By Mike Urban, Reading Eagle
READING - Even in a city famous for its entertainers, Albert R. Boscov stands out.
Twice a year Boscov heads to Las Vegas for the country’s biggest consumer-goods trade show, held in the city’s convention center.
The building is packed with almost 3,000 vendors selling everything from diamond rings to dog food.
Boscov is one of 45,000 retailers who attend.
And despite all the chatter and noise, amid all the buying and selling, a buzz goes through the huge hall when “Mr. B” walks in.
It’s as though everyone instantly recognizes him.
“It’s like traveling with a rock star,” said Bob Para, who’s seen those entrances firsthand as a small-appliance buyer for Boscov’s.
“You can hear people saying, ‘He’s here. He’s here,’ ” Para said. “They love him. It’s like Elvis is in the building.”
But while Boscov is a star in Vegas, he’s even more appreciated back home, where his business smarts, showman’s personality and love of Reading are legendary.
Boscov isn’t tall, but he’s rarely overlooked.
And now he is set to receive a big honor.
On Thursday he’ll be the first person inducted into the Pennsylvania Retailers’ Association Hall of Fame. Gov. Tom Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell are among those planning to attend the induction ceremony at the Crowne Plaza Reading in Wyomissing.
Lifetime of impressive feats
“He’s one of the most genuinely decent people I’ve ever met,” said association president and CEO Brian Rider. “And he is a true American success story.”
The story started when Albert Boscov’s late father, Solomon, a Russian immigrant, came to Reading in 1911.
Solomon would stuff pairs of long underwear, thread and other household supplies in a sack and walk through Berks and Lancaster farm country, selling his goods to farmers’ wives. Sales improved, and in 1918 he opened a dry goods store in a North Ninth Street row home in Reading.
Albert Boscov joined the business full time in 1955, along with his brother-in-law Edward Lakin, and the two quickly opened other stores.
Under Albert Boscov’s leadership, the company has grown into one of the largest family-owned retail chains in the country. It has 41 stores in five states and tops $1 billion in sales annually. Two more stores will open this year.
Maybe Boscov’s most impressive business feat, though, was coming out of retirement to help save the company after it went bankrupt in 2008. The crashed economy — coupled with Boscov’s opening too many out-of-state stores at once — had brought the company to its knees.
Boscov couldn’t stand to see his family’s business fail or the 7,000 employees lose their jobs. So he came back, righted the ship and continues to serve as company chairman.
Boscov also has fought to fix Reading’s downtown and its neighborhoods, helping to bring new ventures such as the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts and the Reading Movies 11 and IMAX theater, and leading Our City Reading, which has renovated more than 500 homes it sold to first-time buyers.
At 83, he’s still going strong.
“It’s like he invented more than 24 hours in a day,” said Edward J. Swoyer Jr., Greater Berks Development Fund president and chief executive.
“When it comes to the art of the deal, he’d still put Donald Trump to shame,” Para said.
A knack for making friends
It seems everyone who knows Boscov has good stories about him.
That includes former Reading Mayor Joe Eppihimer. When he took office in 2000, he didn’t know Boscov, but took his call one morning and agreed to meet him at Reading Regional Airport, not knowing what Boscov had in mind.
Boscov convinced the mayor to get on a small company plane and head to Washington for a meeting with then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez.
When they got off the plane, a big, black stretch limousine was waiting for them.
“I felt like the prince of Bel Air,” Eppihimer said.
The limo took them to the HUD office, and when they entered, everyone on the floor greeted Boscov, saying, “Hey, Mr. B., how are you?”
Martinez walked in, shook hands with Boscov and said, “You’re the guy who keeps asking for all the money!”
By the time the meeting ended, Martinez had agreed to sell all the HUD houses in Reading to Boscov for $1 each so they could be fixed up for struggling families.
Our City Reading was born.
“It was like a dream,” Eppihimer said.
