Institutions do not appear overnight. They build with time — sometimes lots of time. That’s the case of Landau, the specialty woolens shop at 102 Nassau Street in the heart of Princeton, which in its 101 years has morphed from being just another retail store into a community institution.
It’s something Robert Landau, grandson of company founder Henry Landau, is ready to talk about at the Women’s College Club on Monday, November 16, at All Saints Church in Princeton. There he will discuss the store’s evolution, its 60 years in Princeton, how he and his younger brother, Henry, interact with world-wide suppliers and crafts people, the store’s corner Albert Einstein collection, and how — despite the odds — the company has continued for three generations.
“My grandfather, Henry Landau, arrived in the States before World War I. We don’t know where he emigrated from. That’s lost to history. But we do know he settled in Jersey City and began a notions store in 1914 with his wife,” says Robert. That Jersey City shop, he says, was common for its time and catered to the needs of the working folks in the neighborhood: needles, thread, fabric, string, paper, and other items for daily life.
He says the business thrived until a notice arrived to say the shop was in the way of a new huge project: the Holland Tunnel. But the notice’s delayed eviction gave his resourceful grandfather an opportunity to expand his clientele to include construction workers now crowding the area. “What did this new customer base need? Overalls. And Henry supplied them,” Robert says.
Soon after the new Landau store opened in Brooklyn as a three-story department store. With an expanded inventory there was a new clientele: neighborhood men looking for motorcycle helmets, wide belts, and boots. And the company took on new life.
Robert says that after his father, David, took over the reins to the company, his family would often travel to Princeton to visit a maternal uncle, Joe Kaplan, owner of an Army/Navy store on Witherspoon Street. That was in the mid-1950s, when Brooklyn was changing and unions were impacting the business. “The visits to Princeton were a respite from the bustle of the city. My dad and mom — who also worked at the Brooklyn store — fell in love with the area,” says Robert on how the company found its way to a small property on Witherspoon Street.
The new clientele included restaurant staff asking for aprons and uniforms. Robert says, “Specialty uniform stores were not part of the landscape then. This was another chance to focus on what people wanted.”
Then a Princeton customer came in with an unusual request that opened a niche. The woman had been at her ranch out west and had come to love the comfort and utility of the rugged denim pants that the cowboys wore: “blue jeans.” Within a short time, denim clothing took up almost half of the store, making Landau the first non-western wear shop to carry blue jeans and by 1959 was Wrangler’s largest U.S. specialty store.
It was a logical step from natural cotton jeans to carrying other natural fiber clothing. “Long before it was ‘preppy,’ we carried fine madras shirts and other items,” says Robert.
Robert says by the early 1960s the family had sensed Nassau Street was the epicenter of commerce and moved the shop up the street and began a new chapter with a new product. “A customer, just returned from England, had a request,” he says. “She asked if the store had ‘hold ups.’ We did a double-take. She quickly explained that these were nylon stockings that held themselves up and were all the rage across the (Atlantic).”
The invention of an elasticized top meant that women no longer needed garter belts or girdles. Sensing another trend, the Landaus wrote to the British manufacturer, Pretty Polly, which jumped at the opportunity to have a U.S. presence. Landau became the representative for Pretty Polly in the States, selling to Wanamaker’s and Garfinkle’s department stores, among others. The “hold ups” morphed into pantyhose, and in 1967 Landau became the first store in the U.S. to sell them.
By the 1970s, shortly after Robert had graduated from University of Virginia, the third generation was on board. Soon Landau had an established reputation for specializing in fine clothing made with natural materials. “Everyone was carrying polyester by then, and there was a market for rich, natural fibers,” says Robert.
Then at a trade show Robert and his wife saw some odd wraps made with wool from Iceland. “The style was strange but the designs beautiful. My wife encouraged me to get some, and we bought 12 ‘ponchos.’ Not a single one sold.” He says that while customers loved the fabric and the designs the wraps simply didn’t fit.
“Rather than consider the experiment with Icelandic wool a failure, I simply asked the maker for new dimensions.” He says the altered ponchos “flew off the racks” and established Landau as a dominant force in the world woolen trade. Robert smiles as he recalls attending a reception in New York for the then-president of Iceland in 1982. “As we approached in the receiving line she greeted us with, ‘Oh, it’s the Wool Family.’ The nickname stuck.”
Landau took an artful approach to marketing. Its catalogs featured art by Lonni Sue Johnson, the New Yorker magazine illustrator (whose brain injury and amnesia later attracted the attention of neurological researchers including Robert’s wife, Barbara, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins — U.S. 1, September 21, 2011).
The store sponsored a “write the caption” contest for cartoons drawn by New Yorker cartoonist and Princeton resident Henry Martin. In 1993 Landau corroborated with architect Michael Graves on a designer collection of Irish throws.
Landau’s catalogs and its ads are peppered with entertaining stories about the products and often how they came to Landau’s attention. One recent story involves a new fabric from New Zealand made from a blend of brush-tailed possum hair and Merino wool. It caught the Landaus’ eye at the Irish Trade Board’s Dublin show three years ago. “We ordered 12 sweaters of this fabric, which feels like cashmere but is more durable,” says Robert. “Customers were thrilled to see these in the store, having seen clothing made with the material on their travels. Twelve sweaters became 24 and then 48.”
It was then that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents took an interest in the large Landau shipment. Since opossum fur is protected in the United States and permits are required, the agents held the goods at the airport. It was, Robert says, the start of a long back and forth with the agency as he tried to convince them that the brush-tailed possum from New Zealand was a genetically different critter from a United States opossum.
“I began calling once a week, talking to anyone who would answer the phone,” says Robert. “Finally a new agent was on the case and the light dawned. She had gone to Princeton and knew the store well. She got it. When I asked how to get the permit process rolling, she told me she already issued it.”
What’s next with the 101-year-old family business and a clientele that includes generations of customers, university alumni, and former residents? “Anyone running a family enterprise needs to want the job for the sheer enjoyment of it,” says Robert. “My father and mother took over with that sense of excitement and my younger brother, Henry [an alumnus of Quinnipiac College], and I also entered the firm because it was in our blood. I was helping out in the Brooklyn store by the time I was eight years old.”
So is there a succession plan? “At this point,” Robert says, artfully hedging his bet, “you have to be sure there is a business to pass on. The focus is on keeping momentum and growing.”
The 101-Year History of Landau in Princeton, Women’s College Club of Princeton, All Saints Church, 16 All Saints Road. Monday, November 16, 1 p.m. Free. www.wccpnj.org or 609-924-9703.