By Maury Z. Levy
They were buying clothes like it was going out of style. The shirts were piled on the floor in the boxes they came in, and these guys who came in off of South Street were grabbing them like they were being given away. All the while Frank Sinatra leaned on the wall and smiled. A rubber chicken hung from the ceiling.
“That’s why it’s called the Store of the Stars,” Benny Krass said. “Just look at all those pictures on the wall. Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Eddie Fisher, Johnny Mathis. They’ve all been in here.
“When we opened this store, back in 1948, it had show business written all over it. My brother Jack, who is deceased at the present time, knew Sammy Davis Jr. and I knew Jack E. Leonard. Good old fat Jack. Say, did I tell you how Jack E. Leonard described this place? He said the decor was Early American Junk.
“And he was as right then as he is now. People keep saying to me, ‘Benny, why don’t you spruce the place up a little? A coat of paint, maybe.’ You know what I tell them? I tell them, look, we’ve got very clean bathrooms and the heat and the lights work, but the rest of the place, well, we’re not interested in selling furniture. We’re in the clothing business here.
“Jackie Gleason talked about this place on national television. ‘If you took the dust off the walls,’ he said, ‘he place would collapse.’ Good old Jackie. What a great pal. Say, are you going to Harlow’s party?”
Benny Krass is a self-made Philadelphia legend. He is currently in his second life. If you watch any television, you’ve probably seen him. His commercials only last ten seconds, but they’re what you call your hard sell. They are, of course, written and produced by Benny Krass, who is also the star. The first spot ran locally in 1965 on the Johnny Carson show. It featured Benny Krass pointing straight into the camera and yelling, “If you didn’t buy your suit at Krass Brothers, you wuz robbed!”
Over the years, the commercials have evolved into a highly technological folk art form. A couple of years ago, Benny Krass started using props. In one, he points at the camera, shouts, “If you don’t buy your clothes from Krass Brothers, you’re chicken!”, and is immediately bombarded by dozens of rubber chickens. One of the more memorable of the recent crop opens up with a shot of a stately coffin. And up from the dead pops Benny Krass, still pointing, still shouting, ”If you gotta go, go in a Krass Brothers suit!”
“Those TV ads are hitting eight million people,” he says. “And you’d be surprised at how many people are coming back to the store. We lost a lot of people when everybody started moving out to the suburbs. But now they’re coming back because the prices out there are just too darn high. I recognize men who were brought here by their fathers. Now they’re bringing their sons back.”
Krass Brothers was a men’s store before there were men’s stores. This was back when you couldn’t walk down South Street without having a tailor run out of his shop, grab you by the back of the neck, pull you into the store and fit you up for a suit before you could tell him you were on your way to the drugstore. South Street then was the poor man’s Saville Row.
The Krass Brothers’ father had a shop just down the block. They were brought up in the business. They lived right on top of it. And the three of them, when it came time to go out on their own, set up shop at 937. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
You couldn’t really call it a department store, and it was much too big to be just a men’s store. It was just a whole new world.
“We were one floor, one price,” Benny Krass says, “doing discount business with a basic turnover in merchandise that wasn’t sterile. It was always fashionable.”
If there’s a kid in South Philadelphia who grew up in the ’50s and says he didn’t buy a suit from Krass Brothers, he’s a liar. You got your first one at the boys’ store across the street and then grew up to the men’s store. Where else in this city could you get a whole suit for $39.95 with a belt in the back? Or this strange new style called Ivy League, with pants that didn’t have any pleats in the front.
Benny Krass was always on top of things, always ahead of his time. When he saw South Street was starting to go black, he didn’t move out like the rest of them. He stayed right there and made capital of it. The only thing that changed at Krass Brothers were the celebrity pictures on the wall. Krass Brothers became the unofficial outfitter for rock groups in this town, back when Philadelphia was the rock and roll capital of the world, and back when a whole group used to dress the same.
All those silk and satin suits you used to see performing every day on Bandstand, you thought they came from some custom house in Hollywood? Nope. Right off the rack at Krass Brothers.
That was the beginning of Benny Krass’s first life as a celebrity. Back in 1960, he started a label called Soul Records. And the first artist to record for Soul was Benny Krass. A song called “Bob White” made it into the top ten on WIBG. Giant pictures of DJs Joe Niagara and Hy Lit still hang in the store.
