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Belloff’s Department Store celebrates a century of putting customers first in Adams

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ADAMS — To survive as a small business for a century, a loyal following of customers is a must.

Hard work and exceptional customer service over the past 100 years created a loyal customer base at Belloff’s Department Store, launched in 1914 by Russian native Aaron Belloff at 21 Main St. Celebrating the store’s century mark has brought back a flood of memories for David F. Belloff, who has operated the business by himself since the early 1990s. He took over as manager in 1990, after his late father, Isadore B., had run the store since the early 1950s.

Mr. Belloff and two of his sisters, Kathy B. Sheley and Nina O. Hirschey, on Tuesday discussed the family-owned business hitting the century mark. A third sister, Nancy A. Smith, lives in Tucson, Ariz.

The siblings described how the store was staffed by 18 employees during its heyday, when it was widely known as the main department store in southern Jefferson County for shoppers looking for men’s and women’s apparel, sporting goods, toys, furniture and flooring.

Though its success began to decline in 1985 with the opening of Salmon Run Mall in Watertown, the business found creative ways to diversify its offerings and remain competitive. As the presence of the mall ultimately diverted much of its customer base, the store hosted an auction in the fall of 1992, becoming about a quarter of the size it once was.

But the store’s decline is not what the Belloff family remembers as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. Their memories center on their grandfather, Aaron Belloff, the pioneer who established a work ethic that became the hallmark of the store’s success. Mr. Belloff, who immigrated from Kiev, Russia, to Ellis Island in the early 1900s, arrived in Adams with his first wife, Nina, in 1909.

“He actually started with a pack on his back to sell merchandise,” Mr. Belloff said. “He traveled around Adams, Rodman and Ellisburg selling lotions, buttons, needles and thread. Eventually, he graduated from that in 1912 by saving enough money to buy a wagon and horse.”

By the time the entrepreneur launched the store in 1914, his name had become a staple in communities across the southern half of the county.

Mr. Belloff said his grandfather “was a super guy who got along with everyone. If someone had to buy something late on Christmas Eve, he would keep the store open. Every Christmas he would give donations to the churches, and he would open up the store to the community during emergencies. He didn’t like to get gifts, but he liked to give them. If there were profits left over at the end of the year, it would be divided up as a holiday bonus for employees.”

During its heyday, when the store had a staff in the double digits, employees provided one-on-one customer service to everyone who visited, Mr. Belloff said. Employees were trained to greet customers immediately when they entered the store. And if a customer wasn’t helped right away, a loud bell sounded to get the staff’s attention.

“There used to be a stairway in the back with a loft, and the manager could look all over the store to see employees,” Mr. Belloff said. “If a customer walked in and they weren’t seen, we’d ring the bell to get their attention. If that happened, it was a mortal sin to my grandfather.”

Mrs. Hirschey, the oldest of the children, recalls when she started working at the store as a 14-year-old in 1947, when labor laws allowed teenagers to work earlier than they can today.

“I remember there were about a dozen employees, and it was so busy back then. My first job was tending to the Green Stamps, which gave customers a 10-cent stamp for every dollar they spent,” she said. “And when a customer came into the store, we would stay with that person in every single department they went into.”

For her part, Mrs. Sheley recalls dusting shoe boxes during her first assignment at the store as a teenager.

Diversification of merchandise over the decades at the store played an instrumental role by keeping it nimble and competitive, Mr. Belloff said. When his father, Isadore, took over as manager in the 1950s, furniture and flooring were added to its repertoire. Then when Mr. Belloff became employed at the store in 1970, he persuaded his father to introduce sporting goods. The store developed connections at a handful of school districts in Jefferson County to sell uniforms and sporting equipment, and it continues to do so today.

“People used to come down from Watertown knowing they could get what they were looking for here,” he said. “My father started the floor and furniture business by opening a furniture annex at a barn on West Church Street (in 1956). And when we started selling uniforms and sports equipment to schools, it got to a point where it was better than half of our business.”

Though not a popular family subject, the falloff of customer traffic at the business in the early 1990s marked the end of its run as a large department store, Mr. Belloff said.

“We sold off almost everything we had, and only had about a quarter of it left,” he said. “It was a sad day, and I remember I was frustrated. The auctioneer sold a whole rack of about a dozen jackets for $50, and they were priced at $50 apiece.”

A new generation of shoppers who flocked to Salmon Run Mall, rather than shopping locally, ultimately led to the store’s decline, Mrs. Sheley said.

“People in the ’50s and ’60s used to always stop here first to find things,” she said. “But in the 1990s, they would come here after going somewhere else. When the mall came along, we couldn’t compete with discount fashion stores that carried more merchandise. It hurt us to find out people were going to other places than here first.”

Crossing the century mark this year, the family is the most proud of its loyal following of customers that made the Adams store such a resilient small business, Mrs. Hirschey said.

“I just think of the upbringing and work ethic here that came from my grandfather,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know we’ve had so many people in the community supporting us.”


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