Jon C. Scott, president of the Berks Economic Partnership, won’t forget a trip he took to Greenville, S.C., with Boscov in 2004.
The two were among the local officials who went there to study the city’s resurgence, and it was a long, hectic day that included the flight down, a full slate of meetings and the flight back to Reading.
“Coming home, everybody on the plane was asleep, except for Albert,” Scott said. “He was sitting in a jump seat under a light, poring over store ads with a red felt pen.”
For Scott, that moment exemplified Boscov’s work ethic and enthusiasm.
“He’s one of the most amazing men I’ve known,” Scott said. “His joie de vivre is incredible. He has more energy than people half his age.”
Scott said Boscov’s retail knowledge also is unique, his memory nearly photographic.
Scott once introduced him to an Armenian couple interested in manufacturing, then listened to Boscov rattle off one detail after another about the prices and quality of specific products.
“I was just dazzled,” Scott said.
Corbett said he and other state leaders ask Boscov for advice on how to grow the economy, calling him a true job creator.
Corbett also praised Boscov’s rare blend of talents and his willingness to share them.
“He’s a major contributor to the business scene, to the cultural scene, to the entire community,” Corbett said. “We need more people like Al. The community is blessed to have him around.”
Boscov is a throwback, since most department stores are now part of chains or owned by hedge funds, said Thomas C. McKeon, executive director of the Berks County Industrial Development Authority.
And in Berks, Boscov’s is more than a place to shop, but part of the shared culture, he said.
The slogan “Did you Boscov today?” turned the family name into a verb.
Longtime customers reminisce about getting their china sets as rewards for shopping. Willie the parrot from the former Boscov’s West in Sinking Spring, who still lives in the Berkshire Mall store, became the most famous bird in Berks.
Boscov wanted shopping to be fun, which is how he treats life in general.
Colleagues talk of how he’ll lighten up a serious meeting with a joke, a song or a silly prank, often making fun of his own diminutive frame.
They also speak of his ability to bring people together, to build teams and motivate those around him.
They marvel at his stamina, which allows him to regularly put in 12-hour days, conducting business from breakfast until dinner.
They admire his vision and pioneering spirit, the way he’s always looking ahead to the next big thing.
They are impressed by his razor-sharp mind and thankful for his philanthropy.
And as politics have grown increasingly partisan, Boscov has retained his ability to work with Republicans and Democrats, said Reading Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Adam Mukerji.
“He has the ability to shake the money tree in Harrisburg and Washington, because without money, you can’t do anything,” Mukerji said. “He’s a real champion for the people of Reading.”
Some of Boscov’s causes are high-profile, such as Our City Reading, which has been amazingly successful, Mukerji said. Of the more than 500 homes sold, there have only been three defaults.
“He’s making the American dream come true for those people,” Mukerji said.
But Boscov also pitches in on many projects for which he doesn’t get attention, from contributing financially to the recent Franklin Street Station renovation or helping to save the Reading Fair years ago, colleagues said.
And though Reading and Berks are his true loves, he cares about all the places he has stores, said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Scranton Democrat.
Boscov worked with Casey’s father, the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, to establish a Boscov’s store in the Steamtown Mall, a key step in the development of downtown Scranton in the late 1980s and early 1990s .
Boscov was determined to open that store and rolled up his sleeves to make sure it happened, Casey said.
The inspiration and perspiration he contributed to that project symbolized his commitment to all his stores and their communities, he said.
Casey called him a modern Ben Franklin, mentioning his wide range of knowledge, his problem-solving skills and ability to attract people to his causes.
“He has helped so many places in so many ways,” he said. “I can’t think of another person who’s had the same type of impact. We’re so glad he has his roots in our state.”
Those who have known Boscov longest always knew he’d do special things, Scott said.
He was referring to a talk he had with some of Boscov’s fellow Reading High School classmates.
“In school, they’d say that when Albert headed to college, the world would never catch up with him because he’d be going so fast,” Scott said. “They were right.”