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A reporter remembers Al Boscov

Look at the picture. It's quintessential Albert Boscov, the founder of Boscov's chain of department stores. Maybe I shouldn't write any more, because the photograph really tells the story -- of a man who knew how to lead by being human, who wasn't afraid to laugh and hug an employee double his height, who conducted business meetings at a table wedged next to the toilet on the back of a tour bus, who used a grocery basket as an attache case, who pulled a snack -- an unwrapped bagel -- from his suit pocket. He peeled off a post-it note and wiped away some lint before grabbing a bite.

Look at the picture.

It's quintessential Albert Boscov, the founder of Boscov's chain of department stores. Maybe I shouldn't write any more, because the photograph really tells the story -- of a man who knew how to lead by being human, who wasn't afraid to laugh and hug an employee double his height, who conducted business meetings at a table wedged next to the toilet on the back of a tour bus, who used a grocery basket as an attache case, who pulled a snack -- an unwrapped bagel -- from his suit pocket. He peeled off a post-it note and wiped away some lint before grabbing a bite.

When I first met Al Boscov in 1995, he was 66-years-old and one of his assistants told me that employees at the department store chain named after him had decided that Boscov, who had by then survived some serious heart surgery, was never going to die. And, if you met the man, you'd believe it, since it would seem that the sheer momentum generated by his energy would carry him beyond any date with death.

Apparently death didn't get the memo, since, on Feb. 10, Al Boscov violated his company's policy by passing away at the age of 87.

On the day he died, he posted a note on his Facebook page:  "You're a wonderful group of people that have been part of my family for 87 years and I'm most proud of all of you. Love, Al. 

We reporters meet a lot of people and do a lot of stories. In a 40-plus year career, a lot of it blends together. But, in August, 1996, I spent the day with Al Boscov and I remember so much of it so clearly. In a bit, I'm going to copy and paste my story from our Philadelphia Inquirer archives (this is pre-linking!). The story recounts one of the company's twice-a-month bus trips from Boscov's headquarters in Reading to the stores, spread out in several states. The goal was for the buyers, who selected the merchandise from vendors, to stay in touch with the people on the sales floor, so each could learn from the other what had sold, what had not and why.

One memory from that day didn't make it into the story, but stayed in my mind and was refreshed by April Saul's photo.

On that day, Boscov walked into one of the stores, and so many employees knew him. One of them, obviously a longtime employee, was a little bit elderly, not too snazzy in appearance, but had a friendly smile as she stood near the jewelry counter. He walked over to her, grabbed her hand, and they walked down the store aisle together, talking shop, their hands swinging, clearly delighted with one another. When was the last time that happened to you? When was the last time your boss showed you affection and delight?

Over the years, I interviewed Al Boscov several times, having first met him in a Manhattan bankruptcy court when I was covering the breakup of the John Wanamaker chain and he was trying to buy some of the stores. The suits and the other execs were clearly uptight, but not Al Boscov, who stood in the hallway, joking around, ever friendly.

In Reading, Al Boscov didn't have a fancy office in the department store chain's (way) less than elegant headquarters tucked in the back of one of the stores. Truthfully, his digs, though comfortable, were a mess, the working quarters of someone actually working, with meetings held at a conference table that had clearly seen better days.

I last interviewed Al Boscov in 2014 and I took my son, then 23, along to the interview, because I wanted him to meet an executive who didn't need a mission statement to have a mission and because I wanted him to see what real no-frills, kind-hearted leadership looked like. On that day, he explained that he'd be working on Thanksgiving because the store employees were working and that all of them would have an excellent catered meal, served during their breaks.

Reporters should never harbor the illusion that they are friends with the people they cover, even people they like, even people who appear to like them. That being said, I'm so sorry I'll never be able to interview Al Boscov again.

Here's the story I wrote back in 1996.

 Page 1 of 1                          
To Hermes
Publication: PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER ID: 1401068
Date: Sunday, Aug 25, 1996 Page: D01
Edition: D Section: BUSINESS
Graphics: PHOTO AND MAP Words: 2683


``Need anything? '' Al Boscov asked a visitor.

The boss of Boscov's department stores grabbed a bagel, jammed it in a suit pocket and picked up his fancy attache case - a green plastic Boscov's shopping crate with metal handles.

And heeeee's . . . . . . .off.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Al Boscov biweekly marathon Bos-capade. Step right up and see retailing done the old-fashioned way. See an old guy wear out two busloads of folks, most of them less than half his 67 years.

