The Breslaw bunch: Department store had it all in mid-20th century
Jay Breslaw was ready for a big night on May 7, 1941.
The Capital Region home furnishings kingpin was opening a new Breslaw’s department store in Schenectady. City Mayor Mills Ten Eyck would greet shoppers at 7:30 p.m., and lucky visitors would receive free gifts such as an RCA console radio or an electric mixer.
“We’ve spared no expense to make it one of the finest stores in the entire country and to fit it with quality home furnishings from the leading manufacturers,” Breslaw said in a full-page advertisement in the Schenectady Gazette.
Jay and his 10 siblings were raised in Manhattan. Brother Isadore would enter the fabric industry and become a success with businesses in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Jay and brother Sam headed north, and began their empire with a small store in Glens Falls in 1907.
The brothers eventually would open department and outlets stores in Albany, Amsterdam, Saratoga Springs, Troy, Gloversville, Mechanicville and Cohoes.
Another place to browse
“It was a miniature department store,” said Howard Marwill, 74, of Niskayuna, Jay Breslaw’s grandson and a former store employee and manager. “We sold furniture, draperies, men’s and ladies’ clothing, jewelry — full jewelry department — complete appliance department. It was a mini Macy’s. We sold our own credit, 10 percent interest. It was 50 cents down and then 50 cents a week.”
People spent their money with Jay and Sam.
“In 1945, the volume of these stores was $10 million,” Marwill said. “Put that into perspective right now; it’s unbelievable.”
The new Breslaw store gave people in downtown Schenectady another place to browse. At the time, the Fern Furniture Co., Star Furniture Co., Wallace’s, Carl’s, Barney’s and the Apex department store were among the stores open.
Marwill said his grandfather was theatrical, a man with a sense of style. “When you opened the bar in his office, you pushed a button and the wall opened up,” he said.
He also was a family man. Breslaw and his wife, Molly, had three children, daughters Edna and Selma and son Martin. Martin joined the company and worked with his father as the chain’s secretary and general manager.
The Schenectady store on State, on the southern side of the street, had a ground floor and three additional floors. Marwill eventually managed the Breslaw’s store at 49-55 S. Pearl Street in Albany — now the site of the Times Union Center.
Now home to apartments
In 1969, Marwill decided to leave the family business and begin his own company. He ran Marwill Enterprises in Latham and imported leather furniture from Italy and China. He sold the business in 2009.
Breslaw’s began losing some customers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jay kept his old business practices in place.
“He felt the consumer needed him for his merchandise and his credit,” Marwill said, adding that 10 percent interest became too expensive for customers to pay — especially when more and more were using credit cards.
Marwill said his grandfather passed away in 1973. Breslaw’s went bankrupt in 1975.
The building on State Street is still there, between South Church and South Ferry streets, and contains apartments on upper floors. The ground floor is vacant; the “Breslaw” name is still visible in exterior tiles leading to the front doors.