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Shopping the Rich Jewish History of Department Stores

Gimbels, Macy’s, Filene’s, I Magnin, Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman, Rich’s of Atlanta, Kauffman’s of Pittsburgh, Lazarus of Columbus, Levi Strauss and even Sears-Roebuck.

All but the last were created by Jews and all were run by Jews, most of them dating back to a German Jewish immigrant peddler who created a family dynasty. These entrepreneurial families not only dominated fashion and retail, but made huge contributions to the cultural, civic and political life of their communities.

Join Menorah at noon on Thursday at the Boulder JCC for Kathryn Bernheimer’s discussion of “Merchant Princes: An Intimate History of Jewish Families who Built the Great Department Stores.” Lunch is included in the $8 price. Reservations appreciated at 303-998-1021.

Gimbels dates back to 18-year old Adam Gimbel who starts with rifle and oil cloth pack, going up and down Mississippi selling goods. He opens “the palace of trade,” trades fairly with Indians, establishes a reputation for honesty and fairness – and has seven sons.

Simon Lazarus gambles everything on the advent of ready-wear after the Civil War for returning soldiers, jumpstarting his Columbus, Ohio department store dynasty.

I Magnin was named for Isaac Magnin but it was his needle-working wonder wife who really started and ran the San Francisco store that opened in l880s.

Edward Filene was arguably the most revolutionary and visionary of all the department store magnates. He created Filene’s Basement and the discount concept, and brought credit unions to the US.

Neither Sears nor Roebuck were Jews, but their partner, who soon bought them out,  was. A book about his life is aptly titled, “Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South.”



About Kathryn Bernheimer

Kathryn Bernheimer
Director of Menorah: Arts, Culture and Education at the Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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