See the tiny titan tear through his stores at breakneck pace, missing nothing and noticing everything from the size of a sign to the turquoise inset in a pair of curtains . . . .

Did anybody see where he put that bagel?

Oh, there it is, jammed underneath a blue looseleaf notebook in that attache, . . . er, plastic crate.

Short, balding and wearing a nondescript olive-green suit, Boscov is the last of the region's homegrown, big-time retailers. He and his brother-in-law, Ed Lakin, run Boscov's, a Reading chain with $784 million in annual sales that is expanding - not shutting down.

Al Boscov's secret? High energy, great retailing instincts, and a generous touch with employees and suppliers.

The idea behind the road trip is to take the buyers with him so that they can know how the merchandise looks in the stores; visit the sales staff; and find out in real terms (not that all figures aren't available on computer) what's selling and what's not and why.

By 6:50 a.m., most of Boscov's buyers and merchandising managers have boarded one of two nearly packed 49-seat, blue-and-white buses idling outside the loading dock at the Reading East Boscov's store.

At Boscov's, forget about white pianos and fresh flowers in vah-ses. But you can buy a silk camisole. It's just down the aisle from the new kitty litter-filtering box and the incredible mop, as seen on TV.

And forget about tasteful advertisements with subtle, colored borders. Boscov's regularly runs rainbow-colored ads for Cracker Jack Days sale. Buy something. At the register, the shopper gets a free box of Cracker Jack (with the prize inside, of course) and a surprise discount, a bar-coded sticker attached to the box. When the sticker is scanned, the shopper receives from 10 to 50 percent off.

``Retailing is recreation,'' Boscov said, scarfing down a sizable plate of lasagna at lunch. ``It has nothing to do with need. We don't need a goddamned thing. We buy things because it makes us feel good. Luckily, our economy can afford it. ''

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, talking about lunch when Boscov hasn't even had one bite of his breakfast bagel.

Boscov, variously called Al, Mr. B, Boss and Honeybunch, hops onto the bus, swinging his attache crate up the stairs as he hustles back to his headquarters - a seat and a table squeezed in next to the bathroom door.

As the buses roll out at 7 a.m., Boscov picks up the microphone on the first bus and runs through the figures - which stores are up, which stores are down, how this week compares with the same week a year ago.

Last year, a sizzling summer sent sales of air-conditioners skyrocketing, pulling up the revenue line. So it won't be easy to beat those figures.

Digging into his suit pocket, he pulls out the bagel, peels off a memo that had stuck to it, takes a big chomp and tosses the bagel into the crate, where it slides into a morass of reports and advertising circulars.

Good-bye, Mr. Bagel.

Parking the chomp in his cheek, Boscov talks about how his 28-store family business has managed to survive and thrive, competing with retail giants such us the May Department Stores Co., which recently bought Strawbridge & Clothier. May operates close to 350 department stores, among them Lord & Taylor, Hecht's, and now Strawbridge's.

``I think we're very aggressive. We're in the market all the time,'' Boscov says. ``We can often take advantage of opportune buys. '' For example, if a manufacturer is closing a line of shoes and has 3,800 pairs left, he'll sell them to Boscov's.

``May wouldn't know what to do with [just] 3,800 pair of shoes,'' he said, but Boscov's can spread them out among the stores or drop them at the Boscov's outlet in Franklin Mills. ``Big is desirable, but small has its advantages, too. ''

And then, of course, there is the annual suppliers' contest - this year called the Eddie Awards, after his brother-in-law.

Last year, they were the Albies, after you know who.

The suppliers who help cut the best deals with Boscov's - so Boscov's can run some great sales and bring in customers - get an all-expenses-paid trip to a fancy resort in Brazil, or maybe the Dominican Republic or Hawaii.

``We take 300 or 400 people, and we don't let them touch their wallet,'' Boscov says. ``It's not done to bribe them.

``But we're a privately held company,'' he said. ``We don't have to turn [the profits] over to our shareholders and answer a lot of questions.

``We give them [the suppliers] a thank you and lots of love,'' he said. ``We like to share our success. We're the Davids of retailing, and a lot of these people have been good to us. They give us the stones [to fight the Goliaths] and to keep us alive. ''

Boscov started his retailing career killing flies in his father's rowhouse store in downtown Reading. Fifty flies earned him a dime - admission to the movies. (Boscov's father, a Russian immigrant, came to Reading because someone told him everyone there spoke Yiddish. Turns out that what they spoke was Pennsylvania Dutch. )

Young Boscov paid his way through Drexel University by running a catering business that delivered food to the dorms at night.

