ALBANY — When Ralph Rosenberg was a young boy growing up in Albany, Albany was still considered a small town.
“If you went west toward Monroe and got to about Madison, that was the end of Albany,” Rosenberg said. “If you went any farther west, it was nothing, just a dirt road.”
Despite being such a small town and so much different from the Albany we know today, Rosenberg, now 87 years old, remembers the success of retail business in downtown, his grandfather having been Jacob Rosenberg, who started Rosenberg Brothers Department Store in Albany.
“Albany was a small town back then, of course, and there were a lot of stores, a lot of businesses all around that center block of downtown, Washington, Pine and Broad,” Rosenberg said. “It’s always been amazing to me how they could all make a profit.”
Although originally started in Troy, Alabama, by Jacob Rosenberg and two of his brothers, Rosenberg Brother’s Department Store came to be an institution in southwest Georgia, starting first in a little store on Broad Avenue in 1898, moving to another small store on Washington Street and then eventually occupying the three-story structure at 126 N. Washington St. The store would also have a spot in the Albany Mall for several years before shutting down altogether.
Rosenberg said he remembers the draw that downtown Albany had for residents of some of the smaller surrounding communities.
“I remember as a little boy, the store would stay open late on Saturday nights, and the farmers would come in from all around here on Saturdays to buy their supplies,” Rosenberg said. “They would come in mules and wagons and they would park those on Broad Avenue in the 100 block between the river and Washington (Street).
“You could go over there on Saturday afternoon and the street was just full of mules and wagons. Those people were all over shopping and buying their supplies and whatever. The stores would stay open until the last people left town, and they’d get in those wagons and go home. It could be eight or nine, ten o’clock at night. I’d be down there at the store with my parents, playing around. I can just picture in my mind what it was like back then.”
Rosenberg reminisces of a similar time, when kids rode their bicycles to school, and their parents let them go play on their own without a care, just as long as they were home in time for dinner and got their homework done.
He remembers the ice cream parlor, Marshall’s, on Flint Avenue, that his grandfather would take him and his cousin to before returning to Rosenberg’s from lunch and playing in the store downtown as his parent’s worked.
He talks about the uniform department that Rosenberg’s had in the basement, how it was the only store around authorized to sell Boy Scout uniforms and graduates from the flying program at Turner Field during World War II.
“It was quite profitable because we were the only place that did that,” Rosenberg said.
And being the only one of his generation to take over one of the three Rosenberg’s (the one in Troy and another in Mississippi being the other two), Rosenberg can’t help but remember the coming of the Albany Mall and with it, the decline of downtown.
After going to college, serving in the Army in the Korean War and then living in Atlanta for more than a decade, Rosenberg returned “home” to Albany with his wife and three children to help with the store.
“I came back to Albany in 1967 and went to work in the business,” he said. “At that time, we just had the store downtown, and I ran the men’s department.”
Within a few years, the developers for the Albany Mall would approach his father, as they did many downtown retailers, about taking a space in the coming mall.
“My father predicted (the mall would be the demise of downtown Albany) when the developers of the mall came over here and solicited everybody to take space in the mall,” Rosenberg said. “He said, ‘You’re going to kill downtown Albany.’ And that’s exactly what happened. There wasn’t enough business to support both the mall and downtown.”
So the family kept the store downtown for a while but also took a 10-year lease out on a space in the Albany Mall.
“Once we moved to the mall, the business downtown began to drop,” Rosenberg said. “We first closed the third floor and operated on two floors, and then we closed the second floor and operated on one floor. Then we closed that last floor, and that was about two years after the mall opened.”
Rosenberg took over the business from his father, Joseph Rosenberg, right around the time the family made the move to the mall. He got a first-row seat to the closing of the downtown store and several years later, the mall store as well.
“Family businesses everywhere, not just Albany but across the country, were closing, in small cities and big cities,” Rosenberg said. “I don’t know what happened. I guess the discount stores at that time were beginning to take over.
“We were pretty devastated all over when all these old family stores were closed. We closed, but I decided at that point that I was too young to retire.”
Rosenberg opened a men’s store, but it too eventually closed. Then, he did “a number of different things,” but none of them in retail.
“I see people today, either older people like me telling me about experiences they had in the store or some younger people who tell me they remember their parents taking them there to shop,” Rosenberg said. “Some of the older people will open their coats, and it will have a label that says Rosenberg’s. They’ll say, ‘Look, I bought this at your store, and I’m still wearing it.’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s why we’re out of business. The quality was so good that it lasted forever, and you didn’t need to buy anymore.’”
What was once the Rosenberg Brothers Department Store was eventually bought by James Gray and became home to Gray Television and The Albany Herald beginning in the ’80s.
“He bought it for next to nothing,” Rosenberg said. “We just had to get rid of it, so we sold it for $85,000. You couldn’t replace that building for 10 times that.”
And as loyal readers of The Herald already know, the building was recently bought by the city of Albany, which Rosenberg is somewhat hopeful about.
“I hope whoever gets it, whatever the city does with it, I hope they’ll do some refurbishing and bring it back to its rightful place,” he said.
But for those who remember the days of Rosenberg Brothers Department Store, like Rosenberg, it’s hard to forget what it once was.
“It was quite an institution around this part of the world,” Rosenberg said.