- Holzheimer & Shaul – Sam Fox’s Grandfather first started a department store in Amsterdam back in the 1860’s called S. Levi and Sons. It was a large store located on the south side of East Main Street and it sold men’s wear, women’s wear, furniture, china and cosmetics and even had a full service beauty salon on site. Sam’s Uncle eventually purchased the store from his grandfather, moved it to its iconic location at the northeast corner of East Main and Church Streets and renamed it Holzheimer & Shaul. The store began catering exclusively to women and became one of the most successful retail establishments in the history of the Rug City. Sam’s promotional instincts and his ability to recognize what female customers wanted were keys to the store’s success. It was Fox who came up with Old Fashion Bargain Days, Farmers’ Markets and Fashion Shows as promotional events and each caused significant increased traffic to downtown. After managing the store for his Uncle for many years, Sam purchased it outright in 1968. When the first phase of the Mall opened in 1977, Sam made Holzheimer’s one of its anchors. At first, the store thrived in its new location but by the time Sam retired in 1987 and closed his beloved business, it was pretty clear the Mall was not going to be the long- term savior of retail in downtown Amsterdam.
- Mortan’s – H. Mortan Guttenberg moved his men’s and boy’s clothing store from Schenectady, NY to Amsterdam in 1933 during what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was calling a “Bank Holiday”. That of course was a less panic-inducing way of describing the very lowest point of the Great Depression, when most consumers had very little if any money and those that did weren’t spending very much of it, especially on new clothes. One retail store after another in downtowns across the nation were closing their doors but Guttenberg believed in himself and was certain that if he could offer the right variety of quality clothes at fair prices, the men of Amsterdam would shop his store. And boy did they, for most of the next seven decades. If Hollywood were going to make a movie about a father and son-run men’s clothing store, they would have cast Mortan and his son Paul for the starring roles. Everything about their store was cool, including their Botany 500 suits and sports coats and their Van Heusen dress shirts. They also had the best-dressed mannequins and salespeople in the city. The first Mortan’s was located in 1,000 square feet of space at 73 East Main Street. Then in 1963, the Guttenberg’s took over the 11,000 square foot J.J. Newberry Department Store building next door at 71 Main Street. They brought in one of the country’s top retail design firms from New York City who created the most attractive and modern looking store Amsterdam had ever seen. The expansion in square footage permitted the Guttenberg’s to add a sporting goods department and a complete ski shop on the basement floor. Fifteen years later, Paul Guttenberg was one of the driving forces behind the construction of Amsterdam’s downtown mall and Mortan’s became one of its first and most important tenants. And a decade later it was Guttenberg’s decision to close that Mall location and retire that sort of served as the final straw that broke the back of that indoor downtown shopping center.
- Miller’s – In 1934, Harry Miller moved his clothing company to Amsterdam, locating it in the upper floors of 68 East Main Street. The Miller Manufacturing Co. made all sorts of uniforms: occupational, scouting, fraternal organizations, etc. He also opened a retail store on the building’s ground floor. It was one of the first discount stores in the entire area. While a team of seamstresses was busy making all kinds of uniforms upstairs, the first floor store sold men’s and boys’ dress slacks, shorts and shoes, casual wear, sportswear, work clothes and work shoes, underwear and a large stock of cigars, cigarettes and tobaccos. The uniforms Miller’s manufactured were sold by mail throughout the country. I can also remember going in there to buy my Cub Scout uniform when I was a kid and the gym suits we had to wear as students at Junior and Senior High. It really was a neat business model, perfectly suited for Amsterdam with its large pool of talented seamstresses who got their starts in the knitting mills that used to operate in the city. Harry’s son Marvin formally became head of the company in 1962, when Harry Miller passed away. Marvin Miller ran it skillfully. For year’s, his biggest competitor for the Rug City’s male apparel market was the more stylish and expensive Mortan’s. Miller wisely focused his inventory and promotional strategy on the middle class segment of the market, which ate up his high quality at low prices theme. His veteran retail crew was a huge reason why the store became one of Amsterdam’s most popular. It was headed by the indomitable Howard Busseno, who used to handle five customers at once without making any of them wait. The guy was amazing. He’d run the gauntlet with a pile of clothes in his hands and slung over his shoulders, throwing correctly sized pants at each customer and yelling at you to try them on as he speeded by. Marvin Miller made a couple of moves to different downtown sites during the four decades the business operated in the City proper. But when the downtown Mall came, Miller headed north to Route 30.
- Larrabee’s – In the spring of 1890, John E. Larrabee opened a hardware store at 3 Market Street and christened it with the not too creative name of John E. Larrabee Company. The store sold hardware, cutlery, guns, fishing tackle, haying tools and mowing machines. Just before he started the business, Larrabee had married an Amsterdam woman by the name of Louise Leavenworth. He also hired Louise’s brother, E.W. Leavenworth to help him run his new store. The business did well from the start and Larrabee added new products and expanded the store in size by taking over the adjacent storefront at 5 Market Street. When Larrabee died in 1911 he was succeeded as President of the business by first his wife, than his daughter Katherine and then his wife’s sister, Mrs. Edmond Horgan. E.W. Leavenworth worked for all of these ladies and managed the actual operation of the store. In 1931, he added his son Thomas W. Leavenworth to the store’s staff. When E.W. died in 1940, Tom became the manager of the store and treasurer of the company. When Mrs. Horgan died in 1958, Tom became President of the John E. Larrabee Company.By then the store had again expanded into leased space at 7 and 9 Market Street and greatly expanded its wholesale hardware business. A staff of salesmen called on over 300 accounts, selling production tools and equipment to industrial plants throughout New York State. Like many family run downtown retail establishments in this city, Larrabee’s could not survive the competition of big box department stores and suburban shopping malls or the business disruption of urban renewal wrecking balls and closed its doors for good during the 1970’s.
- Olender’s – The Rug City’s version of Olender Furniture was opened at 81 East Main Street in 1902 by Wlliiam Olender. His son Charles became president of the business in 1945. A year later, Olender’s moved to its iconic location at the corner of Market and Main in downtown Amsterdam. Arterial projects first began to change the face and layout of Amsterdam’s downtown in the mid 1960’s. One of its first impacts was forcing Olender’s to vacate its corner location. Don began contemplating a move to Amsterdam’s Route 30 and even bought land there. But instead, he purchased the former Enterprise Department Store location on East Main Street and opened up a giant modern four-story showroom and warehouse, underscoring his commitment to the future of the city’s shopping district. But 11 years later he made the very difficult decision to relocate the store to downtown Schenectady rather than become a tenant in Amsterdam’s new enclosed Mall.
What are my other five all-time top ten independently owned downtown stores? You’ll have to wait until my full Amsterdam All-Time Top Ten book comes out later this year to find out their names and read my tributes to each.
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