Price was always right for longtime department store manager

After Strawbridge's closed its doors in 2006, Kenny took his managerial experience to Macy's, where he helped Santa greet kids in 2012.

NOT TO WAX nostalgic, but Center City used to be the place to shop. There were four major department stores - Gimbels, Lit Bros., Strawbridge & Clothier and John Wanamaker's - all within a few blocks of each other.

To a young James Kenny, department stores were exciting places. He fell so in love with the business during the early 1970s that he skipped medical school to focus on retail, never dreaming how drastically things would change.

Kenny retired this month from Macy's after almost 42 years in an industry that's undergone huge transformations.

All of Philly's iconic department stores are long gone. Strawbridge & Clothier, the much-loved, family-run enterprise where Kenny spent the bulk of his career, finally closed in 2006. (Interstate General Media, the company that owns the Daily News, is now headquartered on the third floor of the former S&C flagship store at 8th and Market streets.)

Despite the turmoil of consolidation that's characterized the department-store business for years, Kenny managed to keep himself off the clearance rack. He carved out a successful career, managing Strawbridge's in Jenkintown, then Cherry Hill and Center City.

From there, Macy's hired him in 2006 to run its Center City store in what used to be Wanamaker's, next to City Hall.

Dude's a survivor all right.

Probably a little battle-scarred, too. Not that he admitted as much when I interviewed him. But some things you just know.

"For him to see the change from the family leadership [at Strawbridge] to becoming a cog in the wheel with the May Co., that had to have been hard," said Michael J. Lisicky, author of Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle, a history of the famous Philly department store. "When you become a part of a chain, you don't have your identity."

The May Co., which bought Strawbridge's and other chains, was itself bought by Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy's Inc.

"Just to go through it had to have been hard. But what do you do? You need a job," added Lisicky, who also wrote Gimbels Has it. "People feel that Strawbridge's died in 1996 [when it was bought by May], even though the stores continued for another 10 years. It wasn't the same Strawbridge's anymore. How many times did he have to deal with this issue? You can't tell me, he wasn't inundated with that. That had to have been hard."

Kenny, 61, took a lot of stories with him when he retired from Macy's on April 12.

"That somebody could have a 42-year career in retailing that lasted up into the present day is really an impressive achievement," said Thomas H. Keels, co-author of Philadelphia's Golden Age of Retail. "It's much more transitory now. The employment opportunities just aren't there."


He'll buy it retail

Back in 1971, Kenny, who grew up in Hatboro, had hoped to get a summer job at Bell Telephone, where his dad worked. On a whim, he filled out at an application at the Strawbridge & Clothier store in Jenkintown. By the time he had returned home, the store had already called to offer him a stock-boy job.

At the time, Kenny was a LaSalle University student planning a medical career. But after he graduated in 1974 with a degree in business management, Strawbridge's accepted him into its executive-training program.

"Everything changes in retail. There's never a day that's the same as the day before," Kenny said. "It was a great 42 years for me. It just was something that fell into place."

His first big break was an assistant buyer's job in the men's department downtown. By 29, he was managing the Jenkintown store - a coup at that age. In 1986, he was at the Cherry Hill location; in 1993, he moved to 8th and Market.

Meanwhile, trouble loomed as the Strawbridge family struggled to hang on to their business amid declining profits and increased competition. After May took over, the chain's name was shortened to Strawbridge's - the most visible of what would be many changes to come.

"I realized right off the bat that things do have to change and that my loyalties had to go with the people I was working with," Kenny recalled. "My loyalty was to the people paying my paycheck."


A tough sell

Kenny did not have a negative word to say about his former employers. But he admitted that he cried on the day in 2006 when he gathered Strawbridge employees to tell them their new boss, Federated, was closing the fabled 8th and Market location.

"It was very traumatic, because a lot of these people had only worked at Strawbridge & Clothier and at 8th and Market, so to hear that the store they had grown up in and had worked at for years was closing, was traumatic for them. As it was for me," he said. "That was a tough day."

Later that year, Federated closed Lord & Taylor in the landmark Wanamaker building and reopened it as a Macy's. Kenny was hired to run the store, a position he held until his retirement.

Now that he's retired, the Ivyland, Bucks County, resident plans to spend more time with his grandchildren and the high-school sweetheart he married 40 years ago, and on the golf course. He also hopes to return to Uganda, where he's twice visited with his church, St. Vincent de Paul in Richboro.

As we wrapped up our interview, I joked that it must be hard to give up his Macy's employee discount.

"After so many years of service, I get to keep the discount," Kenny told me.

We all should be so lucky.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong