Retail giant Albert R. Boscov had a role model in his father.
The son now serves as a role model and a catalyst in helping to revitalize his native Reading – a rapidly changing and diverse city that is struggling with unemployment, blight and a reputation for crime.
But, Boscov said, the city can and will be renewed if jobs, housing, education, arts and recreation become key priorities for its people and businesses.
“We can win that battle and it won’t take forever,” he said.
Boscov, chairman and CEO of the multibillion dollar Boscov’s department store chain, looked to the future of Reading recently at Alvernia University in the city. The gathering was the first in a series of guest speakers aptly named “Leaders, Legends and Visionaries” to help young leaders and emerging leaders and give them training to develop, support and connect with the community – through the university’s O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Community Service.
Boscov welcomed some of the guests with his signature double handshake and a knowing smile as he took the stage in a living room format designed to make visitors feel comfortable about asking questions.
Event moderator R. David Myers, founding director of the O’Pake Institute named after the late state Sen. Michael O’Pake, was to ask Boscov questions, but not before the retail giant playfully tried to take Myers’ folder with notes and questions for the interview, which was met with laughter from the crowd.
“Certainly I had a role model; it was my father,” Boscov said. “Everybody had to say that he was an amazing man, an immigrant, but such a nice person, unbelievably nice person, that we always wanted to be near him.”
Sunday was the Reading businessman’s 84th birthday, and he still reflects on the first job his father gave him when he was only 6.
His father would give young Albert 10 cents for each fly he could catch in the era of screen doors and before air conditioning. It was money he was allowed to spend at the movie theater each Sunday.
“Somehow or another, I got four or five [flies], and my father respected my work and gave me my dollar,” Boscov said. “The next week, I realized that the dead flies were pretty much the same.”
But his father caught on to what the young entrepreneur was doing. So, with the weekly dollar, Albert received a lecture on integrity that he would never forget – to do the right thing.
In 1954, Albert Boscov took the store in Reading that his father Solomon Boscov started in 1921 bearing their last name and added two stores in about a decade.
Boscov’s became the nation’s largest family owned department store with more than 50 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia – and with more scheduled to open this fall.
Boscov, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, spoke of the changing ethnicity of Reading.
“When my father came [to the U.S.], he was one of many immigrants. The Polish, the Italians and the Russians all had their own little section [in Reading],” Boscov said. “Somehow it became a city, even though they spoke different languages, had different backgrounds, and I think we’re going through exactly the same thing now.
“I don’t see that our Latino population is going to be a problem; it’s going to be an asset.”
Solomon Boscov – who was actually Samuel, but came to America on his brother Solomon’s passport – spent a great deal of time learning English. Albert said he believes education is the key for success.
“There is no way to get any but the worst jobs if you can’t communicate,” Boscov said.
Boscov was a major influence in developing the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading with business and apartment space in the complex. Then he promoted the need for the nearby IMAX theater complex.
“GoggleWorks came about because I looked at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem. It was the beginning of an art thing and I saw that it was appealing – bringing people back together, creating some attractiveness to others with a restaurant building across the street,” Boscov said. “We could never have gotten the theaters without GoggleWorks.”
GoggleWorks and the IMAX theater give new residents of Reading – and others – opportunities for recreation in the city, according to Boscov.
“It’s sort of nice to see people who hardly know each other being together at a party and deciding that, hey, let’s go to the movies,” he said. “You will see schoolteachers there and lawyers there. It’s a happy, wonderful atmosphere.”
There have been other businesses in place because of his influence, and Boscov readily admits that he didn’t come up with every idea himself, but keeping an artist community downtown is something that has worked in other cities.
“You don’t have to invent everything,” Boscov said. “It’s a mistake not to try to copy success.”
He has been working on a project in Reading called restaurant row that is stalled, also temporarily tying up funding for a new hotel proposed for the downtown.
Saving restaurant row for a later date is the new plan. The top priority is the Doubletree hotel.
“If you’re going to make a convention center work, you really need a hotel downtown,” and hosting conventions downtown is vital to the community, Boscov said, referring to the downtown Sovereign Convention Center that will be renamed Santander in October.
“It took four years for anyone to even consider a hotel in Reading,” said Boscov, explaining the difficulty in getting banks to lend money for the project.
The hotel will have two ballrooms, smaller meeting rooms and seats such as the ones at the United Nations – with microphones for people to communicate during conferences, he said.
“You’ll see a $52-million hotel like you’ve never seen anywhere going up in Reading, and it will take almost two years to build it,” Boscov said.
The plan is to break ground next month.
“Our city will build it, own it and make it work,” Boscov said. “We want to break even. We’re not really worried about making a lot of money.”
The hotel is the second part of a broad-brush, three-part plan to improve the downtown Penn Street corridor.
The hotel helps us because “we’ve got the Second and Third street side to look pretty good now and then we have the Seventh and Eighth street side” near the arena, Boscov said. “Then we’re working very hard now to see if we can change the Fourth and Fifth street” section.
Moving from the staunch businessman, Boscov explained his motivation was tied to the wishes of his late father to give back to the nation that gave him the opportunity to be successful.
“My father came over with nothing – they hated the Jews” in the former Soviet Union, Boscov said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He was overjoyed to see America.”
Boscov relayed memories of his father’s wishes.
His father said “he may not have time to repay America, but we should try,” Boscov said, wiping tears from his eyes.