Exchange-Store Closing

Rick Leiserowitz helps customer Joleen Weller at H.B. Leiserowitz in downtown Des Moines Nov. 20.

DES MOINES (AP) — The shelves at H.B. Leiserowitz Co., one of Des Moines’ longest running businesses, are slowly emptying.

A decade ago, those shelves in the nondescript brick building at 13th and Walnut streets were packed with boxes and boxes of Snickers, Tootsie Rolls and Frito Lays. Forty years before that there were cigarettes, stereos, baseball cards and toasters — “anything to make a buck,” said longtime employee Glenn Lewis.

“The amount of stuff we used to sell was unbelievable,” he said.

Today, only photography equipment and supplies remain, some pieces old enough to remind employees of when business was booming.

But that was another time.

With slowing sales and the death of its patriarch over the summer, the 122-year-old company is packing up and saying goodbye to its remaining customers, the Des Moines Register reported.

Its final day is today.

H.B. Leiserowitz was started by Al Leiserowitz’s father in 1895 at Fourth Street and Court Avenue in downtown Des Moines. It moved to a narrow building on Keosauqua Way before settling into the cavernous warehouse at 213 13th St. in 1977.

But for 78 years, one thing always stayed the same: Al Leiserowitz was there, working six days a week chatting up customers and taking pride in the family-owned business, said Rick Leiserowitz, his nephew and a 32-year employee of the store.

“He was a fixture here,” Rick Leiserowitz said. “He just loved to be here, he loved to talk to everybody and this was his life.”

The elder Leiserowitz’s office is filled with customers’ photographs, newspaper clippings and awards. There’s a photo of the 2011 honor flight he took as a World War II veteran and a copy of the original H.B. Leiserowitz catalog with photographs of everything once sold in the store.

Added recently is a framed portrait of Al Leiserowitz that was used in his obituary.

He died July 8 at 96 years old.

Al Leiserowitz did not name a successor to take over his business, so it will close to settle his estate, Rick Leiserowitz said. Both the building and the surface parking lot to the west will be sold.

It’s the end of an era, but his nephew said the family is grateful for the business that kept his uncle going. Al Leiserowitz worked from open to close each day until March, when he suffered a fall.

“He pretty much said he had three secrets to his success: working here, walking the area — he walked three miles a day — and he just swore by blueberries,” Rick Leiserowitz said.

The retail landscape has changed drastically over the last century and so too has H.B. Leiserowitz’s inventory.

Diversity was key to the business’ longtime success.

“Everybody would come in for something different,” Leiserowitz said. “We had a tremendous amount of diversity back then.”

H.B. Leiserowitz operated almost like a Sears department store, offering everything from KitchenAid mixers and popcorn machines to lighters and diamond jewelry. It delivered wholesale candy, soda, chips and cigarettes to area mom-and-pop grocery stories and corner gas stations.

“It used to be nothing to order half-a-million cigarettes” to sell for the week, said Lewis, who’s been a salesman there for 37 years.

The business then moved to Polaroid cameras, film and the chemicals needed to process photographs. It most recently moved into selling digital cameras, equipment and printer ink.

Leiserowitz stopped wholesaling candy about 10 years ago when the company realized it couldn’t compete with places like Sam’s Club or Costco.

It’s now become difficult to compete with camera manufacturers and websites where customers can purchase equipment without sales tax, Leiserowitz said. Prices are generally cheaper if purchased directly from the manufacturer, he said.

And the move to digital photography means customers have fewer supplies to purchase. A camera and an SD memory card are the most anyone needs these days, Lewis said.

“Business has been slowing down the last couple of years,” Leiserowitz said.

But that transformation in buying habits didn’t change the loyalty of H.B. Leiserowitz’s customers.

Leiserowitz said people have been coming in every day to say goodbye and share memories of Al Leiserowitz and their time spent in the store. His uncle’s habit of walking every day meant he was well-known to a lot of people in the area, especially the owners and CEOs of neighboring businesses, he said.

“It’s almost like being alive for your own wake,” he said. “It’s meant a lot.”

Joleen Weller stopped by Nov. 20 after hearing the news H.B. Leiserowitz would soon close. The East High School photo teacher has been going to the store for eight years to buy equipment and get advice for her students, she said.

She said she always recommended H.B. Leiserowitz to students who wanted to move past their phones and purchase a “big camera.”

“They’ve been super kind and super good here, and I’m sad,” Weller said. “This is a serious blow.”

H.B. Leiserowitz had a front-row seat to the changes in downtown Des Moines over the last century. The building is part of the Western Gateway, which houses the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and the Des Moines Public Library just blocks away.

“Al would just marvel at the changes when he came back” from his daily walks, Leiserowitz said. “We used to have to walk four of five blocks to find the first restaurant, and now you can walk to a dozen places within a two- or three-block area here.

“It’s a fantastic, thriving area.”

Land south of the business was once completely wooded. It’s now home to the Des Moines Fire Department’s central station and the Central Iowa Shelter & Services.

Other smaller-scale developments have popped up in the area, like Noce jazz club, Magnolia Wine Kitchen, Horizon Line Coffee, Art Terrarium and Exile Brewing Co.

A 90-unit market-rate apartment building, called Flux, is under construction at 1400 Walnut St. It will have first-floor retail and commercial space.

“It’s one of the rapidly growing neighborhoods of downtown” anchored by Meredith Corp. and Nationwide Insurance, said Des Moines Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson.

H.B. Leiserowitz’s 29,712-square-foot building — complete with a fallout shelter — and the 16,000-square-foot parking lot will be sold. Combined, they’re assessed at $1 million, according to Polk County records.

Rick Leiserowitz said the family does not yet have a buyer, but Anderson suspects the properties will be purchased quickly. There’s potential for “any type of development” there, but housing or office space seems the most natural, Anderson said. It’s likely the cavernous warehouse would be torn down rather than re-purposed, he said.

“It’s a prime development area,” Anderson said. “Whatever goes there will be exciting.”

H.B. Leiserowitz is holding an auction of its remaining items at noon today. A formal preview will be held the two days prior, but customers are welcome any time to see what’s left, Rick Leiserowitz said.

The business’s furniture, fixtures and equipment all will be sold.

Rick Leiserowitz said he’s not quite sure what’s next for him but knows he won’t be working retail in December again, he said with a smile.

“Hopefully it’s a very good legacy, what we built in Des Moines,” he said. “One hundred and twenty-two years in business in downtown Des Moines says something.”

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