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About Birke’s: The Journey

Birke’s Department Store was not for the faint of heart. Shoppers were “greeted” by a bold NO BROWSING sign and routinely banished from the store by Nathan Birke if they were picky enough to ask if a shirt or jacket came in a different color. But generations of Lowell families — from the most humble citizens to government officials — wore Birke’s’ top-quality clothing. People shopped at the back Central Street store when it opened in 1948, followed Birke’s to Gorham Street, then to its long time home on Market Street in 1960. The discounts were unbeatable and the clothes were “like iron.”

Nathan Birke could be forgiven for being difficult as he had seen horrors most of us could not imagine. In 1939, he volunteered to help Sally, a business associate’s daughter, find her brother who had been urged to leave as the German army invaded Poland. When it became obvious they were in grave danger, Nathan managed to get them across the border into Russia ahead of the relentless Nazi terror. Out of propriety, Nathan and Sally married. Nathan used his abilities to negotiate and bargain to find them work in a Siberian coal mine, and to feed and house them for the duration of World War II. Nathan’s foresight and determination protected them from the atrocities that befell their extended families and so many others.

When Nathan and Sally returned to their homes in Poland in 1945, expecting reunion, they instead found that Nathan’s substantial business holdings had been stolen and every family member and neighbor had been systematically murdered by the Nazi regime. They vowed to leave and never return, and thus, began the journey that eventually brought them to Lowell. Extremely traumatized but determined to make a new life for themselves, they found work as live-in janitors at Temple Beth El and scraped together enough to begin the clothing business that became a Lowell institution.

Nathan Birke was ornery, but also quick witted and extremely intelligent. He passed away in 1992, but everyone who knew him has a hilarious story — even if it usually involves profanity, harsh opinions, and being personally kicked out of Birke’s. If Nathan’s genius was to haggle New York wholesalers so Lowellians could afford the best quality clothing, Sally’s was to feed and to comfort. She always greeted customers with a kind word, trays of homemade goodies, and an uncanny memory for the details of their lives. Together, the Birkes were known for their generosity, donating mountains of clothing to charity and reducing their discounted prices even further when a customer was truly in need.

In October 2004, Sally turned the key on her signature Birke’s Department Store padlock one last time. The building which originally opened in the late 1890s as the C.B. Coburn Building Supply Company, began a new chapter as a home and workplace for generations to come — the Birke Building.

View candid, fascinating photos by Kevin Harkins
at the Birke’s Department Store Photo Gallery
– CLICK HERE to enter –

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LEARN MORE:

Boston Globe, September 19, 2004
Buyers, even browsers, mourn store’s final sale


Center for Lowell History / UMass Lowell Libraries
“Browsing Through Birke’s” Exhibit

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