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Jewelry businesses have been especially hard hit by the recession. Zales is closing stores by the hundreds, and Whitehall has declared Chapter 11. But Fortunoff was more than a blingerie, it was the place to begin a life, to buy a wedding ring or a bridal gift or outfit a starter home. When it died, a piece of old-school white ethnic New York went with it.
Born in Brooklyn in 1922, the regional chain moved, in body and spirit, to the Long Island suburbs, just like the upwardly mobile strivers who bought their jewelry, furniture and housewares there. There was a store on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which proclaimed a different sort of aspiration, the desire to rub shoulders with Tiffany’s and the Plaza Hotel, but the store in Westbury, on Long Island, was the flagship and the mother ship. It anchored its own dowdy minimall, called the Mall at the Source, built around it in the 1990s. But the bridge-and-tunnel icon could not survive the tug of Target in one direction and more effete yup-scale retailers in the other, and is now in liquidation.
As with the demise of many 87-year-olds from Long Island, the death of Fortunoff was sad, but not unexpected. In February 2008, the owners who had bought the chain from the Fortunoff family filed for bankruptcy. Lord & Taylor’s rescued the brand and its 19 stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but the second Chapter 11 filing came a year later. On Feb. 12, the company laid off 300 of its 1,800 headquarters staff in Westbury. Liquidators purchased nearly $100 million in inventory not long thereafter, and a chainwide clearance sale began the last week of February.
Clearance shoppers of a certain age interviewed by Long Island’s Newsday newspaper, tribune of all that is 516, evinced great nostalgia for the chain. William Friedrich of Queens, 69, was shopping for miniature trains. His wife was shopping for bridal gifts. “Now we’ll have to go to Target,” said Friedrich. Amalia Kanaras of Long Island, 68, had been shopping at Fortunoff for 40 years. She purchased a pearl necklace. Rosemarie Godfrey, also 68, also of Long Island, and a former Fortunoff employee, said, “I came to mourn.”
Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.More Mark Schone.