Dinny.

  • Cathy Beener says:

    Years back, as a teen, remember the parents taking us to Ohrbach’s in La Mirada & purchasing a pair of back-less heels by Almalfi, and not at today’s prices…wish I still had those shoes!!

  • Suni says:

    I just found a beautiful Japanese clutch with the original Ohrbachs tag!!

  • Virginia M Sheridan says:

    I moved to Manhattan in 1974 from Miami – where the only department stores of note were Jordan Marsh and Burdines. My mother grew up in NYC and she too told me about Ohrbach’s as the place to go for affordable designer clothes and she was right. I also remember B. Altman’s from my early days in New York – they even had a “notions” department for all those small personal items – such as padded clothes hangers – that are hard to find today. And, who can forget Alexander’s (where Bloomingdales is today), a pre-curser to the Marshall’s of today.

    • Jessica Gold says:

      Virginia: Thanks so much for your comment, and sorry for the delay in posting it! Thank you for sharing your memories. My mom and I love the notions departments in European department stores and we wish they still had them here in the US. My mom also shopped at B.Altman’s and Alexanders. I’ve modeled some of my current business’ philosophies off of how those stores operated: great, wearable fashions, fantastic quality, affordable prices, all made here in NYC. Check us out: http://www.dobbinclothing.com.

  • Millie Soto says:

    I have fond memories working 1984-1986. My greatest was one time I took a lunch btrak and went to the cafe situated in the basement,right there besides me was Joyce Randolph a.k.a Trixie Norton from the Honeymooners I recognized her immediately and had a lil conversation regarding the honeymooners she told me I was so sweet for giving an old hoot the time a day. She gave me an autograph picture of herself. I treasure till this day.I love Ohrbachs was me first real job out of high
    school.

  • mike says:

    i loved ohrbacks. It was one of my first jobs out of high school as a cashier. 1974-1977. I remember Mr Harris who was in charge of the cashiers. I respected him very much and was a large influence on me.

  • Lisa says:

    My very first job was at Ohrbachs in Panorama City. i lied about my age and told them I was 16. I was actually 15 and the experience was wonderful. So sad that some of these staple stores didn’t survive.

  • Paul T says:

    Ohrbach’s also supplied the on-screen wardrobes of Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares on The Donna Reed Show.

  • Marjorie Berk says:

    The first Ohrbach’s store was started by Nathan Ohrbach on Sixth Ave. near the N.W. corner of 23rd St., circa 1924. The area on Sixth Ave. below 23rd and on parts of 23rd St and also of Broadway are now in the NYC designated landmark district: the Ladies Mile Historic District.

    Nathan Ohrbach originally worked, first as a stockboy, in one of the famous Ladies Mile department stores, before he opened his relatively small emporium. It later was expanded in the move to 14th St. opposite Union Square Park. The move to 34th St. in 1954 was at the instigation of it’s COO and executive V.P., David Berks — my father’s oldest brother.

    I was involved in the advocacy (fight) for the designation of Ladies Mile. It’s most famous store was Siegel/Cooper which opened to much acclaim in the late 1890s. Bed, Bath and Beyond, T.J. Maxx, and Marshall’s now occupy the bldg. “The Drive to Protect the Ladies Mile Historic District” is the name of the org. that evolved from our heroic efforts to obtain designation. It’s head (and original driving force) is Jack Taylor of E. 18th St.

    [Hello to Deirdre Bonifaz, my newly reconnected cousin!]

  • Marjorie Berk says:

    I made a mistake in stating that Nathan Ohrbach’s first store was not on Union Square! It WAS on 14th St. and opened circa 1924. The store I mistakenly (foggily) thought was the first Ohrbach’s was called Ehrlich’s — gone and forgotten like so many of the larger Sixth Ave. Ladies Mile stores.

    Well known dept. stores on both Broadway AND Sixth Ave. moved uptown.
    – BROADWAY: Arnold Constable (now ABC), L&T (still a partial cast iron front remaining and always near AC), W&J Sloans on Broaday (still a beautiful Mckim, Meade White structure), Gorham Silver and probably some I’ve forgotten.
    – SIXTH AVE: Altman’s cast iron structure still remains.
    – OTHER: Tiffany’s on Union Sq. W. and 15 St. was to move 2 more times before giving Holly Golightly it’s current spot for breakfast.

    So many dept. stores existed downtown: Wanamaker’s, Stewart’s (before my time) and of course that great bargain hunter’s MECCA, S&J Klein’s on the Square — a favorite.
    – Brooks Bros. moved a few times from lower on Broadway.

    Fortunately, many bldgs. were saved through the efforts of Jack and Ed and Cristobel and me and so many others in pushing for historic designation.

  • Meg says:

    I worked as a cashier at Ohrbach’s 34th street location while I was in college. Like Mike, who commented above, this was in the mid 70’s. Mike is absolutely right about Mr. Harris, who was a wonderful man and an amazing boss, something you don’t hear too often. I’ve often thought of him over the years and agree with Mike that he was an inspiration. All of the cashiers truly wanted to do their best because we never wanted to disappoint him. Tall and impeccably dressed, we could always see him coming, leaving the cashier’s office located behind the ladies shoe dept, head and shoulders above the crowd, to watch over his cashiers.

    And don’t be fooled by those picturs of spacious selling floors. Ohrbachs was usually PACKED and trying to make your way across the floor was not unlike trying to muscle into a seat on the subway at rush hour.The main floor especially was wall to wall crowds. The busiest cashier spot was what Mr. Harris called Center, smack in the middle of the man floor. I’d you worked that register, you never had a pause on the action and the line wound around with no end in sight. Being the great boss he was, he made sure you didn’t get a turn at center too many times in a given period. If you did and didn’t complain he would reward you with one of his “extras” the next day, like a spot in furs, where you probably wouldn’t make even one sale. Or he would say, “I don’t need you now, go shopping!” He was truly one in a million.

    My “big story” was my encounter with tobacco heiress Doris Duke in the famed oval room. I refused to take her check (we weren’t wllowed to take personal checks on Sunday bc we needed bank approval). She was dressed like a bag lady and I had no idea who she was. I thought the sales lady was going to have a stroke. Who knew Doris Duke shopped discount?!

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