Update: The original article was corrected on August 29, 2019 to clarify 2018 store relocation information.
Customers clutched shoes, jackets, hats and other items as they waited to check out. Shelves were left bare and a mound of boxes accumulated in the shoe section, the aftermath of scavenging shoppers.
Aug. 23 was a Friday unlike any other for I. Goldberg Army & Navy, as it was the last day of business for the Center City staple, which has been in operation for a century.
Recent years were particularly rough for the business, third-generation owner Nana Goldberg said. In January 2018, the store relocated from 13th and Chestnut streets to Chestnut near Eighth due to rent increases. The timing of the move, with a temporary December closing, was damaging, causing the store to miss out on the lucrative holiday season. The owner also attributed the rise of online shopping for the sales decline.
“We moved to this location because I couldn’t imagine a world without I. Goldberg, and I thought we were still relevant,” Goldberg said. “But I guess other people didn’t think so.”
The business was founded and named after Nana’s grandfather, Isaac Goldberg, a “veteran businessman who represents the classic peddler-to-industrialist success story,” as described in a 1978 Jewish Exponent article. The Jewish immigrant got his start in 1906 selling underwear and stockings out of a backpack. He sold door-to-door across Pennsylvania Dutch country.
In 1919, he opened a dry goods store in Center City. Back then, the register was a cigar box, business decisions consisted of whether to invest in heating or display windows and a person’s word was as good as any contract. Between the World Wars, the business transitioned to selling Army and Navy surplus and soon became one of the country’s largest retailers of its kind.
Isaac Goldberg died in 1983 and ownership was handed down to his son Charles. Charles Goldberg’s daughter Nana became sole owner after his passing in 2009.
To keep I. Goldberg afloat, Nana Goldberg spent the last year looking for investors, financing, buyers or any alternative to closing. But Goldberg said it’s difficult for those things to materialize when you’re struggling. In the end, the only options were to either close or downsize and leave Center City.
“We could be a smaller store, but then it wouldn’t be I. Goldberg. We’d have to cut out so much of what we feel is part of what makes us us,” Goldberg said. “If we can’t be I. Goldberg as we believe it to be, then we can’t be.”
News of the closure quickly spread. An outpouring of former employees and loyal customers reached out to Goldberg to offer their condolences. A basket of flowers was sent by a Bill Johnston, one of the store’s first security guards in the ’70s. Goldberg said he went on to start his own security firm, describing him as another one of those “I. Goldberg stories.”
The owner said her father loved giving people their first job. It was a tradition she sought to continue. Many of I. Goldberg’s employees had been students, formerly incarcerated people, those with disabilities and the homeless.
Years ago, Arnold Berman worked at the store between classes at medical school. Today, he’s an orthopedic surgeon with a building at Hahnemann University Hospital named in his honor.
“He’s our big claim to fame,” Goldberg said.
Howard Solomon had worked at I. Goldberg since 1977. He remembers first shopping there while attending junior high in the ’60s. He went on to be senior buyer. News of the closure left Solomon “heartbroken,” but he agreed with the decision.
“It’s a life-changer for me,” Solomon said. “It’s devastating in one respect and, in other respects, it’s time, and I understand that it’s time. We would have loved to continue and be what we’ve been, but today’s retail landscape has changed so much. It’s so difficult for a retailer to continue doing what they’re doing.”
Generations of Philadelphians shopped at I. Goldberg, and considered it a central part of their Philly growing-up.
Kids made annual pilgrimages before heading off to summer camp. Winter wear was available year-round for those heading off to cold weather destinations on vacation. Goldberg said it was her father’s mission to be the first to carry a product in the area, looking for the unique and durable. Shoppers could count on I. Goldberg for “good goods at good prices,” as Goldberg’s father would say.
Many celebrities shopped at I. Goldberg over the years.
Actor Candice Bergen was a frequent shopper while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Goldberg remembers her father selling Bergen a peacoat, one of their more popular items. Comedian Eddie Murphy made a visit while filming the 1983 movie Trading Places, with only Goldberg in the store recognizing him. Another notable shopper was Bill Murray, who broke out into stand-up while waiting to check out. He stopped for lunch nearby and later called the store asking for a pair of fatigues to give his waitress and I. Goldberg delivered.
Athletes were frequent customers when the store carried a robust athletic wear selection. Solomon said basketball star Charles Barkley visited the day he signed on to play for the 76ers. He bought Sixers memorabilia to take home for family. The store hosted autograph signings for basketball players like Patrick Ewing, James Worthy and Andrew Toney, to name a few.
“Everybody shopped at I. Goldberg,” Solomon said. “From the guys who were homeless on the street to the very wealthy stars, and we treat everybody the same, we always did. Everybody got the respect they deserved. That’s what we were always about, customer service and treating people the way we wanted to be treated, and that’s why everyone loved the store.”
With the store now closed, Goldberg said, she looks forward to starting a new chapter in her life. She is ready to try something outside of retail. Looking back, she’s grateful for the generations of dedicated customers the store had.
“The whole experience of having a retail store is community, and having personal interaction,” Goldberg said. “We’ve always had more of a heart when we should have been thinking more with our heads sometimes, but that’s who we are. We believe in the attitude of gratitude, kindness. Certainly this isn’t brain surgery, but if we can turn someone’s day around and make them leave with a smile, we’ve done a good job.”
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