After his own success, Krass went on to help others in the record business. The names of the groups are endless. Some of those people are still around. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff owe their beginnings to Benny Krass. They’re now just about the hottest pair of black record producers in the country.
Benny Krass, like the store itself, has hardly changed at all through the years. He’s still the same wiry little guy with a face that launched a thousand wax museums. He still wears his specially made cardigan suits.
“I don’t want to see myself walking down the street,” he says. “If cardigans ever come back, I’ll wear wide lapels.” And his trademark is still the white pin-collared shirt and the white silk tie. “White means purity. And I’m as pure as the driven snow.”
He still drives around in a custom-built white Rolls-Royce convertible. And he still parks it in front of Horn & Hardart when he goes in for breakfast. He’ll go into a classier place at night, and if people don’t recognize him, he’ll go around introducing himself. He still plays the playboy. And he won’t give his age. “I don’t want to lose my foxes, you know.” But you can bet he’s pretty close to the Social Security line.
He still spends most of his time running the store, waiting for the occasional celebrity to pop in with an autographed picture for the wall. Somehow they don’t stop in like they used to. His brother Harry is older and stays pretty much in the back of the business. Benny Krass is everything from head buyer to head security man. He’s been known to run up to the roof to shoot at a fleeing shoplifter. And he’s the self-appointed mayor of South Street.
The store is still a pipe rack dream. Aisles and aisles of low-overhead flash. “I call it volume fashion,” Krass says. “We turn over our merchandise nine-and-a-half times a year. That’s the highest turnover in the country. In the past nine months, I spent over $3 million just buying things wholesale. We have items here six months before they come out anywhere else. That’s why I go to New York just about every couple of weeks.
“Our average markup in this store is only 25%. That’s how we’ve managed to keep things going all these years. Most clothes places work on what you call a keystone markup. That means if a piece cost them 50 bucks, they’ll sell it to you for 100. Sometimes even more than that. Those gonifs will sell it for whatever a customer will pay for it.”
Krass today still has 30 salesmen. There are ten more in the boys’ store. And ten tailors sewing. It’s open seven days a week, one of the first stores in Philadelphia to totally ignore the Blue Laws.
Through all the years, things really haven’t changed much. The better suits are up to 80 bucks now. They’re not exactly Pierre Cardin, but then, South Street isn’t exactly the Faubourg St. Honore. Anyway, for that kind of money you should be happy the sleeves don’t fall out.
“We’re still with it. How would I start somebody out with a new wardrobe? Well, I’d start with a nice navy knit with red stitching. And then I’d move him into a plaid or a check with velvet or suede trim. And then once I’ve gotten him into the basics, I’d let him pick whatever he wants.”
The only real difference in Krass Brothers all these years is that the jive stuff is now up front. The front racks are now loaded with Superfly coats, from the movie of the same name. They’re the big, long coats with fake fur collars and cuffs. A lot of them look like crushed velvet or tapestry. Yours for only $49.50.
Benny Krass says that about 60% of his business is now black, although he never calls them black.
“These ethnics are just great,” he says. “They buy like there’s no tomorrow. Whites wait for a rainy day. But I’ll sell to the first guy who’s got money in his hand. We’ve got to keep turning things over here. You know that every Monday morning I’ve got 15 or 20 men who do nothing but go through the racks to figure out what we’ve sold that week. All these other places come and go, brother, but I’ve been here 25 years now in the same spot and I’m bigger than ever. Now, how do you explain that? I’ll tell you how. We give the people what they want at a price they can afford. I’ve got a whole new batch of TV commercials to record next week. I’ve got them perfected now. I’m down to seven seconds. The people love me.”
A fat lady with pincurls in her hair pushes her son past the crowd at the Superfly racks and back to where the plaid suits with the velvet piping are. She almost knocks over Benny Krass, who is standing on the side like a skinny little Napoleonic statue. She tugs at the kid’s arm. “Harold. It’s him. It’s him! I told you we’d see him.” The kid’s face lights up. A real television celebrity. Benny Krass gives the woman a coy little smile, the one he saves for all the foxes, and she cracks up.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I always giggle when I see you.”
“That’s perfectly all right, my dear,” he says, “as long as you’re here to buy something. I’ve got a green satin jacket with black braiding that would look just great on the young fellow. Follow me, please. Just watch out for the rubber chicken.”