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Pitt Petri alters plans, will close for good
Poor holiday sales cited for decision to abandon business founded in 1924

Upscale gift retailer Pitt Petri's hopes to survive a tough economy and competitive market were dashed by a poor holiday shopping season, forcing the Delaware Avenue establishment to change plans and close for good after 87 years.

Just weeks after saying the struggling business would remain open but shrink to one-third of its physical size, owner Pitt Petri Jr. said Monday that the store now will close permanently Jan. 28 unless someone comes along to buy it and "carry Pitt Petri forward."

"It would be wonderful if someone were to buy the store," Petri said. "We have been trying so hard to make it work, but the economy in our beloved Western New York makes it a difficult market for high-end luxury merchandise."

Any buyer would have to move the store to a new site.

Petri, who also owns the property at 378 Delaware Ave., signed an agreement Friday to lease the entire four-story building to the Plaza Group, a commercial real estate developer that will update and sublease it as office space. Most of the three upper floors are occupied, except for some storage space on the fourth floor.

The agreement with Plaza Group doesn't allow for the store to continue on-site. So Pitt Petri is offering 50 percent off all merchandise, plus fixtures, chandeliers, tables, breakfronts, display cases, packing and wrapping materials, desks, office equipment and safes.

Anything that is not sold will be stored, Petri said. "There is so much Buffalo history here, and there are so many fabulous lines and vendors that shouldn't disappear," he said. "What Pitt Petri needs [is] a new home and probably a new owner."

The likely closing marks the sudden end of another storied Western New York business. It's also the last of the so-called "carriage trade" stores and exclusive businesses that once lined Delaware Avenue decades ago, such as Peck & Peck, Mabel Danahy, Joseph's, Teglers, Hodge Florist and Par Avion.

"Now all of these are gone, so there is no retail traffic other than people coming to Pitt Petri as their only destination," said Petri, son of the store's founder, Pitt Petri Sr. "Stores need to be near other stores for cross-traffic. Delaware Avenue has become Buffalo's most elegant, thriving business district, but it is not a retail center anymore."

Instead, he said, a new owner might have to look to shopping districts such as Elmwood Avenue or Hertel Avenue, or "several spots" in Rochester.

He said he had been in talks late last year to sell the business, but that would have kept the store in its current location, and the terms weren't as favorable as the Plaza Group lease that came up at the same time.

"Either way, it's a hard decision for us," said Petri's wife, Anne. "We really were not ready to sell the business. But the economy just didn't seem to be improving. It's a tough time."

Founded in 1924 and known for selling fine crystal, china, gifts and stationery, Pitt Petri has long been a destination for shoppers seeking unique gifts and high-end merchandise.

Just a few years after opening here, Petri opened stores on Madison Avenue in New York City and then in the famed "Peacock Alley" of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Those stores were frequented by Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz and other members of New York City's "cafe society" but closed when World War II broke out and made it difficult to import goods.

The company sold more than 38 different categories of products, including crystal, glass, pewter, silver, wood, china, ceramics, leather and jewelry, and also offered a popular bridal registry. Its brands included such well-known names as Lenox, Waterford, Spode, Royal Worcester, Royal Copenhagen, Wedgwood, Wilton Armetale, Royal Doulton, Orrefors, Reed & Barton, Nambe Mills, Steuben, Royal Crown Derby, Vera Bradley and Vera Wang. It offered free shipping within 50 miles.

Pitt Petri Sr. originally set up shop in one of three stores on the ground floor of the building -- the one closest to the neighboring Buffalo Club. After encountering success, he took over the middle store in 1939.

He hired an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright to develop a new design to incorporate both stores and showcase the company's wares. He also bought the third storefront.

The store expanded again in the 1960s, pushing the china department toward the rear and into the unused portion of the third store, as business grew over the next 30 years.

But then its troubles began, as a faltering economy and changed circumstances brought down china and crystal manufacturers, and the store's role as a middleman was undermined by the Internet and direct sales by manufacturers to consumers.

In particular, Petri said, the store had developed a relationship with Tiffany & Co., becoming the third-oldest and one of the largest independent Tiffany dealers in the world. As a result, when it opened a new location in the Village of Williamsville in 1995, it devoted 40 percent of the 5,000-square-foot store to a full-line Tiffany boutique and signed a 15-year lease.

But when Tiffany suddenly stopped working with its independent dealers in 2000, Pitt Petri was left with a costly lease for another decade. "Losing that Tiffany income and still paying the high rent was a killer for us," Petri said. "It drained the resources of both Pitt Petri stores to the point that we had no working capital. We never fully recovered."

The Williamsville store closed in 2009.

Facing worsening circumstances, Petri decided last summer to consolidate into one-third of the Delaware Avenue store's space and refocus on niche products. He hoped to lease out the remaining space and use the rental income to sustain the store. He had started the renovation and reconstruction, and was counting on strong holiday sales.

"We thought we could make a go of it in a smaller space," he said. "The business could have been viable." But "it was really not a good season for us" over the holidays, as even a 30 percent-off sale was not enough to appeal to consumers, he said. The store's limited cash flow meant they couldn't restock.

"This was a big change for me as the building has always been in my family and I never considered leasing it or giving up the ground floor," Petri said. "I grew up in the Pitt Petri building, helping my dad at the store. I've always loved our building."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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