Outlet City, 1974
Mrs. Estelle Angelini peered out the window of the sleek gray bus.
It was just before 9 a.m. on a Thursday and the traffic into her native Philadelphia was stretching in serpentine lines for miles along the opposite side of the Schuylkill Expressway.
As the bus rolled gently atop the well-known contour of the expressway, Mrs. Angelini looked at the Philadelphia-bound snarl and smiled a knowing smile. She was going shopping.
But not on the crowded, noisy streets of Philadelphia. She was headed for Reading to participate in one of the favorite pastimes of thousands of east-coast housewives - outlet shopping.
"Why should I have to put up with the traffic and the population and still pay high prices? I can hop on a bus, come to Reading find some real bargains and have a nice lunch," said Mrs. Angelini while fingering through a pile of sheer lingerie at the Vanity Fair outlet in Wyomissing.
The old textile factories of Reading and its environs have become a shopper's mecca.
Scores of chartered buses enter the city daily for stops at VF, Talbott, Cousins, David Crystal, ArKay, and the Moss Street stores. Most of the excursions include a luncheon stop at a local eatery like the picturesque Stokesay Castle.
Travel agencies in Philadelphia and in cities like New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. have recognized the popularity of outlet shopping and have established regular weekly (and often more often) tours to Reading.
The average cost of a trip to Reading from Philadelphia including round trip bus fare (with stops at five or six outlet stores) and a lunch is about $15.
"These trips are great fun," said Mrs. Angelini. "The girls in the neighborhood usually get together for a trip about once every few months."
"It's a great way to get your shopping done and still have a great time. The cost of the trip is made up in the savings on the clothes," she added.
As might be expected, the outlet store concept is also quite popular with the stores.
"It’s a quick, easy way to get rid of overruns (oversupply of items) and discontinued styles," said Vanity Fair (VF) outlet store manager Thomas Lucas.
"We sell both first-class merchandise and irregulars. Everything is 50 per cent off the price tag list," he noted.
Most of the many factories in the area had their own factory stores but for years those stores were ignored and left to the families of employees.
But suddenly the outlet stores have become very big business - for the stores and for the city.
"I really think that outlet stores are one of the biggest things Reading has going for it," said Mayor Eugene L. Shirk.
"I am amazed at the number of buses I often see parked in the lots of the stores. And whenever I travel people are always asking about Reading's outlet stores," he said.
The area between Reading and Lancaster has always been a popular tourist attraction and now the outlet stores are cashing in on that popularity.
Narrow Moss Street takes on a carnival atmosphere as outlet shoppers parade in and out of buildings housing a vast variety of bargain bazaars.
Anxious shoppers pick through racks and racks of garments at David Crystal Outlet Store.
Freeman's Shoe Outlet is another popular stopping-off point for shoppers.
Vanity Fair, home of the hosiery industries, offers a vast assortment of panty hose, lingerie and other garments.
All sizes and styles of dresses, gowns, robes and undergarments attract young and old to Vanity Fair.
Buses park alongside Evergreen Diner, Ninth and Marion Streets, to disgorge passengers for the Moss Street outlet shops.
"We were passing through the area and I wanted to see some of the Pennsylvania Dutch things. Then I remembered about the outlet stores and I figured that since I'm getting married soon I might as well get some shopping done," giggled Julie Miller of Hackensack, N.J.
"I've never seen such a collection of robes and nightgowns," said Mrs. Angelini while making the rounds in VF's store.
"And it’s all beautiful stuff." The first time I came here I wasn't aware that everything was half-price. But I liked the things so much I was more than willing to pay the whole thing," she said.
Many of the buses make what is known as the "Wardrobe Tour." They will stop at VF for lingerie, then move onto Talbott's, Cousins, and David Crystal for dresses and pantsuits, and anyone of several shoe outlets for footwear.
Although the outlet tours are usually filled with women, the discount shopping is by no means limited to one sex. There are quite a few men's outlets in Reading and all of the major factories have portions of the stores set aside for men’s furnishings. There are even stores that specialize in golf clothing.
Service station operators in the vicinity of outlets are getting so tired of giving directions to out-of-town bargain hunters that many have now placed signs in their windows like "David Crystal - next light" or "Take a left for VF."
But the way things are going with the outlet craze, it won’t be long before signs are passé and Reading’s nickname changes from Pretzel City to Outlet City.
In 1991, Reading was officially named the "Outlet Capital of the World." Read more about the "Outlet Capital of the World - Discount Mecca of the East."