Once Upon a Department Store

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Department stores have been the backdrop for a lot of my family stories, so I thought WNYC listeners might have ample material as well. That’s why I decided to start gathering people’s memories in one place on our Web site, and the anecdotes have been real gems. For that, I thank everyone who has shared a story.

My own family likes to keep stories alive about how my mother, who worked for a short time selling rain coats at Gimbels, used to take naps leaning against racks of clothing. Or the day when my grandmother, short on cash and with no credit card in her purse, tried to sell the greeting cards she had on hand to women in the ladies room at Lord & Taylor -- all to make up the difference she needed in order to buy a dress she found on sale for my aunt.

But lately, I’ve been nostalgic about department stores because of my own grandfather, Joseph Antaki, who worked for decades selling men’s clothing at Gimbels near Herald Square. Any vivid memories of my grandfather at work are few, but this is what I do remember: He owned more ties than any man you’ve probably ever known, he could size you up for a suit or sports coat at a glance and he loved his job. He got to meet people like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He waited on Arthur Goldberg, a diplomat at the U.N. He took his work very seriously, and he impressed upon me the dignity of his career without having to say anything.

I’m fortunate that my grandparents are still living and a few years ago I took out my microphone and recorder and urged my grandfather to tell me some of the details of his life at Gimbels. His stories hark back to another era -- one that I seem to be yearning to peer into -- and they're told in a lovely, thick Queens accent. Here’s part of that conversation.