The Santamobiles of Bradburn’s Department Store

Through the mid part of the century, the City’s Downtown was home to several large department stores, most of which were flagships of local or regional chains- Osberger’s, Whitestone’s, Bradburn’s, Foster & Asher’s, Harriman Bros. and even a branch of Gimbels. Of these, only Whitestone’s is still extant and the Macy’s in the old Bradburn’s space is technically the “cousin” of the long-dead Osberger’s, through various mergers and acquisitions (but that would take a flow-chart to accutately explain and our time here is short). Every year, these stores would decorate to the hilt- well, maybe not discount house Harriman Bros., which always played things close to the margin- with trees, garland, lights, fake snow and all of the other trappings associated with good old fashioned city department store Christmas celebrations.

Of course, the main component was the store Santa, the big attraction that brought kids into the stores, along with their pursestring-holding parents. In 1952, though, Haskell Bradburn decided to bring the Santas to the city’s neighborhoods with the creation of the Santamobile. Inspired by the library system’s bookmobiles, Bradburn outfitted a fleet of ten of his delivery trucks with downsized replicas of his store’s Santa’s Toyshop attraction and sent them out to the City’s neighborhoods and then-developing suburbs.

The store would pick a central location- library, supermarket or municipal building parking lot, or an area  next to a train station or subway stop heading downtown. There, parents could enjoy complimentary hot chocolate, coffee and donuts, while their kids waited in line to head up the steps and sit on Santa’s lap in the comfortably-heated panel truck. Of course, sales representatives from Bradburn’s were on hand with catalogs and order forms- you could do your holiday shopping right there and have the goods delivered right to your home, all without having to ever trek Downtown.

This convenience kind of ended up contributing to a looming problem- whether it was because of this program or a bit of development myopia, Bradburn’s was slower than its competitors to make the move to suburban shopping centers which were springing up all over the area. For every year the Santamobiles went out, it meant fewer people doing their holiday shopping at the Downtown store. The decline in Downtown shopping through the 1950s and 60s ate away at all of the great stores, but it was especially obvious every holiday season with the Bradburn’s Santamobiles- deferred maintenance meant shabbier decorations, shabbier trucks and even shabbier Santas. Also, stores like Osberger’s and Whitestone’s threw their weight around their new suburban enclaves, effectively shutting Bradburn’s out of potential staging sites, with expensive permitting issues constantly being thrown in the struggling retailer’s face.

Due to cost issues in the late 1960s, the Santamobile fleet was cut to two and was kept within the city limits, to neighborhoods which started to see conditions of decline similar to cities across the country. The incident in 1970, in which one of the Santamobiles was robbed and two “Santa’s Helpers” were shot, ensured that the program did not return for the Christmas season of 1971. Bradburn’s closed in the spring of 1972, after sixty-one years in business.
– RJ White

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