Originally published in The New York Times.
Only the Store Is Gone
While a sign is the only material evidence of the store's 76 years in Manhattan, Gimbels is living a new life in that peculiar New York lexicon of things that no longer exist.
WHEN the first apartments in the tower at 125 West 31st Street open next year, some younger residents will have to be forgiven for asking the meaning of the word painted on the building next door.
After all, Gimbels closed nearly a generation ago.
Though Gimbels, a former department store giant, once put up a plucky fight with Macy’s, its higher-class rival down the street, the only physical remnant is a long, narrow sign painted on the side of 119 West 31st Street. The top part of the G is missing, removed by some forgotten renovation, but in other respects the sign has been touched only by the hands of time. White block letters one story tall scroll down the side of the building against a green background, just as they did on Sept. 27, 1986, the day when Gimbels closed. The sign marked the store’s old warehouse, located between 31st and 32nd Streets.
While the sign is the only material evidence of the store’s 76 years in Manhattan, Gimbels is living a new life in that peculiar New York lexicon of things that no longer exist. The Gimbels of “Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?,” a once-common phrase dismissing the notion that competitors would share business information, has gone the way of the wall of Wall Street, the canal of Canal Street and The New York Herald of Herald Square, surviving only in the popular imagination.
Brooklyn to Macy’s Manhattan, Gimbels was beloved by many in its day but never mustered the sophistication and charm of its slightly more upscale neighbor on the other side of 34th Street. Rarely was the store mentioned without reference to its rival, and many New Yorkers always had trouble distinguishing between the two.
The two retail giants were fused in the mind by location, competition and the original movie version of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which the kindly Macy’s Santa tells a mother that she can find a pair of roller skates (sold out at his store) at Gimbels.
Its competitor had a parade, but Gimbels had something else: a bargain basement, the first of its kind in New York. And though the store’s prices were low, the advertisements did not stint on hyperbole. When the nation’s first ballpoint pens went on sale at Gimbels on Oct. 29, 1945, the store ran circulars promoting what was described as “a fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen.” And preceding the slogans of countless used-car dealers, the store boasted, “Nobody but nobody undersells Gimbels.”
When Gimbels closed, some business analysts saw the event as marking the end of retail marketed to the middle class, and wondered if 34th Street had a future in retail. It did, of course; the street is still home to Macy’s, and the Manhattan Mall set up shop in the former Gimbels building, but a visitor to the street today would also pass a Jack’s 99-cent store and street hawkers booming, “Everything you want is five bucks!”
And though high schoolers reading Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” may be left scratching their heads at the book’s references to the store—“Your closet could make Norma Shearer’s look like the wastebasket in Gimbels basement”—memories are surprisingly long.
The director Jon Favreau concluded that the Gimbels name was worth $5,000, which he paid to Mark and Beth Gimbel of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, the current owners of the trademark, for its use in the 2003 holiday film “Elf.” Like the old Penn Station and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gimbels had become another paramour in the New York love affair with what it has left behind.