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Tale of the tee: Garvin's department store

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Stay spent three Saturdays in December 2018 participating in Creatively Lancaster’s pop-up market at Park City Center. We were among dozens of vendors selling from tables in a portion of the former Bon-Ton department store.

We returned to the otherwise empty store April 13 for another Creatively Lancaster show. The Bon-Ton, which began in York, Pa., in 1898 and became a regional chain, went out of business in 2018 (although efforts are afoot to bring it back). If we project 44 years into the future, what will people remember about Bon-Ton?

I ask because 44 years ago, another department store went out of business in downtown Lancaster. Like Bon-Ton, Garvin’s, the self-described “store for the thrifty,” lasted for more than a century, albeit with one location.

Having only arrived in south-central Pennsylvania in 1991 and never having lived in Lancaster, I hadn’t heard of Garvin’s until 2018, when I stumbled upon one of its paper bags on eBay. My subsequent research revealed a fascinating company that for decades was at the heart of life in Lancaster.

That’s a big reason why we made Garvin’s the subject of our newest retro tee, joining a lineup of local brands of yesteryear that also includes our Helb’s Keystone Brewery (York), Herpak Franks (Harrisburg), and Flying Machine restaurant (Hershey) tees.

Next door to the courthouse

From a 1970 postcard, East King Street, Lancaster, looking toward Penn Square, Garvin’s (note the G logo on the brick facade) is next to the old Lancaster County Courthouse. (Copyright Melvin J. Horst)

From a 1970 postcard, East King Street, Lancaster, looking toward Penn Square, Garvin’s (note the G logo on the brick facade) is next to the old Lancaster County Courthouse. (Copyright Melvin J. Horst)

Milton Thomas Garvin, a native of Fulton Township in southern Lancaster County, moved to the city of Lancaster at age 14 in 1863 and became an errand boy at an East King Street dry goods store called R.E. Fahnestock. Garvin worked his way up the ranks and, after Fahnestock’s death, bought the store in 1894, renaming it M.T. Garvin & Co.

At that time, the store comprised one building, just west of the county courthouse. Garvin’s purchased adjacent buildings in 1912 and in 1927, according to the Elizabethtown Chronicle newspaper. Upon completion of the expansion and renovation, it became known as the “Greater Garvin Store” in the company’s print ads.

A 1929 Garvin’s ad in the Chronicle promoted Suburban Day Saturday:

“A day when our Country friends and customers will come to Garvin’s by the hundreds to obtain the biggest bargains of the Spring season.” For example, women’s coats normally priced $14.75 to $19.50 were on sale for $12.

Garvin’s also gave back to its employees. When Hershey Park (it was two words back then) opened a new restaurant in July 1916, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported, it was “inaugurated by a party of employees of M.T. Garvin & Co. of Lancaster, who brought hundreds of flags to show their patriotism.”

The American economy entered a mild recession in summer 1929 (a Great Depression would arrive that fall). On June 27, Garvin’s closed for its annual picnic, held at the Carsonia amusement park in Reading.

“Special trolley cars will convey the picnicers to the Park, while others will go by automobile,” according to the Chronicle. “Sports and games of various sorts have been arranged.”

In July, to mark the federal government’s release of new currency, Garvin’s released 100 balloons into the air. Each balloon bore a tag that could be redeemed for a new one-dollar bill (worth about $15 today).

In 1936, M.T. Garvin died of a heart attack at age 76. His store would continue for another 39 years.

Garvin’s tee

Our Garvin’s tee debuted at the April Creatively Lancaster show. Older shoppers were drawn to it; some had been customers or worked there. From them I learned that Garvin’s was among three downtown department stores, joining Hager’s and Watt & Shand on King Street. (How’s this for coming full-circle: Bon-Ton ended up at Park City through its purchase of Watt & Shand in 1992.)

When you bought something at Garvin’s, in the early days at least, you gave your money to a clerk who then put it into a pneumatic tube that was whisked away to a central cashier. The cashier would provide the appropriate change and send it back to the clerk.

One man told me that he worked at Garvin’s in two stints in the late 1950s, early 1960s. He said there was a small grocery in the basement, but the food warehouse was on the sixth floor. The goods could be moved to the basement by means of gravity, winding down a spiral chute.

One day he grabbed a piece of cardboard and road down the chute, only to land embarrassingly at the feet of the store president.

The man’s wife joined him toward the end of our conversation. “Did you tell him about the most important thing that happened to you at Garvin’s?” she asked.

He met her, she explained, during the several years she also was a Garvin’s employee.

By the 1970s, downtowns began to hollow out, in part because shopping tastes shifted to shiny new enclosed malls such as Park City Center, which opened in 1971. The end came for Garvin’s in November 1975, the Lebanon Daily News citing the high cost of doing business, high interest rates on bank loans, the calling of a bank loan, and disruption of the business by local construction among the reasons for the store’s closing.

For 118 employees, the closing meant lost jobs. For Lancaster, it was the loss of a downtown institution after 129 years.

But 44 years since the closing, the Garvin’s name is back in a small way on our tee. And the old Garvin’s store is coming back, too, as the new headquarters for Woodstream Corp., a maker of pest control and lawn and garden products that is relocating 180 jobs to the site from Lititz.