Recalling the venerable G. Fox & Co.

By Merja H. Lehtinen - ReminderNews
Glastonbury - posted Tue., Jan. 17, 2012
Locals enjoyed a night of reminiscing about the one-time leading department store G. Fox & Company and also the legacy of one of its owners, Beatrice Fox Auerbach. Photo by Merja Lehtinen.
Locals enjoyed a night of reminiscing about the one-time leading department store G. Fox & Company and also the legacy of one of its owners, Beatrice Fox Auerbach. Photo by Merja Lehtinen.

There was hardly a person in the room at the Riverside Community Center who had not either worked for G. Fox & Company or shopped there, as Elizabeth Abbe of the Connecticut Historical Society gave a presentation about the onetime leading department store to several hundred people on Jan. 10.

The store represented an era of gracious living, selling everything from designer clothes to furniture, rugs and appliances. Visiting the iconic downtown store was a cultural experience. Audience members were delighted to share stories of spending the entire day at the store to shop as mother-daughter teams and then having lunch at the Connecticut Room or nearby Sage Allen’s less costly restaurant.

Started in 1847, before the Civil War,  by a Bavarian Jewish family, G. Fox & Company was a mainstay of the Northeast. People from New York City would come to shop at Fox’s because of its unique service motto: “the customer is always right.” Its buyers were reputed to be the best in retail, as they had resources to go all around the world to seek the best quality products at the lowest prices.

G. Fox competed with Macy’s, Lord &Taylor and Filene’s of Boston.  They sold skiis, sleds, toboggans, ice skates, hats, gloves, coats, dresses, suits and toys. Jewelry, perfume, books and stationary, even alcohol, were also sold at G. Fox. 

If you returned a pair of shoes worn for more than two years, Mrs. Beatrice Auerbach, the third generation of the family to run the store, would accept them back for a full refund. It was simply store policy, Abbe recalled. The company also delivered for free, no matter how small or inexpensive the item may be. They were not selling just products, but rather services, and their reputation was for quality and service to meet people’s needs.

As employers, the company was among the first to offer paid sick leave, vacations, retirement pensions, scholarships for children of employees, and interest-free loans to employees. Although a typical sales person would only make $60 a week, they were rewarded in many other ways.

The personality of Beatrice Auerbach was almost as well-known as the store itself. Abbe told a story about Auerbach’s response to a manager who was complaining about the store’s liberal return policy. “It is not your money you are returning, it is mine; and the customer is always right!” Auerbach said.

Beatrice Fox Auerbach was the granddaughter of founder Gerson Fox. She and her husband George Auerbach had returned to Hartford with their two children, after living in St. Louis, when the main store burned down to the ground in August 1917. They helped manage rebuilding an 11-floor stately edifice, which modern day people still remember as the G. Fox & Company building. George died in his early 40s, leaving Beatrice to take over.

In 1959, another addition was built onto the existing structure. It was the largest privately held department store in the United States, according to the Connecticut Historical Society, until it was sold to the May Company in 1965 for $30 million.

Abbe referred to Beatrice Auerbach as a “diminutive” woman who was a powerhouse in her own right. A friend and confident of Eleanor Roosevelt, she founded and funded several charitable initiatives, including giving seed money to the University of Hartford, The Jewish Center, and the Beatrice Auerbach Foundation. She ran the store with white inspection gloves, trained all her own sales staff, and gave minorities and women an equal chance at advancement within the organization. Less than three years after she sold the store to May Company, she died, but her legacy and charitable giving lives on.

Employees for the most part loved working at G. Fox and Company. Audience members shared fond memories that ranged from a husband who worked at G. Fox and was paid throughout the time he was away on active duty with the armed forces to a 40-year employee who wore a special watch she had earned.

G. Fox & Company, under new ownership, closed its doors in 1993, but the value of this storied department store remains. The Connecticut Historical Society is in possession of a bright yellow dress purchased at G. Fox, which was worn by a young lady from Hartford to President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball. A pretty blue Tonka truck with the G. Fox logo, which was sold in the toy department in the 1950s, is today valued at more than $4,000. Even hat boxes and other products purchased at the famous store are in demand by collectors.

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