WNY's All Time Greatest Department Store: Sattler's v. L.L. Berger
Photos part of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society's collection, used with permission
Remember the local department store? It had a snazzy script logo, a flagship location with several floors, and sometimes even a soda fountain or lunch counter. Every day, several pages of the local newspaper would be devoted to idealized drawings of wasp-waisted young matrons wearing dresses, suits, or complicated underwear from one of these magical emporiums. Buffalo was once rich in such retail, and many here can recite the litany: AM&A’s, Hengerer’s, Hens & Kelly, L. L. Berger, and Sattler’s are among the most legendary. For our purposes, we’ve chosen L. L. Berger (1905-1991) and Sattler’s (1889-1982) for all-time greatest status, although cases can certainly be made for any of the stores on the list, and possibly others as well.
Sattler’s and L. L. Berger were started by two men, each of whom bestowed his last name on his new business. Sattler’s was founded in 1889 as a one-room shoe store at 998 Broadway, which was then the home of seventeen-year-old John G. Sattler’s mother. This became the site of a full-scale department store, which by 1950 covered six acres and included a food market, candy store, fur salon, pet shop, vacuum cleaner department, camera shop, florist, and orange juice stand, among more common department store offerings. Its music department alone had thirteen clerks and seventy feet of counter space in its heyday. This was truly one-stop shopping, with much of the reasonably priced merchandize turning over monthly.
The Sattler’s flagship and most of its branches closed in 1982, and 998 Broadway was razed in 1987. Among the tidal wave of memories evoked by any mention of Sattler’s anywhere on the internet where a Buffalonian might be reading, we found the following:
"Going to Sattler’s 998 was really uptown for us. I remember standing at the back entrance with my mom when I was probably six years old on a day when there was a big sale. When the doors opened I was just swept in by this tidal wave of big, girdle-wearing Buffalo women! Scared me to death! I remember there was also a little animated mechanical orchestra/jukebox thing up near (I think) the shoe department.”
“I can see my Dad’s 1966 Oldsmobile parked with the trunk lid open and our 998 Broadway treasures being loaded for our trip home. There will never in my life time be such a wonderful, wonderful store to visit. A real store with the most fantastic things and people.”
In 1903, the twenty-three-year-old Louis Berger came to Buffalo from Detroit. After working briefly in his brother-in-law’s business, Givens, Berger decided to start his own fine clothing store that would target both career women and nonworking affluent women. He had a buying office in New York, which he shared with Nordstroms, among others. Berger classed itself with such stores as Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks, and although the store lacked access to as many high-end consumers, it did well. Berger was where a discriminating shopper could find fashion-forward separates and special-occasion formal wear; the store’s cosmetics counter carried brands not easily found elsewhere.
Berger’s son Louis Lawrence Berger came into the business in the mid-forties, after serving in a WWII. medical battalion. In a 1994 Buffalo News interview, the younger Berger recalled some of the aspects that made his store special: “Small things counted. For example, our store gave the finest gift wrap you could buy—free. We never gave it up and it used to cost us a fortune. If someone wanted something, there was nothing we wouldn’t do for them. If monograms came in on Christmas Eve and there were no more truck deliveries, family members delivered them in the snow to the customers.”
As with Sattler’s, old photo sites, discussion boards, and listservs on the Internet provide a treasure trove of memories of Berger’s like this one: “It was such a classy store; all the women behind the counters wore dresses, high heels and pearls. Many of my clothes were from there, including my prom dress. So sad to know that, with few exceptions, elegant clothing stores like this are a thing of the past.”
Berger’s original flagship at 500 Main Street has been converted into the Belesario apartment building.
Elizabeth Licata is Spree’s editor-in-chief.