Albert R. Boscov…by the numbers…and from the heart

By on February 15, 2017

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Oh, Mr. B, how did we love thee?

Let me count (some of) the ways.

Eight thousand. The approximate number of those who work at or for your 45 stores throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, including those in in your native Berks and here in Lancaster County.

$1 billion. Estimated annual sales for Boscov’s stores.

Sixty-three years. It was in 1954 that Albert Robert Boscov, who would become one of the area’s best known businessmen and philanthropists, assumed the reins of the department store his dad Solomon, a Russian emigree, founded at Ninth and Pike streets in Reading in 1918. There were only a few of those years when Albert was not leading the family’s growing retail business.

One — No. 1. The status of Boscov’s as the nation’s largest family-owned department store chain.

30, 10. The amount of flies he was required to slay daily as a child in his dad’s store to earn a dime. He loved to tell the tale that all dead flies look alike so he was able to con his dad into a few more dimes a day by “recycling” them.

79, 11, 2008, 307, nine. It was a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Boscov’s in 2008, the year of the great recession, that brought Mr. B, at age 79, out of his first retirement. He purchased back his company.  Traditional investment banks weren’t lending at the time, so to save the business Albert assembled $307 million from family members, real estate partners, federal community development loans co-signed by the State, and a line of credit backed by the stores’ inventory.  Nine months later, he saw the bankruptcy discharged and was on hand in Philadelphia that day to thank the judge for not just saving the stores and family business, but for saving the jobs of his thousands of co-workers.

  1. On average, the number of hours each day that Mr. B worked — boundless energy, streaming smiles, and kind words for all.

Three, one and 57, three, five. Three siblings; one wife Eunice to whom he was devoted for 57 years; three daughters; five grandchildren.

  1. The number of families able to purchase affordable homes in Reading rehabilitated by his Our City Reading Inc. nonprofit organization.

$600,000. The average amount of proceeds raised by the many non-profit programs Boscov’s hosts annually.

$3.5 million. The amount raised by Boscov’s for creating the F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre in 1985.

Three. The number of honorary doctorate degrees awarded to Mr. B.

One. War — the Korean War in which he served in the U.S. Navy.

Tens of millions. The investments made by Mr. B. and others into revitalizing the key eastern Pennsylvania cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Reading.

One — No.1. The GoggleWorks for the Arts in Reading, the largest art center in the nation, was co-founded and co-funded by Mr. B in 2005.

Eight, five, and nine. The eight-story, five-star DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Reading spearheaded by Mr. B and opened after eight long years of development in 2016 in his hometown’s downtown. Behind it — the nine-story parking garage for which he lobbied as a necessity for the hotel to be constructed.

  1. The number of years he enjoyed a full and, to all accounts, extraordinarily happy and productive life.

5,528. The number of shares of the Boscov’s Facebook page announcement of his passing.

  1. As of mid afternoon Tuesday, Feb. 14, the number of condolence postings on that page.
  2. The number of condolence messages posted on his obituary in just one local daily newspaper.

Hundreds upon hundreds, maybe thousands upon thousands. The personal anecdotes shared in the days since his passing by those he touched over the years.

Countless…the number of good deeds large and small he performed over the course of his long, loving life.

Growing up in Berks County, Boscov’s was a word I knew from my earliest recollections. My dad often related a story from his childhood circa 1920 when my farmer grandfather took his young sons into town to buy shoes from Solomon Boscov. In retrospect, it’s clear both men were struggling economically with raising their young families. Still, Sol must have seen the more dire struggles of my grandfather, reportedly a man who never managed money well. Sol made sure that those young boys all had new shoes at a major discount, maybe even a pair or two for free, based on my dad’s story.

I remember relating that and my family’s continued appreciation to Mr. B more than six decades after the incident. The glistening in his eyes brought tears to mine. And I knew that his dad’s generosity of spirit lived on in Mr. B a thousandfold.

Over my years in journalism, I often interviewed Mr. B. It was usually a joyful assignment and his favorite thing to do was to start with a snack, often rice pudding, in his incredibly messy office at Boscov’s East and then continue the interview walking through the store. Those were never short assignments — he literally would greet every shopper and sales clerk along the way. I recall one time in the early 1980s when I was walking along, asking him questions, and jotting down notes on my reporter’s pad. I turned to ask him another and he’d disappeared. It didn’t make sense. Where could he have gone in a couple of seconds? The answer: Mr. B had dived under a circular rack to retrieve a piece of apparel on the floor to return it to its hanger.

As a city councilor and parking authority board member in more recent years, I was called upon to cast votes to support funding for the creation of the GoggleWorks, the IMAX Theatre complex, the GoggleWorks Apartments, the DoubleTree, parking garages, and the Fifth and Penn properties in downtown Reading. Most of the time those votes were affirmative, but once or twice I couldn’t agree. Those were heartbreakers and it was tough to see the disappointment in his face. But there were never lingering hard feelings. That wasn’t Mr. B’s way. The smile always returned and so did the hugs.

At the Monday night meeting of Reading City Council, the body paid special tribute to Mr. B and encouraged members of the public to do the same. The stories shared were all personal, touching, and elicited more laughter than tears, something that Mr. B would have undoubtably preferred.

Near the end of the tribute, Jim Boscov, Albert’s nephew and the chairman of Boscov’s, noted that in Judaism, the family’s religion, “people live on in the good deeds they perform.”

And so, we go back to Mr. B. by the numbers — and come to the realization that the numbers of good deeds we can document are overshadowed by those we can’t.

No one is perfect and Mr. B would have told you he wasn’t. He was as self-effacing as he was charismatic. He was pleased and proud of the awards he received over the years and the regard in which he was held by so many, great and small, in society.

But he always put his family first.

Upon learning the news of his passing Friday evening, I, along with thousands of others, felt as though I’d lost a family member.

Why? Because Mr. B treated everyone with a sense of love, respect, and kindness. And, that is what makes a community a family, what makes a man a legend, and why he’ll live on in our hearts.

 

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