When I heard that Albert Boscov had died, I felt an acute sense of civic duty to pay homage to him in my own humble way in this column.
Nobody is eternal. But Al Boscov, a titan as a retailer and developer, always will be an immortal in Berks County and greatly beyond.
Small in stature, he cast a gigantic shadow.
The plucky little dynamo had remarkable presence. In fact, he seemed to electrify the ground beneath his feet. He had a transcendent personality that was splashed with neon.
The head of the nation’s largest family-owned department store chain had his indomitable spirit silenced by pancreatic cancer.
As human beings, we all wish we could throw out death and summon life. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.
Whenever a special person passes on, it invariably generates memories. Such is the case with the passing of Mr. B, as many of his employees called him.
It never will be time to let go of his memory. He will remain a figure of immense proportion in the attics of our memories.
When we recall a person’s life, we become bivouacked with yesterday.
Boscov was a giant in the retail industry.
The chain has reported strong sales and has added stores in recent years at a time when many chains are vanishing or drastically shrinking their footprint. The company employs more than 7,500 workers and plans to open its 46th store near Erie later this year.
By early 2006, Boscov’s had 40 stores with sales of more than $1 billion. By then, Boscov was a retail legend. The entire company revolved around his magnetic personality, his astonishing work ethic, his skill and will, the twinkle in his eyes, the quips on his lips, and his uncanny ability to either charm other businesses into sharing his vision or bending the will of others to do things his way.
The culture of the company was simple — everything flowed down from him. He was like the handle of a whip — everything rippled back to him.
He retired in 2006 but the company in his absence soon was sabotaged by the crashing economy and an ill-advised decision to acquire 10 more stores.
The hawk was circling, the noose was dropping over his beloved Boscov’s.
The man just had to come back. And when he did so, he was a veritable one-man cavalry.
Boscov took over the chain again in 2008 and somehow, someway led the chain out of bankruptcy. It was hailed as a miracle.
If he hadn’t come back to play savior, the company likely would have been liquidated — which would have had terrible domino economic consequences for all the cities in which the chain has anchor stores.
Little wonder why some of his employees, grateful that they still had jobs. thought Mr. B could walk on water.
But Albert Boscov the exquisite retailer was only part of his vast collection of accomplishment.
His vital community spirit rode a bronco of a breeze.
He was one of the most important philanthropic figures in Berks County.
He was benevolent with numerous non-profit organizations, one of which was the Reading Fair for many years.
The guy could do more multi-tasking than a one-man band.
Evidence of Boscov’s many ventures overflowed his office, which contained stacks of plans and blueprints.
He had the eye of a true developer and the resources and the contacts and the incredible drive to turn his vision into bricks and mortar.
Even in his 80s, Al Boscov was the Energizer Bunny come to life.
His nonprofit agency, Our City Reading, spawned numerous projects in the city — the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts at Second and Washington, the GoggleWorks Apartments at Second and Washington, the Reading Movies 11 with the IMAX theater across from the GoggleWorks, the Santander Bank operations center at Fifth and Penn and the Doubletree by Hilton Reading hotel in the 700 block of Penn.
Our City Reading also bought abandoned homes and renovated about 600 of them for sale to low- and middle-income families.
All the Boscov’s stores and all the developments Albert Boscov wrought now stand like proud sentries to his immense legacy.
Albert Boscov will always be a part of us as he looks down upon us from his perch in the pantheon, the ultimate sentinel in the name of customer and community service.