Shop Talk: Shopper’s Delight

So how good is Philly’s shopping scene really? A transplanted New Yorker says we’re better than we think — and poised for something big. Credit cards ready?

Two years later, I still proudly parade visiting friends along and around 3rd Street and Walnut and Chestnut and Pine. When she visits, I still insist to my mother, the most discriminating shopper I know, that we schlep out to King of Prussia, or spend the day traipsing through any one of the suburban shopping enclaves Philly’s lucky to have within an hour in any direction. I realize, of course, that my discoveries aren’t new — Lucky, Condé Nast’s magazine devoted to shopping, decided Philly was worthy of monthly regional coverage in 2002; Daily Candy, the über-girlie trend e-newsletter, launched a Philly edition last spring; and the GPTMC has been pushing vintage shopping tours to visiting journalists for about a year.

But even through my rose-colored glasses, I can spy what’s less than ideal about our retail landscape. It lacks a men’s shopping scene. Completely. It lacks much-needed super-luxury chains (Prada, Chanel, Marc Jacobs) and high-end department stores (Bergdorf’s, Bendel’s, Barneys). And it lacks a critical mass of fashion-focused events. But it didn’t always — and it doesn’t have to, anymore.

Looking Back
Shopping here used to be a Big Deal. Just ask Roberta Gruber, director of the design and merchandising program at Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel and the author of Fashion Images. When Gruber talks about shopping in Philly in the late ’50s, it is with a twinge of longing in her voice. Philly was a department-store city, she explains, where you could make a day out of going from Gimbels to Strawbridge’s, and to the beloved Arrow men’s store near Reading Terminal, and Rittenhouse’s Italian men’s stores. Ann Gitter, who opened the first of her now-ubiquitous Knit Wit boutiques in the ’70s, remembers when Rittenhouse’s shopping scene spilled over to the east side of Broad Street, where Gitter herself had a jeans-and-tees shop at 1020½ Chestnut. And longtime Philadelphians fondly recall trips to John Wanamaker’s and fittings at Bonwit Teller.

Shopping, ironically, tends to be a trailing indicator of an area’s vitality, so the Center City retail scene held on through the ’70s — even though the middle and upper middle class that had made the glory days possible had by then largely left the city for the suburbs. In time, though, the stores finally caught up with the people. In 1981, after a decade in which the city’s population dropped nearly 14 percent, the Court at King of Prussia came and “sucked the life out of the city,” says Gitter. Then, after a fire hit Walnut Street in 1990, the KOP mall massively expanded, for $185 million, with the Plaza that we know today. And one by one, Philly shopping institutions like Nan Duskin and Bonwit Teller were replaced by discount destinations like Daffy’s and mid-level chains like H&M.