Retailer Al Boscov reveals he has cancer

Retailer Al Boscov has been at the helm of the department store chain that bears his family name since 1950.
Retailer Al Boscov has been at the helm of the department store chain that bears his family name since 1950. Digital First Media File Photo
Al Boscov poses at his department store in Exeter Township.
Al Boscov poses at his department store in Exeter Township. Digital First Media File Photo

EXETER >> Albert Boscov, chairman of the department store chain that bears his family name, announced Wednesday he has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

In a letter to employees of Boscov’s Department Stores, the 87-year-old Boscov said, “I have pancreatic cancer and there is no cure. I don’t have a lot of time.”

Boscov is known as the indomitable spirit who has chaired the Boscov’s Department Store chain for most of the past 65 years. He returned from a short-lived retirement in 2008 to bring the company out of bankruptcy and return it to profitability.

Boscov expressed confidence in the company’s leadership going forward. He said other retailers have had losses and store closures in recent years, but Boscov’s last month announced plans to open two new stores.

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He said he wanted this year to be “our best possible year” and wished his co-workers good luck, saying “I love you all.”

His nephew, Jim Boscov, CEO and company vice chairman, said the chain would continue to operate as usual — and he said his uncle was still at work Wednesday morning, reviewing proposed advertisement layouts and copy.

The company has stores in six states and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014.

Under Al Boscov’s leadership, Boscov’s has grown to a business with revenues topping $1 billion and more than 8,000 employees. The company’s headquarters is in Exeter Township, just off Business Route 422.

Al Boscov succeeded his father, Solomon, as head of the company in 1950.

In addition to reviving the company he did so much to expand, Boscov has been extensively involved in community redevelopment, including the IMAX theater, DoubleTree Hotel and GoggleWorks in downtown Reading.

In a 2014 interview with The Mercury, Boscov said he feels a sense of responsibility to the community.

“You want to do not only what’s right for the customers but whatever you can do to make the community a little better, because we’re there,” he said. “Our store managers know they can get involved in the community. We can find money for them.”

His father found money when he came to America. But he had to work for it.

When 23-year-old Solomon Boscov arrived in the United States from Russia, he headed for Washington, D.C. He was told to sell lemons there, because everyone in Washington, D.C., drank lemonade. They didn’t, and Solomon faced a language barrier. Another acquaintance suggested he go to Reading, where everyone spoke Yiddish. It wasn’t Yiddish, but Pennsylvania Dutch. Solomon was able to talk to people.

Boscov’s Department Store actually started as a mobile business in 1914. Solomon bought about $8 worth of merchandise, took a trolley to the end of the line and walked from farm to farm, selling merchandise to area farmers and sleeping in their barns. In 1918, he opened his first “brick and mortar” store at Ninth and Pike streets in Reading.

Albert began working in that store when he was 6 years old.

“That’s when the hard work began,” he said “Before that, I got to play in the store.”

Born in 1929, Albert was the youngest of four children. By the time he was six, Albert wanted his chance to work on Saturday mornings.

“My brother was 12, and he was already selling shoes,” Albert said. “Of course, he was only selling rights — it would be two years before he could start selling pairs.”

Albert’s first job was catching flies. His reward was 10-cents to go to the movies.

In 1969, Solomon Boscov passed away at age 80. He had seen his business grow from a peddler’s pack to three stores in Reading with sales in excess of $75 million.

After his father’s death, Albert became co-president of the company. Store auditoriums were added and Al Boscov began bringing Hollywood legends to play the store auditoriums and make appearances. Dorothy Lamour, Henny Youngman, Rita Moreno, Mickey Rooney, Cyd Charisse, Morey Amsterdam and Sophia Loren all made appearances.

With the chain’s success in the Reading area, real estate agencies approached Boscov about expanding into nearby communities. In 1972, Boscov’s opened in Lebanon, then Pottsville, followed by a 5-story department store in Wilkes-Barre.

The expansion of Boscov’s moved beyond Pennsylvania with the opening of a store in Binghamton, N.Y. Then came Camp Hill; Harrisburg; Wilmington, Del.; Lancaster; Atlantic City, N.J.; York; Salisbury, Md., and Moorsetown, N.J.

By 2005, the chain had 39 stores generating about $1 billion in annual sales.