Abercrombie and Fitch, outfitter to jungle and polar expeditions, suppliers of presidents, princes, adventures and sportsmen, and self-proclaimed "greatest sporting goods store in the world," opened its doors on its last sale yesterday.
The 12-story game room on Madison Avenue was a place where old customers who hadn't met in some time could send out for ice and drinks and then retire to one of the spacious tents on display to sleep it off. In 1939, Fortune magazine could write confidently that Abercrombie and Fitch and its neigbor, the Rite-Carlton, "operate on the same theory, for the same people."
A titled lady brought her leopard for a collar fitting. An emissary of Emperor Haile Selassie arrived to buy pack saddles with a gold-toothed bulldog which drank cocktails with its master. Ernest Hemingway frequented the gun room. Charles Lindbergh practiced twirling lariats. Greta garbo shopped there. It goes on and on.
It went on for 85 years (a lot longer than the Ritz-Carlton), and, as then president Otis L. guernsey said in explaining the mahjong craze on which Abercrombie made a killing, "it was a fascinating game; but like everything else, it had its day."
"What happened to the customers?" fishing tackle salesman Rick Burton said. "They died."
Abercrombie rose to a lot of challenges over the years, but it was beaten into bankruptcy finally by massmarketing rivals and by its own iindecision whether there were still customers for the exotic sporting goods of high quality and high price on which it built its name.
Ed Welch has sold on the street fllor of Abercrombie and Fitch for 40 years and thinks the end did'nt have to come. "This store never did volume. It did dollar volume," Welch said. He speaks with dismay of efforts in recent years to sell cheap gift shop items and line the street floor with men's sweater's and shirts.
The clothing only confused people who though they'd entered Brooks Brothers or another neighboring store, The good customers were sick about it," Welch recalls.
When Abercrombie and Fitch opened this morning the line stretched almost round the block, even though prices in htis "everything must go" sale are only reduced 25 per cent.
Abercrombie's first customer was Rachel Peskin, 14 who got in line with her friend. Sydney Brooke, at 8:45 p.m. last night.No one else joined the line until an hour or more later, pesdin said, and a 6 a.m. arrival was good enough for Alexander Bradford to be among the first 25 into the store (not counting groups of reporters and photographers.)
Peskin had so special purchase in mind, she said, but had never been to Abercrombie's and wanted to see it. She bought therman underwear for her father (When he was Chief Justice, Earl Warren bought two pairs of cashmere underwear for hunting trips.)
Bradford came to buy a chess set for his collection. "I was disappointed, I didn't see anything special," he said later and wound up buying a purse for his wife instead.
A lot of customers were disappointed because Abercrombie and Fitch hasn't been its old self in serveral years.
In the old Abercrombie's a salesman was asked if her could outfit a traveler for a visit to Outer Mongolia.
"Yes", maam. What season?" was his legendary reply.
When Indians lurking in the Colombian jungle fired poisoned arrows at oil workers, the oil company turned to "the greatest sporting goods store in the world," which provided coats of light chain main.
"We used to equip full expeditions for lots of thse oil companies," salesman Welch said. "You couldn't outfit a Boy Scout up there now," he said of the camping department.
Janet Lozada,, Barry Shatz and Jerry Kline, who met in the camping department this morning, were in strong agreement. "This place is for Park Avenue backpackers," Kline declared.
Lozada and Shatz said the selection of sleeping bags and packs was poor and the prices, even with the sale discount, were not better than several chain suppliers of outdoor equipment.
Chuck Hamlin came from Dallas because he collects guns and was told that New York television had described the elegant English-made shot-guns that would be on sale. Infact, no guns are in the sale since it is too difficult. Abercrombie believes, to handle weapons and ammunition in crowded sale conditions.
The cannons were missing, too. The kinds used to start yacht races, not destroy castles.
The liquidation sale of the store's $8.5 million inventory was ordered after First National Bank of Chicago, the major creditor, moved, as one of the 250 New Yor employees said, "to send Abercrombie's down the chute." It follows the failure of a 15-month effort to reorganize the nine-store chain under federal bankruptcy laws.
Harry G. Haskell, Abercromibe and Fitch's major stockholder, said he believes the store's name will survive, but no one knows to what it will be attached.
You can bet it won't be like the place Ezra Fitch built. (David Abercrombie left the business in 1907.)
Alert as ever (it says in an official store history), Fitch rose to meet the challenge of the automobile.
"Trekking on Tires - the Very Newest Sport," was the title of a brochure in which Fitch described the joys of motoring, which enabled "a sportsman to crowd the experience of a lifetime into one month's vacation."
Fitch didn't call every trend, however. In 1909 wrote to customers: "Realizing that this sport (ballooning) is soon to challenged the automobile for popular favor, we have made arrangements. . ."
Abercrombie and Fitch's most recent contact with a balloon was with Bob Sparks' transatiantic balloon flight that began on the store's roof July 5, 1973. It ended there, too, since the balloon ripped and never got off the roof.
Fitch gave the store a motto - "Where the blazed trail crosses the boulevard" - and had living quarters in a log cabin on the roof next to the fly casting pool. (The gun testing range is in the basement.)
Advice on casting or fly tying was available until the last days, but some of the more exotic informational services, like John Teal's 1966 lecture on how to capture musk or barehanded, fell by the blazed trail some time ago.
The 18th Amendment was one challenge Abercrombie and Fitch rose to with elan. Special briefcase flasks, musical cocktail shakers, travelling drink kits and the cane concealing an eight-ounce brandy flask sold briskly.
Abercrombie and Fitch is going and it's one of the biggest ones sportsmen ever let get away.