Part 1 Chapter 2 Pearl’s Department Store: A Memoir

Pearl’s Department Store: A Memoir by Frances Cohen

Editor’s Note: This memoir was written by Frances Cohen, my mother, in July 2008 when she was 91 years old. My Dad, Wilfred Cohen, was 94. The memoir was written as part of a writing club my mother was part of. The memoir, which is copied below, was published in the July 2008 issue of “Book Friendly”,  “a Publication for the Friends of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, Inc.’ It is an excellent synopsis of the starting of Pearl’s from an oral history perspective.

Information in brackets ([ ]) has been added to supply supplemental information, to correct some details and dates to reconcile the timeline from Paul Pearl’s family found in a 1987 newspaper advertisement.

“The story of Pearl’s Department Store is a very interesting one, as it involves so many of my mother’s family, the Pearl’s.

Let’s start at the beginning. Uncle Paul [Pearl], my mother’s twenty-year-old [sixteen-year-old] brother, was living in New York City with his family in a crowded flat. With very little education, it was difficult for him to get a good job. He also had health problems [apparently a touch of consumption]. A doctor suggested he leave the city [and was encouraged to do so by his sister Lillie].

My grandmother had a sister [Tante Ittel (Ethel Levinson)], and she, her husband Archic [Yiddish first name for Aaron Perelman. See also note below.], and their family lived in Burlington, Vermont.  Paul paid them a visit [and lived with them].  He liked the North Country, and his health improved in the country air near Lake Champlain. Great-Uncle Archic, a peddler by trade, helped Uncle Paul get started in the peddling business.

[Branching out on his own and not interfering with Uncle Archic’s territory,] Paul went door to door with a pack on his back peddling his wares throughout Vermont and Upstate New York.  After saving enough money, Uncle Paul Managed to get a horse and wagon  Since he was doing well, he had his brother Joe [Pearl] join him in his rounds.

A year after they started their partnership, Uncle Paul and Uncle Joe decided to open a store in the small village of Alburg, Vermont. They bought a piece of land with a barn on it. While the store with its second-floor apartment was being built, Paul and Joe slept in the barn with the horse and the wagon. Many years later, Paul related to me that they didn’t need an alarm clock as the horse would wake them. The store was named “Pearl’s Department Store” and the legacy began.

When the war was declared in 1917, Uncle Paul was drafted into the Navy [in 1918].  Joe ran the store while Paul served his country. When the war was over, Paul was happy to come back to Alburg. Soon after Uncle Paul’s return,  Uncle Joe and his wife [Leona] wanted to go back to New York City, and their partnership was dissolved.

In 1923 [actually 1921], Uncle Paul married Aunt Bertie [Bertha Liebesman]. They lived in the apartment over the store. Bertie was very bright and was a big help in making Pearl’s Department Store a success. Within a few years [actually over an extended number of years], they were owners of a chain of twenty-two stores [number was twenty stores when the chain ended in 1988] in Upstate New York and Vermont. They became very wealthy, the most successful of his family of ten [nine]  children.

In the 1930s, the country was in the midst of The Great Depression. Many members of his family needed help, and Uncle Paul was in a position to help them. Uncle Paul’s philosophy was “Helping someone with a handout only helps them temporarily. It’s more important to give a man a job.”

Over the years, many family members came to work for Pearl’s Department Store. Six of his siblings and/or their husbands worked for the chain [for various lengths of time], as did fourteen of the grandchildren. Bill [Wilfred Cohen] and I were among the first grandchildren to work for Uncle Paul.  Uncle Joe and his family also moved back from New York City and returned [to Swanton, Vermont where the second store was opened in 1925] to be part of the Pearl’s chain.

The rest is history. All the stores were successful. The people in the small villages loved to shop at Pearl’s. The managers and their staff were friendly, and the store carried clothing and lots f other useful merchandise at prices the average family could afford.  Stores were scattered throughout [northern] Vermont and [upstate] New York, including Keeseville and Chateaugay, New York, and Alburg and St. Johnsbury, Vermont [to name a few]. The central store [office] and warehouse were [in the later years] in Glens Falls [NY] and were eventually run by Paul’s son Eliot [Elliot] and his family.

By the 1960’s most of my aunts and uncles had retired and most of the grandchildren had left Pearl’s [i.e. the store actually owned by Pearl’s Department Stores, Inc.] to open their own businesses. When Uncle Paul died [retired], his son Eliot took over the management of the stores.

Time brings many changes. By the 1970s, many superhighways were completed, including the Northway [I87 north of Albany]. The small towns became bedroom communities. This bought an end to small-town, family-owned stores. People now preferred to travel on the superhighways and shop in big malls. The last [family owned] Pearl’s Department Store went out of business in 1983 [Business was liquidated in1988, a year after Paul Pearl’s death], seventy [eighty] years after Uncle Paul had first started peddling with a pack on his back. ”

Editor’s Notes regarding  Aaron “Archic”  Perelman and the “Pearl” name:

(1) Aaron Perelman had three brothers (Isaac (“Itsak”), Jacob, and Max), and a sister Fay. Isaac Perelman, who lived in Burlington along with Jacob, was Wilfred Cohen’s mother’s (Anna Perelman Cohen) father, my great grandfather. Hence Frances Cohen, my mother, and Wilfred Cohen, my father, shared the same great uncle!

(2) This story was told by my great aunt Bea (Paul’s sister)  in her family history called Reminiscences, about the “Pearl” name.  When Paul came to America, his last name was Ossowitz  (or Osovitz) , just like my grandmother Ethel and his older brother Sam Osovitz in Baltimore. When he went to Burlington, visiting with his uncle Archic Perelman and his cousins,  people asked who Paul was.  Others would say he is one of the “Perelman’s”. Some people pronounce it “purr-el-man” while others pronounce it “pearl-man’. Paul thought the name “Osovitz” was too difficult for his customer to remember, so he started using the name “Pearlman”  and then shortened it to “Pearl”  which became the official family name and the name of the stores.