The embers hadn't cooled in downtown Hartford, and the Fox family stood on the brink.
On that January night in 1917, Moses Fox, second-generation owner of a dry goods store that had grown into the one of New England's best-known retail establishments, watched his legendary G. Fox & Co. burn to the ground.
No one would blame him for walking away. The property loss was estimated at $750,000 — this when most American's annual salaries fell in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, according to the IRS.
But Fox didn't walk. Instead, he established a series of smaller shops in every available, rentable space in downtown Hartford, and he began to rebuild — bigger and better — on the store's ashes. The store's roughly 1,000 employees were called to the Talcott Street warehouse, where they were told they'd be given paychecks for the duration. That was Fox's decision, and so, said Virginia Hale, University of Hartford English professor emeritus who wrote a biography of Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the pattern was set for the daughter who would eventually take over the store. Under BFA's white-gloved leadership, the family would realize fabulous wealth from their store, which they turned around and shared, only to watch the wealth come back a thousand fold.
The fire also destroyed the store's record books — including bills from Christmas 1916, according to Hale's "A Woman In Business: The Life of Beatrice Fox Auerbach." Without records, there was no way to tell who owed what, but shoppers rewarded the family's loyalty and belief in Hartford, and one by one they appeared at the store's business office, money in hand to pay their bills. One estimate said the store recovered 90 percent of its outstanding accounts.
And when the new and improved, 11-story store reopened on Main Street, The Courant carried a story that promised "all the varied stock that lures the public into the department store will shine from the windows of this great store."
Beatrice Fox Auerbach took over the store in 1938, after the death of her husband and her father, and she raised the bar for loyalty. Applying the notion of performing mitzvot learned at her family's synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, she instituted an in-store hospital, retirement benefits, paid vacations, employee loans, scholarships and inexpensive meals in the cafeteria. She went to great lengths to please customers, including once sending deliveries by helicopter. She reached out to other women in business. Before the armed forces integrated, she began hiring African Americans for visible and well-paid positions, though the move wasn't popular with all of her customers. When some store employees spoke of forming a union, she sat down with them, and gave them what they asked for, Hale said.
When the store's fire was eclipsed by Hartford's tragic circus fire in 1944, Beatrice Auerbach sent sandwiches and coffee to the Red Cross, and turned the store's legendary delivery vans into ambulances. When the Cathedral of St. Joseph burned in 1956, she donated money to rebuild, according to Hale.
It would be hard to find a philanthropy that didn't have Auerbach's hand in it, and when she died in 1968, The Courant said she left the community richer for her having been here, and poorer now that she was gone. Her store would pass away, but her philanthropy lives. Most Hartford residents only learned of her largesse after her death. While she lived, she insisted any attention be paid to her store, not her.
So here we are marching headlong into 2012. It is an election year, and I shudder to think of the heated rhetoric that's coming our way. Our elected representatives couldn't agree on a spotted cow if one stood and mooed on their porch. There's the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the Republicans and Democrats and if the twain ever did meet, it's hard to remember when. Beatrice Fox Auerbach was a 1 percenter. We could use another one like her.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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