Looking for signs of the old Morristown amongst the new

Epstein's circa 1994
Epstein's Department Store, Morristown, circa 1994. Photo courtesy of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.
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By Fran Wood

I imagine most people driving around Morristown today – or even just passing through it – are impressed with its appearance. All the new construction, the town’s many restaurants – many with outdoor dining at this time of year, curbside trees in full leaf and flower-filled planters render the central downtown easy on the eyes.

Me, I drive around looking for signs of the old Morristown. I have nothing against the new Morristown, mind you. But having lived here all my life (okay, not IN Morristown all that time, but never farther than five miles from the hospital where I was born), I have memories in which the Morristown of today has no role.

I was thinking about this the other day after getting off the phone with my granddaughter, who called to thank me for the new backpack her grandfather and I sent her for her birthday. Her birthday isn’t until the end of September, but we sent it early, knowing she’d want to use it for the first day of school.

Ah, the first day of school, when everything was new. New clothes, new shoes, new school supplies – even new underwear and socks. It was as though our mothers were reinventing us, changing us into something definitively respectable, distinctively different from the summertime children we’d been for the previous two and a half months.

In the weeks before school started, we’d embark on two or even three shopping trips – one to buy clothes, another to buy shoes, a third to buy school supplies.

Clothing would never be purchased in one store. Not in a town with three – count ’em, three – department stores. Our mothers would buy some items at Epstein’s, others at Oppenheim-Collins (whose entrance was where the Scotti’s Record Shop door is), still others at Bamberger’s (now home of Century 21).

Epstein's circa 1994
Epstein's Department Store, Morristown, circa 1994. Photo courtesy of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.
40 Park
The 40 Park luxury condos, on the site of the former Epstein's Department Store in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

We’d visit Lobell’s on the north side of the Green (now occupied by Bank of America) for Brownie and Cub Scout uniforms and ballet shoes, and Salny’s (now occupied by Citibank) for boys’ sports jackets.

bambergers
The former Bambergers Department Store in Morristown. Photo courtesy of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.
century 21
Century 21 now occupies the space that was home to a Bambergers department store in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

All those stores carried shoes, but the first stop on our shoe-buying expedition was always Walk-Well (now occupied by the restaurant Provesi). Mom would brook no argument about what was proper footwear, but she’d take the edge off our annual disappointment at having bought the next size up in the decidedly unglamorous brown leather “school shoes” by taking us next to Fitzgerald’s, a sporting goods store now occupied by the French-Thai restaurant Origin, to get gym sneakers, gym socks and uniforms if our school required them. Lastly, we’d visit Miles Shoes (a store or two west of Lobell’s) to buy dress shoes for Sunday school and parties.

Origin in Morristown
The French-Thai restaurant Origin once was the location of Fitzgerald's Sporting Goods in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Morristown had two five-and-tens in those days – Kresge’s, on the north side of the Green (the premises now occupied by Chase Bank), and Woolworth’s (not long ago occupied by Foot Locker, now featuring a string of new eateries).

On all those trips, Morristown’s sidewalks would be teeming with families on similar missions.

I see no evidence of that Morristown as I drive through. I remain hopeful, however, that the new Morristown will draw back that variety of retail business. That’s something a truly viable town needs – regardless of how many banks and restaurants it boasts.

Fran Wood has never lived more than five miles from the Morristown hospital where she was born. A columnist for New Jersey newspapers for more than 30 years, she retired from The Star-Ledger at the end of 2008. She periodically blogs at www.njvoices.com.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. I lived in Morristown from 1951 until 1963. I still have cousins that live in the area. Whenever I return “home” all I see is the old Morristown, shaped by my memories of a great place and time.

  2. Two sides of the Green still have the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church – how can you say you see “no evidence of that Morristown as I drive through”? Or didn’t you look at the nearly other 50% of the other side of the Green?

  3. I am Morristown baby boomer. I buried my mom 2 years ago. I came across a piece of costume jewelry she purchased at Bambergers in the 60s. It was an orange and gold butterfly pin. So 60’s! The day she bought that jewelry, it was on sale. There were so many woman grabbing at it. I remember thinking – no one really needs this stuff! At 8 yrs old I knew all this was impulse buying. I watched as my mom got caught up in the impulse buying and had to grab some of that stuff. Flash forward – I open Mom’s drawer after her funeral..and there it was, that tacky old orange and gold butterfly pin. My YOUNG hip modern Mom at Bambergers in the 60’s! A moment in time, still fully alive in my memory. I now have that tacky orange and gold butterfly pin in my drawer. I loved those yesterdays. I love you Mom. Forever.

  4. Morristown was the first town I saw in 1987 when I immigrated to this country from Colombia to marry my american fiancee. I felt in love with the town, The Green, Epstein’s, and Macy’s where I bought by wedding dress and all the small shops around.
    I have wonderful memories from Morristown. My only son was born there.
    When we left NJ 17 years ago to move to Virginia due to my husband’s job; a part of me was left behind ,but the memories are still cherissed in my mind. I know the town is different now and the Epstein’s store where I took my baby is the stroller and bought beautiful clothes for him is not there anymore, it is good to now the town looks still beautiful and more modern.
    There is the possibility for us to come back to NJ soon and the first thing I am going to do is walk around the streets of Morristown bringing back the wonderful memories that started in 1987.

