A Small Town With a Big Department Store
A curiosity in Flemington, New Jersey
This post is inspired by a week-long trip I took up to New Jersey in October, to explore my hometown and the surrounding area with my professional interests in urbanism, land use, and place in mind.
I saw a lot of stuff that I’d seen as a kid but which now struck me: an old diner with tourist cabins out in the back, probably intact from at least the 1950s; a single block of Mid-Atlantic-style rowhouses in a town otherwise consisting of detached houses and mixed-use buildings along Main Street; a small-town hotel that inspired a Broadway show tune. I’ll be featuring all of that here.
But today’s post is about the Flemington Department Store, which is something of a curiosity. Now it isn’t exactly a traditional downtown department store. First of all, it isn’t downtown, but along the highway leading into Flemington. And second of all, it isn’t exactly what you’d even consider a department store!
It sells flooring, carpet, bedding, furniture, and is attached to an appliance store, and is famous for its jeans, boots, and outerwear. It’s kind of a department store adapted to somewhat rural tastes. It’s also absolutely enormous too, and despite a Walmart across the street and a nearby Home Depot opening in the 2000s, it’s still going strong. Its unusual product mix is an asset.
The store was established in the nearby Pittstown/Quakertown area in 1956, and opened in the present location in 1963. As you can see from these interior photos, this isn’t one of those opulent department stores from the retail segment’s golden age. It’s a warehouse look, kind of like a Costco (which also recently opened up in Flemington a few years ago.) In a Facebook thread, one Flemingtonian referred to it as a “general store in warehouse format.” The store’s website identifies it as two acres large.
Here’s the clothing:
And the furniture:
These pictures don’t even include the attached appliance store, nor do they include a partial second floor! Over the years my parents have bought appliances here, and I bought hiking boots once. I don’t remember other particular purchases, but I know we’ve shopped here over the years.
The Flemington Department Store also has some notoriety well outside of Flemington: its flooring department provides red carpet for award shows, and even provided white and yellow carpet for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the United States!
It’s still family-owned too; the matriarch of the family was a Holocaust survivor. Employees have 401k(s) and many have been with the store for years or decades. The prices are high, but many locals find the quality to be top-notch. I was told it is one of the last independent department stores in New Jersey.
This is the kind of place that used to put small communities on the map and give them a sense of pride and place. Across the country, these stores might have all kind of “been the same,” but they were also unique. Their local ownership meant the families were often invested in their communities, and helped create local social and business networks in a way that chain stores simply do not.
Growing up in Flemington, and now visiting, I always wondered if this store would make it. It has a minimal e-commerce operation and tries to compete on quality rather than low price. So far, it’s doing fine, despite the dramatic changes in retail in the last 20 years. Maybe there’s more demand for this kind of store than the market seems to think. I sure hope so.
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