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A gentle giant, `Albert' was one of a kind in retail

Albert Boscov cared so deeply for his thousands of department-store employees that he stood in tears before investors in the middle of the Great Recession of 2008 and begged for millions of dollars to help keep afloat the business his father founded a century earlier.

With PREIT's financial help and family money, the beloved retail giant rescued Boscov's from bankruptcy and saved thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania and six other states.

Mr. Boscov, 87, the chairman of the nation's largest family-owned department-store chain, died at his home in Reading late Friday night of pancreatic cancer. Just nine days earlier, he had told his employees that he was dying. Earlier Friday, he managed to post a loving farewell on the Boscov's Facebook page.

In a cutthroat industry constantly under pressure to increase profit margins and slash costs, Mr. Boscov stood out as a gentle giant, a mentor to everyone, a gentleman who put his employees and customers first, and a man who never compromised on doing business with integrity.

The passing of "Albert," as he was affectionately called by those who worked for him or with him over the decades, has left a big void in the retail industry, said many who knew him well or shopped in one of the 45 Boscov's stores. Boscov's store No. 46 opens later this year in Erie.

"Albert was one of kind," said Coradino of PREIT, which owns several malls in the region -- including Moorestown, Plymouth Meeting, Exton Square, and Cumberland -- that have Boscov's stores. "He had a connection and was a mentor to everyone he met."

Mr. Boscov worked 16-hour days to resuscitate his company after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Four months after the filing, he repurchased the company for $307 million, a move many thought extraordinary amid the recession's grip. Nine months later, the bankruptcy was discharged, and Mr. Boscov, then 79, showed up in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington to personally thank Judge Kevin Gross and all the lawyers who had worked on the turnaround.

Showing up was a hallmark of Mr. Boscov.

On Thanksgiving, a holiday he wished his employees didn't have to work, he traditionally left his family's turkey dinner to go to one of the stores. Why?, the Inquirer asked him in 2014, Boscov's centennial year.

"To make sure the coworkers know it's not a holiday for me and that I'm working," he said. Those working would have turkey dinner catered for them, he added.

The company announced his death Friday night, describing him as a dynamic retailer and philanthropist who believed in hard work and honesty, and in treating his employees like family, and his customers fairly and with respect.

Longtime Boscov's shopper Anna Marie Dettra of Feasterville was saddened by the news. She never met Mr. Boscov in person, but she said his store at Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem has been her favorite for decades.

"He catered to people like me," said Dettra, who turns 80 in June. "It was one of the few department stores that still carried full-line petite clothing. The clothes aren't risque like other stores.  I also go there for most of the things I need," like housewares and wedding gifts.

"I just love that store," she said. "I know I'll miss him. It was his marketing. He knew how to cater to his customers, and it paid off."

The death of the retail icon reverberated throughout the Mid-Atlantic states where Boscov's stores are located.

"We were all saddened to hear the news of Albert Boscov's death this morning," said Les Verhoek, general manager of the Boscov's at White Marsh Mall in Baltimore.

"Albert Boscov was truly one of the giants in the retail industry, " said Jim Boscov,  67, his nephew and successor, who took the reins as CEO almost two years ago. "He was a man of vision and passion, and he had a profound influence on the retail business community and the community at large."

Boscov said he had made a vow to his uncle as recently as a week ago.

"I promised him that I would maintain our commitment to not only excellence and taking care of our customers, but also caring for our coworkers and maintaining strong relationships with our vendors so our customers ultimately benefit," Boscov said.

In 1950, Mr. Boscov took over the company from his father, Solomon, a Russian immigrant who founded Boscov's in 1914. The company took a fall and filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after Mr. Boscov retired.  Within months, he was able to rescue the company by cobbling together family money and loans, like PREIT's.

Boscov's plans to open its 25th store in Pennsylvania, at Millcreek Mall in Erie, in October. Its other stores are in Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. It now has annual sales of more than $1 billion.

Mr. Boscov, the youngest of four children, graduated from Reading High School and Drexel University, where he earned a business degree and made money with his U-Eat-Em delivery of hero sandwiches. In a 2009 interview with the Inquirer, he told of learning a valuable life lesson while working one of his first jobs for his father at the family's neighborhood store: killing flies.

He had to kill 30 flies to earn a dime, he recalled. It took a lot of effort, but then he came up with a recycling shortcut.

"I realized that dead flies looked the same the next week," he said.

Mr. Boscov's father didn't fall for the ruse.

"He gave me a lecture on integrity," he said. "That week, I didn't get a dime."

In 1914, his father opened the first store in Reading. The firm later expanded into the Philadelphia suburbs.

Boscov's stores target Middle America. Each has a retro feel, as if you are entering a bygone era when you step inside. Each still has a certified bra fitter, while most Boscov's stores still have a candy department and fudge counter and optical center.

"Have you Boscov'd today?" is the promotion line that has sustained the chain.

Karen Fisher, 56, of Pennsauken, goes to the Boscov's at Moorestown Mall once a month for the variety. "You can go high-end if you want to, but if you can't afford to, then it always has something there that's in your price range."

"In the age of automation and general disarray and hyperactivity at department stores, Boscov's stores have almost this calming effect, " said Michael Salove, CEO of MSC Retail Inc., whose firm has done work on two malls with Boscov's -- Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing and Concord Mall in Wilmington. "You walk in and there's this candy counter and it takes you back to when you were a kid."

Jim Boscov said he worked with and for his uncle for nearly 30 years, the last two years, side-by-side "preparing for a smooth transition." Many say the younger Boscov is a clone of Mr. Boscov: easygoing, polite, never in too big a rush to say "hello" to a customer during store visits.

"I learned so much from him — from what it takes to run a successful business, to being a really good person who truly cared about his employees and customers. That's what our company is built on.

"To the very end he showed his respect and love for his employees," Jim Boscov said.

Albert Boscov is survived by Eunice, his wife of  57 years; three daughters, Ruth Aichenbaum (husband Michael), Ellen Boscov (husband Todd Taylor), and Meg Boscov (husband Randall Brown); and five grandchildren.

The family will hold a private funeral and a memorial service for Boscov's employees and everyone else at a later date.

Mr. Boscov's note posted Friday on Facebook thanked all for their support and good wishes:

My friends on Facebook,

I've been amazed at the amount of wonderful notes that you've sent and I know I don't deserve them, but I certainly enjoyed them. 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.



Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this report.