``You could get in all the girls' dorms,'' he said. ``Wow! You could see the girls in nightgowns and curlers. Oh boy! And if she was drinking beer, you knew she was wicked. ''

Off he went to Korea, and when he got back, he joined his father at the family's modest dry goods business. In 1962, he expanded it - opening the first Boscov's branch store, a contemporary full-service department store just west of Reading. And he hasn't stopped since.

By 7:35 a.m., Boscov calls his first meeting of the morning, with women's shoe buyer Judith Campion. Out in the stores, the managers marvel at the way Boscov knows every price, every discount, every product. But at the back seat of the bus, it's easy to pick up a clue to his technique.

He pulls computer printouts out of the crate and scans lists of prices and sales. He compares the advertising circulars from the same week in the previous year with the sales results. What worked. What didn't. The buyers tell him what they think should be advertised; they talk about what's selling and what isn't.

As the bus swings into the Norristown store's parking lot at 8:15 a.m., he tosses the reports back in the crate, burying the bagel farther.

Inside the store, Boscov stops to pull a box of stockings out of a display bin so the front of the package will show. He tells the manager to consider unboxing a set of twin lamps on sale for $49.99 to sell them individually for $24.99. ``They might sell better that way.''

``Anything you need?'' he asks the jewelry-department manager, swinging her hand as he walks down the aisle with her. She smiles and says no, and he smiles and gives her hand an extra squeeze before letting it go.

From store to store, that is his constant question to department managers: ``Need anything? They treating you right? Are you getting what you need? ''

By 10 a.m., the buyers are back on the bus - having grabbed fruit and coffee from a big table set up for them at the store's front door.

``Anybody missing? OK. Let's go. ''

This time he gives his sale spiel on the second bus. Then, both buses pull over to the shoulder of the turnpike to let Boscov scamper back to the other bus - and, at 10:25 a.m., his bagel.

``Mmmm, good, very good,'' he jokes, spritzing some little bagel flecks as he laughs.

Fifteen minutes later, the bus pulls into the parking lot of the Neshaminy store, and Boscov gets out, sporting a new piece of lapel jewelry he discovered in his suit pocket while digging past his bagel for paper clips.

Attached to his breast pocket is a diaper-size pin with a dime glued on it.

What's that?

His diamond pin, get it? Dime-and-pin.

It's going to be a long day.

Inside the Neshaminy store, Boscov leads a parade of store managers, department heads and corporate staff up and down the aisles and past the shoe department, where Campion, the women's shoe buyer, bustles among the racks.

Boscov breaks down his bookkeeping by department - the senior buyers run their divisions as if they are their own businesses. What they sell constitutes their revenue, and they are charged pro-rated rates for floor space, utilities, advertising and even the buses Boscov's rents for its road trips.

``It's honest,'' said Boscov. And it also lets him see exactly where the costs and sales are. Top producers can receive some hefty bonuses - maybe an extra $10,000 tacked onto salary.

For Campion, the control and the ability to make things happen for her part of the business are powerful motivators.

But there are other little perks as well: like seeing her name on the instep of a lot of Boscov's private-label shoes. JudithSport. Other shoes are called Charlie's, after her husband, and Cary, after her son.

Noon, and time to get back on the bus.

Can you believe that Boscov still had some of that bagel left? He pulls it out of the crate, takes another bite and tosses it back in.

What the heck, may as well finish it off.

``You get hungry this time of day,'' he says.

Lunch, but no sign of fatigue. Are you kidding? He is just getting warmed up.

In the Franklin Mills store, he pays a special visit to the all-purpose reclining sofas - testing out the reclining chair built into it. The sofas have a drawer for games, a table that flops down from the back to hold drinks, even a sleeper sofa - all built into one unit.

``You never have to leave home. You can eat here. You can store your games in here. You can plop down here and watch TV until you die,'' he said, speculating that some sectionals might even have coffins built into them.

Three stores down, and at 1:45 p.m., time to get back on the bus. Big bags of chocolate-covered pretzels and Swedish gummy fish are passed around. Ken Lakin, sitting across the aisle, grabs a handful of gummy fish as Boscov howls in protest that there'd be none left if his nephew got the candy first. ``They don't call him Hans because he's Dutch,'' Boscov shouted, as the others grinned.

