The story goes that when Albert Boscov took some of his menswear buyers from Reading to meet with the top brass from Vanity Fair, the apparel manufacturer in New York, in the early 1980s, they entered an office where six stiff pin-striped executives sat in a row behind a table.
Boscov got on his hands and his knees, crawled under the table and shook the president’s hand.
“Those six men didn’t know what hit them,” recalled Jeff Mitgang, one of the buyers, in “Did You Boscov Today?,” the recently published book of memories about the late, charismatic Reading-based department store owner.
“From them on, he had them in the palm of his hand,” he wrote.
Mitgang’s story is just one of many included in “Did You Boscov Today?,” which was compiled by three of Boscov’s grandchildren, Amelia Xanthe Boscov, Jonah Boscov-Brown and Josh Aichenbaum, who knew him as “Granddaddy Al” or “Daddy Al.”
After Boscov, 87, chairman of Boscov’s Department Stores, died from pancreatic cancer on Feb. 10, stories came pouring in from customers, employees, colleagues, family, acquaintances and strangers in letters, on Facebook and during a listening tour the grandchildren conducted at several Boscov’s stores.
Aichenbaum said the idea to compile the stories into a book came from Boscov’s employee Joanne Barker who suggested it to him at the memorial service that was held for Boscov at Santander Arena in Reading in February.
The stories reveal “Mr. B’s” warmth, generosity and spirited personality. As some of the anecdotes relate, he was the kind of boss who would spontaneously ride a cart pushed by a stock boy down the hall or hide under the coat racks with kids and tell stories.
“Everyone loved him,” wrote Joan Rasmussen, a footwear vendor who recalled a memorable trip that she and other vendors and employees took with Boscov and his family to Punta Cana, one of many annual trips they could win.
“Mr. B was the type of retailer who you wanted to do things for because his heart and soul were in it. His enthusiasm was contagious.”
ZIPPY THE CHIMP
A master showman, Boscov had a flair for marketing. He coined the catchphrase “Did you Boscov today?” and created an entire backstory behind it, which is told in the book.
And then there’s the legendary Zippy the chimp story. Boscov loved the roller-skating chimpanzee and often booked him to perform at store openings.
One time Zippy was sick and couldn’t make an appearance. Boscov was frantic and insisted his staff get a performing chimp. They finally found a retired Zippy, who hadn’t worked in years.
“As long as he can roller skate, it’ll be fine. Trust me,” Boscov said.
THE SHOW GOES ON
When the replacement Zippy and his handler, an old carny type who reeked of alcohol, showed up, they were nervous. This Zippy was full-grown and about 5 feet tall. They hadn’t realized all other performing Zippy the chimps had been babies.
“Chimps do not get cuter as they get older. They get kind of ugly-looking, and retired Zippy was this massive thing,” wrote Tammy Mitgang, who worked in Boscov’s public relations department.
They were afraid he would scare the kids.
Boscov, who was about as tall as the chimp, turned to the handler, “Can Zippy skate?”
The handler nodded. The show went on.
“For the first show, this huge, not-cute chimp came lumbering out, in skates. Parents were terrified; the kids, speechless,” Mitgang said.
NO MORE FILL-INS
The next day, the PR department got a call from the fire department: there was a chimpanzee hanging out of the hotel balcony. Passers-by were looking up at the spectacle.
The handler had locked Zippy into the hotel room and gone out to drink.
Meanwhile, Zippy had trashed the room, ripped the toilet from the floor and peeled the wallpaper off the walls.
Boscov paid for the damage and they never hired the handler or his chimpanzee again.
MORE THAN BUSINESS
Many stories spoke of the important life lessons they learned from Boscov.
David Hick recalled being extremely nervous during his interview to enter the executive training program.
Sensing it, Boscov stopped the interview and asked him if he wanted a piece of cheesecake.
So they all ate cheesecake, and Hick relaxed.
NIMBLE AND PROFITABLE
Boscov’s personality, along with sharp business acumen, helped transform and expand the family owned department store chain started by his father in Reading. At a time when many department stores are closing, Boscov’s is profitable and thriving. With more than $1 billion in sales, it has 46 stores in seven states. The latest opened near Erie in October.
When asked last November how Boscov’s was able to stay in business while Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears and others are fighting for their lives, he said, “We don’t know how to run a store. That’s No. 1.”
He was only half-joking. What he meant was Boscov’s is able to do things “that are a little untypical of others.”
And it can do those things because it’s still a small, regional chain that can be both a full-service department store with an old-fashioned candy department, yet small and nimble enough to take advantage of special deals from major manufacturers that the giants such as Wal-Mart can’t.
Boscov, a major civic booster who stressed the importance of giving back to the communities where he has stores, was the prime mover behind the IMAX theater, GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel and Our City Reading, a nonprofit that has helped more than 500 first-time homebuyers.
“As you get bigger, it just gets tougher,” he said in the interview.
“In Reading, because it’s our home, we continue to do a lot that indicates that we’re more than just a retail store.”
“Did You Boscov Today?” costs $6.99 and is available at all Boscov’s stores and at www.boscovs.com (search for the book title). Published by R-E-P Commercial Printing, the book’s proceeds will benefit Our City Reading, a nonprofit started by Al Boscov to assist first-time homebuyers.