  5. My mother would window shop on rainy days in Morristown. My clothes were always bought at Epsteins. I remember the Christmas display, especially the angel playing the organ and the story of the littlest angel. Seymore Epstine used to play tennis at Twin Oaks tennis courts when I worked there. He was a very nice man. We could always depend on epsteins for the best and the best customer service. When I became clergy they used to give me a discount. I can still remember the various areas of the store. I can “Walk” through the store in my mind. It was home to me.

  6. Just a spelling correction- Lobel’s (Youth Center). My grandfather, Samuel Lobel, started the Morristown store, which was later run by my Aunts Bea and Claire and their husbands, Herman Benson and Max Newirth. I sure wish I could have gotten some souvenir pieces of the airplane mosaic in the entrance before it got ripped up or covered!

  7. I miss shopping in m’town. Epsteins, Bambergers, NY tea garden, August moon, community theater, Woolworth, braunsweigers, Oppenheim Collins, leightners,community pharmacy, cutters, morristown diner, Grand union, morristown deli, golds,Marie’s bridal shop,beneficial mngt, ,morristown photo,Danzig gers bakery,walk well shoe store, morristown green at Christmas time,Sears, all state ins.,met life ins.,jersey theater, park theater,playground on Franklin st.,trust Co. Of morris county, where I met my hubby art, if 51 yrs.,the Hamilton luncheonette,as well others. I am dating back from 1951. We moved from morristown, morris plains, and madison in 1991.

  8. I knew the Epstein family growing up. Marge and Seymour. The three kids were Merrill, John, and Peter. The two standard poodles were Babs and Cocoa. They were all nice. I liked them and their store.,

  9. I have been on the west coast for almost 38 years. Had not been back to Morristown in 26 years until a trip there 4 1/2 years ago. If my son in law hadn’t been driving I’d have gotten lost in the old town. Nice to see the beautiful old First National Iron Bank building at 22 South St still there, tho now a big bank corporation, where my father was exec vp. So many bars and banks now! Sadly not the same town we grew up in and have such fond memories of.

  10. I miss:
    The Morristown firemens parade held each year( was the biggest in NJ).
    The old old Town Hall on South St.
    The baseball field on Mills St in back of Morristown High school.
    All of the mom and pop stores all over town.
    Graymats record store on South St.
    The Grand Union on Elm St.
    Littners toy and hobby shop on South St.
    Ken Mills sporting goods on South St.
    The fireworks held at Morristown high school each July 4th.
    Thanksgiving day football game between Dover and Morristown.
    The old Saint Margarets church on Columba st off Sussex Ave,and the k-8 school that was there.
    All of the old Italian delis in Morristown.
    Speedwell Ave and all of the old stores on both sides of the street before they were torn down.
    The old Morristown Fire house near Water St. Great old building.
    The old Park movie house across from the Green.
    The Public Service bus line that ran through Morristown.
    The soapbox derby races held on Mills St in Morristown.
    The old high school building on Early St.
    Paul and Peggys store on Washington St.
    Downs Motors on Washington St,and going to see the new cars each Fall.
    Going to the Town meetings in the old Council chambers on South St. It was small and intimate. Charming.
    The 2016 Morristown is different. There is more parking here. It is still very nice ,but those who saw it in the past were very lucky.

  11. I miss the old YMCA on Washington Street, HANKS children’s discount store on Speedwell Avenue, having several movie palaces on Washington, Speedwell and Park Place. The lunch counters in the 5&10 stores. The little bus station on the Green, a warm place to wait when the weather was nasty outside.The Salvation Army band playing on the street corners, and all the book shops most of all.

  12. A bit of nostalgia, at iron bar we have preserved the original tin ceiling and terrazzo floors from Woolworth, we also found the original cornerstone from the 1800 s and placed it in view. It was buried in a wall. A bit of history from the past.

  13. My Mom and I were the first customers at walk well the day before they actually opened. The 2 owners became very good friends of my folks (sorry I can’t remember the 2 gentlemen’s names). Loved to walk through the green especially at Christmas. Remember all the decorations and Santa’s house? I knew the son of the owner of Epsteins. He went to Morristown prep along with my boyfriend. Does anyone remember watching the trainer from the Seeing Eye Foundation train the guide dogs? I remember a tall thin German gentleman with the dogs. Sometimes he wore a blindfold depending on the progress of the dogs. Those were the good old days!!!

  14. The construction of malls and big box stores, and the advent of online shopping through the internet killed any chance of downtown Morristown remaining as a retail mecca. However, the new Morristown isn’t really bad, it’s just different from how it was during our youth. Everyone complains about all the restaurants, but some of them are quite good. As far as finding signs of the old days… visit the original Golds, followed by a sub from Long John’s and you’ll feeling you’re living in the past.

  15. Change can be hard, but when I lived near Morristown most of the stores were empty. The pictures you posted of the empty buildings are most of my memories. Epsteins was still there and I always loved to see the windows at Christmas. However, I remember when some of the bigger anchor stores closed. After seeing the town square struggle, it’s nice seeing it prosperous again, which also means new memories being made by the next generations.

  16. I can remember as a boy mom taking me from where we lived in Flanders to Epstein’s and Bambergers in Morristown to buy clothes for school I think the only other choice was going to Dover.
    I haven’t been back to New Jersey since 1985 I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize the place.

  17. yes irememeber well iam very sadden by this myself,i lived california for awhile,but when icame back home to get shoes at walk well the store wasnt there anymore,i even had a foot dr near bamburgers in between kressi i use goto thats gone too. its like a part me died.well my chilhood anyway.its like they throw away part my history. i love the pictures of morristown it brought back memories

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