If you want to work for Boscov's, you better get good at balancing food in a bouncing bus, because Boscov believes an army travels on its stomach.

Boscov thinks nothing, his buyers say, of having the buses pull into a restaurant late at night and nobody, but Boscov, reaching for a wallet. But don't think the loyalty of these buyers can be bought with a few free meals or some lukewarm pizza eaten on the back of a box.

How about a week in a fancy resort in the Caribbean? How about an all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico? Once a year, Boscov takes the company's buyers and top management as well as their families - last year about 400 went - to some snazzy, sunny spot. And it doesn't come out of their vacation time.

``He encourages you to bring your family,'' says buyer Mary Foster, sipping a can of soda. ``He knows all the kids. He'll be in the pool with 10 kids on his shoulders.''

``It's unique,'' Foster says. ``It's a reward. It's his way of appreciating what we do. ''

Foster, who buys gifts and accessories, used to work for the retail giants May Co. and Federated Department Stores Inc. (Macy's and Bloomingdale's).

But at Boscov's, ``you feel you are more in control. You are more part of it. ''

Of course, any really good idea might earn the ultimate Boscov accolade - an autographed dollar bill from Al Boscov.

Rocco Scavone, manager of the Echelon store, earned one at 2:45 p.m.

And here's the amazing thing: Boscov actually had a dollar. Usually he has to borrow (and that term is used loosely) one. Even this time, as soon as Boscov started talking about giving Scavone a dollar, everyone else automatically reached for their wallets.

So what was Scavone's brilliant idea?

It sounds so simple and obvious that it's a wonder everyone wasn't already doing it. Annual sales in Scavone's junior department jumped from $1 million to $1.3 million - among the best in the company.

One reason is its location, next to the mall entrance where the teenaged mall rats can poke around it as soon they scurry in.

The other reason? Scavone rotates the merchandise often, maybe twice a week, putting some stuff that would be buried in the middle of the department right up near the door. That's because teenagers visit the mall often, and they want something new every time.

Boscov told Scavone to make a list of what merchandise he rotated and fax it to the other stores.

Meanwhile, Boscov had discovered a grievous wrong in the china department, where all the Pfaltzgraf china on sale is crammed onto a tiny table, topped with an even tinier sign.

``What is this?'' he asks, picking up a white china oval container in a pattern that vaguely resembles wicker.

``That's a mail basket,'' answers Connie Schwartz, the china buyer.

``You know what I thought that was? A planter. You're going to confuse the customer. ''

Dr. Boscov's prescription: bigger table, clearer sign.

Fifteen minutes later, the sign is on order, and Schwartz is stocking a bigger table with the dishes.

The buses leave at 3:50 p.m. for the last stop - the Moorestown store. While the buyers fans out to their departments, mother duck Boscov leads his flock around the store.

Lakin, who is vice president of operations, follows along. While Boscov's three daughters haven't entered the business, both Lakin's sons, Ken and Peter, are moving up the ranks.

Al Boscov is ``unique as a performer, as a merchant, but there are a lot of people supporting him,'' Ken Lakin says.

Lakin would have gone on, but he happens to glance over at the escalators, and the expression on his face floats somewhere between concern, embarrassment and resignation - exactly the look of a 10-year-old child whose mom sports a huge flowered hat and tries out a skateboard in front of everybody.

``Don't, don't,'' Larkin pleads, his voice trailing off futilely. But Al Boscov was already on his way, running down the up escalator at 5:30 p.m.

Why the rush?

Pizza on the bus. Of course, Al Boscov doesn't care if it's a little cold, or a little stale.

Time to make tracks, get home.

Ordinarily, he'd cram a couple more stores in, but, with luck, the buses would roll back to Reading by 7 p.m. - just in time for Boscov to ``get home and play with my baby,'' his infant grandson.

Several years ago, Boscov survived a six-way coronary-bypass operation, and, says Lakin, the banks that lend money ask some tough questions about whether the retail chain can survive without Al Boscov and Ed Lakin.

``I feel good,'' says Boscov, plowing through a salad on the bus. ``I don't tire. I enjoy what I'm doing.''

Published Caption: PHOTO (1)
1. A house slipper catches the ear of Al Boscov at Franklin Mills. Encouraging Mr. B. in his antic is store manager Mike Riatto. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / RON TARVER)
MAP (1)
1. Boscov's stores and Ports stores (The Philadelphia Inquirer / ROGER HASLER)