October 7, 2020

Robert and Henry Landau are Retiring After Decades in Family Business

By Anne Levin

Robert and Henry Landau, third generation of the family-owned Landau woolens store at 102 Nassau Street, have announced their retirement after decades in the family-owned business. The store, currently open Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, is holding a retirement sale.

“We are now senior citizens,” said Robert Landau, 74, speaking by phone from his home in Baltimore. “Hopefully, the business will continue under new ownership or in conjunction with us. It will be a little different, but not so incompatible.”

Landau’s brother Henry is 70, and store manager Lynn Lahey Robillard, who has worked at the store since 1970, is in her mid-sixties. “Most of our employees are in our age group,” said Robert Landau. “We’ve been thinking about this for a while. All of us, simultaneously, have back issues. It used to be fun to be there, but now it has gotten difficult. That’s one part of it.”

COVID-19 is another significant factor. Current conditions have made it difficult for the store to continue its unique business model, which relies more on in-person shopping than online.

Suppliers to the store are experiencing significant delays. “The supply chain is screwed up because of the pandemic,” said Landau. “If you would tell me that, by February 1, we’d have a vaccine, then maybe we would stay. But the way it is now, you can’t order anything because you don’t know when you’ll get it, and you don’t know if you’ll have customers.”

Five of the store’s 12 employees have said that because of health concerns, they don’t want to come back when the store fully reopens. “We totally respect that,” said Landau. “But that means the personality of the store would change if we couldn’t get the products we want, and get them sold by the people we want.”

The Landau store’s history goes back 106 years, 65 of which are in Princeton. Grandfather Henry Landau opened the first store in Jersey City. When construction of the Holland Tunnel displaced the shop in 1919, he moved it to Brooklyn. Known as The London Department Store, it remained there until 1955 when Landau’s son David and his wife Evelyn — parents of Robert and Henry — moved to Princeton.

The first stop was 25 Witherspoon Street, currently home to the Mezzaluna restaurant. The business moved to Nassau Street in 1963, first to No.114 where the Princeton University Store is now located; and in 1996 to its current location at No.102.

The store has served generations of locals, Princeton University students, and countless tourists. The first Princeton advertisement ran in Town Topics on March 1, 1955. “We were selling things for 10 cents, 39 cents,” Landau said. “But everything was always very good quality.”

The small-town specialty store gained an international reputation after starting to sell Icelandic woolens.”It built the business tremendously,” said Landau. “We met the president of Iceland, and she referred to us as ‘the wool family.’ We were like a petri dish for developing new stuff. We introduced washable wool tee shirts and sweatshirts in 1980 or so. We did a cooperative project with Michael Graves, who designed blankets for us.”

The stores’s small museum of all things Albert Einstein dates back some 25 years. When actors Walter Matthau and Meg Ryan were in town to film the movie IQ around 1994, the Landaus made an effort to attract the actors and crew to the store.

“We asked customers to bring in their old clothes from the fifties that they had bought from us, and we thought they might want to use them in the film,” Landau said. “One lady brought in one Harris Tweed overcoat. So we went to Plan B, which was ‘Bring in your Einstein memorabilia.’ And that was like we opened up the floodgates. There were stories about us all over — even the L.A. Times. We had people calling from all over the country.”

The museum started with an exhibit in the window before moving to the back of the store. “Nobody from the movie came, but Walter Matthau called one day to say he lost his filming schedule, and did we know where they were shooting that day?” said Landau.

The famous physicist died in 1955, the year Landau’s parents opened the store. “But his daughter Margo was a good buddy of my dad and used to call all the time,” Landau said. “So did his secretary.”

The Einstein memorabilia will likely go to the Historical Society of Princeton, Landau said.

The store has received numerous accolades over the years. In 1969, the business introduced pantyhose to the U.S. market. In 1981, they received the designation “Sweater of the Year” from Woolite. Two years ago, on the television show Jeopardy, contestants were asked a question about the only U.S. museum devoted to Einstein. The answer was that it was “tucked inside a woolens shop in Princeton, New Jersey.”

Landau cites the store’s occasional misfires. They were the first in the U.S. to offer UGG boots. “We couldn’t sell them here, but three years later they became wildly successful,” he said. “We imported radically striped sweaters from Australia, which nobody wanted until Bill Cosby started wearing them on his television show.”

A line of clothing in a tiger pattern was another error of judgement. “We thought they’d be incredible for [Princeton University] Reunions. We got samples and showed them to some alumni, and everybody said ‘This is the greatest stuff.’ We ordered 900 pieces and we sold 12. So we’re not always right. But we do try things.”

The retirement sale will continue as long as necessary, as ongoing discussions continue with a potential buyer, said Landau. He is wistful and emotional when talking about the transition.

“Collaborations with the Princeton people are what make it special,” he said. “And the people who have worked for us over the years mean so much to us. In 1965 we hired a sophomore from Princeton High School, Barbara Greenblatt. I married her, and we just celebrated our 50th anniversary.”