The National and its era are dead as 8-cent socks

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 11, 1992|By Michael E. Ruane | Michael E. Ruane,Knight-Ridder News Service

BELLEFONTE, Pa. -- It has been quiet lately beneath the old copper ceiling. The silver-handled cash register cranks but a few times a day. And the hardwood floor creaks softly under the salesman's step.

Sometimes, save for the hum of the fluorescent lights, the only sounds are the rush of the cars out on South Allegheny Street and the clock in the courthouse chiming off the hours.

Gone from the National Store, with its antique ceiling and ancient cash register, is much of its merchandise. The dress shirts have been sold from their wood and glass cabinet. The display windows are vacant, except for bare mannequins.

After 51 years, the men's and boys' clothing store is calling it quits. Founded seven months before Pearl Harbor by Stan Goldman's father, it was once a place where you could get garters and suspenders, bib overalls and union suits, and where hats were stretched free of charge.

It's sad, said Mr. Goldman, 61, who as a boy swept the floors and went on buying trips to New York with his father in their brown 1937 Chrysler. It's the end of an age, the passing of an old-fashioned way of doing business. But it's also time to close.

The elegant, hilly borough of Bellefonte has a population of 6,000 and is the Centre County seat, six miles northeast of Pennsylvania State University.

Many things have changed since Bernie Goldman advertised free cigars at the National's grand opening, April 25, 1941. Then, socks were 8 cents a pair and union suits 59 cents.

Bellefonte had always been a solid place to do business. It was named in the 1700s for its reliable fresh-water spring. Later, there would be iron, limestone, lawyers and prosperity.

There were two movie theaters -- the State and the Plaza, both on High Street -- and one day Tom Mix, the cowboy-movie star, came to town. Despite the war, which would soon make goods hard to get, and Levine's clothing store two doors down, it was a good place to start out.

So Bernie Goldman, who about 1930 had fled the draft in the Soviet Union and later peddled religious goods in Mexico, opened up shop, with 9-year-old Stanley at his elbow.

But not even Bellefonte could resist the changes in taste and culture over 50 years -- from zoot suits to leisure suits, from knickers to blue jeans, and from stores on Main Streets to the malls outside town.

Fewer and fewer people shopped in the store. Fewer and fewer were on the street outside. Both theaters closed.

In 1975, Bernie Goldman had a fatal heart attack during a blizzard while trying to get his car up High Street, two blocks from the store. Stan Goldman, the only child, already had largely taken over. The National pressed on.

For a long time, Sam Goldman resisted the inevitable, subsidizing the National with his successful silk-screening and sporting-goods business in another part of town.

Finally, he made the decision.

"I kept putting it off, thinking it'll get better, times will get better," Mr. Goldman said. "But it didn't get better. It got worse."

Toward the end, the National tried to bring in customers by selling things that could be hard to find in malls -- garters, suspenders, straw hats and extra-large clothing sizes. But it didn't work.

"I've lived here all my life," Mr. Goldman said. "I see the demise of the downtown. . . . You wonder what's going to happen. It's bad to see downtowns decay. And this is what's happening all over the state."

Bellefonte is by no means crumbling. It is chiefly small businesses that have suffered. There remain beautifully renovated downtown buildings, a pretty park and stately old homes that rival those in fine, older city neighborhoods.

And Mr. Goldman is trying to look to the future. "Don't look back," he said. "You have to look forward. People say,'Those were the good old days.' Well, they're not the good old days."

Mr. Goldman said his father probably would understand. "He was a realist. I think he would have accepted it."

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