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Philly’s iconic I. Goldberg Army & Navy announces it is closing after a century

The company’s Facebook page announced the closing, calling it a “difficult” and “emotional decision.”

The I. Goldberg Army & Navy surplus store, at its former location at 1300 Chestnut St., began more than 90 years ago near Fourth and Market Streets.
The I. Goldberg Army & Navy surplus store, at its former location at 1300 Chestnut St., began more than 90 years ago near Fourth and Market Streets.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

I. Goldberg Army & Navy, the celebrated local retailer of military jackets, work boots, and utilitarian raincoats, said Tuesday that it will be closing this Friday after 100 years in business.

Nana Goldberg, 63, the third-generation owner of I. Goldberg, said in January that the store was determined to stay and make it through this competitive retail landscape, despite falling sales after being forced to move from a popular shopping location because of rent hikes.

Seven months later, the company’s Facebook page announced the closing, calling it a “difficult” and an “emotional decision.” Everything in the store now is at least 50 percent off, Goldberg said.

It’s become increasingly difficult for small, family-owned brick-and-mortar businesses such as I. Goldberg to earn a profit with the rise of online shopping. Year-to-date retail closures in the U.S. have far exceeded the number of closures for all of last year, according to an August report from Coresight Research.

Goldberg previously touted the store’s decades of experiences and connections with customers, mentioning the holiday cards, and wedding and bar mitzvah invitations she has received over the years as evidence to how an in-person shopping experience can compete with Amazon.

It wasn’t enough.

Goldberg said in an interview Tuesday that her family business’ closure is the consequence of what it means to be a retailer today.

“Well, we tried really, really, really hard and we just can’t do it,” Goldberg said about staying in business. “A small little Army Navy store is not high on the list of what people want. It isn’t a sexy restaurant. I don’t think it says anything about Philadelphia, in particular. I think it’s just the world.”

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Goldberg has run the store since 2002 and worked with her father, Charles, until six weeks before he died in 2009.

Goldberg’s grandfather opened I. Goldberg in about 1919 at Fourth and Market Streets as a dry goods store before adding military surplus and other functional clothing. The store moved to 902-906 Chestnut St. (now a parking garage), then 1300 Chestnut (now a Wawa), and most recently to 718 Chestnut St. As the city changed, I. Goldberg adapted.

There were high vacancies when I. Goldberg opened its East Chestnut Street location in 2002, Paul Levy, Center City District president and CEO, has said, with a program to revitalize the area with a facade improvement matching grant. Those blocks are some of the most attractive retail blocks in the city today.

Goldberg recalled how the store would see an influx of people attracted to their window displays and prominent location after watching the Macy’s light show every holiday season.

Retailers in Center City have expanded east and beyond Rittenhouse, breaking past what used to be a considered the barrier of Broad Street. In the last five years, more than 77 national retailers have opened in the area, according to the Center City District’s recent annual report.

Still, the report boasts that local businesses represent three quarters of Philadelphia’s Center City retailers.

I. Goldberg tried to withstand moving to 718 Chestnut St., a sleepier retail block, from the prime corner at 1300 Chestnut to make way for Wawa. It would be the store’s fourth location and at the time, Goldberg blamed rent increases.

I. Goldberg’s rent was less than $30 a square foot for the old 1300 Chestnut site, compared with Wawa’s $70 to $80 a square foot, Larry Steinberg, Rittenhouse Realty Advisors’ chief operating officer who secured the deal, said in January.

The rent hike, Adriano Calvanese, PMC Property Group’s vice president said in January, was "just a function of activity in the marketplace and the demand for good corner locations.”

Though the store reopened on Dec. 30, 2017, the cost of the move and missing out on prime shopping season from Thanksgiving to Christmas left I. Goldberg with about half the annual sales compared with the old location, Tom Egolf, a business consultant for I. Goldberg, previously said.

In January 2019, a year later, Goldberg said there still weren’t as many people walking by the store and she struggled to find ways to let people know where it was. With the rise of online shopping, she previously said, staff noticed people perusing the store as a showroom and comparing prices on their phone with another website, such as Amazon.

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“People far bigger than us are closing, so I’m pretty darn proud that we stayed in business 100 years,” she said. It was always a destination store, she said, attracting shoppers from around the region and world. But “it’s not the ’80s anymore," she said. "Times have changed. People don’t shop in stores.”

Back in January, Goldberg said she wished the city could do more to promote small businesses such as hers. She was hoping that the opening this fall of the Fashion District, with 838,000 square feet of retail coming on Market Street between Eighth and 11th Streets, would bring more foot traffic to her street.

It is set to open next month after I. Goldberg closes.

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Longtime customers commented on the family business’ Facebook post, offering support and sympathy.

“So sorry to see you go. Even though I only worked there for a short time, I have a lifetime of memories,” one comment reads.

“Growing up as a kid, I used to love coming from South Jersey to Philly to buy my clothes and other neat stuff at I Goldberg," another comment reads. "I am sad to see this post but at the same time I want to thank you for your years of business to the community.”

Another called the century-old business “a Philadelphia institution."

Goldberg agreed.

“We were a really unique store. I don’t think it will be replicated ever again,” Goldberg said. “And if somebody does, I hope they invite me.”