At one time Reading was dominated by textile manufacturers. By the 1960s and early 1970s most of the textile companies moved south, but a couple that remained – Talbott and David Crystal – had outlets, mainly for women’s clothing. Under the leadership of Kitty Solomon, the Berks County Pennsylvania Dutch Travel Association turned to tourism to increase area earnings.
Below: Catherine “Kitty” Solomon.
Kitty Solomon said, “Our hotels and motels were empty back in the early ’70s. We needed something to get things going again.”
“Basically, I needed something to get tourists away from the Amish country and Lancaster County and get them to come here,” she said.
Shopping was the answer – outlet shopping to be more specific.
The old textile factories of Reading and its environs became a shopper’s mecca.
Therefore, Reading was dubbed “The Outlet Capital of the World.” And what it was dubbed, it became.
When Solomon started with the association in the early 1970s, the budget was $22,000, she said, and when she left in 1983 it was more than $100,00.
In the early 1980s, Solomon said travel writers, chambers of commerce, private investment groups and redevelopment authorities were intrigued with how Reading and Berks County made outlets the drawing card for their community.
Solomon, who was the second tourist promotion director in the state to be honored with the Allen Imhoff Award, for making Reading a popular travel destination, said the idea of zeroing in on outlets took form in the early 1970s.
Four outlets that existed in Berks County in 1973, the V.F. Outlet, Great Factory Store, Talbots, and David Crystal, were approached and asked to join the association after Solomon attended a breakfast meeting with Iris Ellis, publisher of the Save on Shopping (S.O.S.) Directory – a booklet that listed outlets throughout the United States. Ellis had her headquarters in Michigan.
Submitting a short written history of her experience, Solomon said she met with Ellis, who planned a side trip to Reading after appearing on a Philadelphia television program.
“Mrs. Ellis described the importance and popularity of her S.O.S. Directory with people traveling to various areas of the United States,” Solomon said. “She planted the seed.
“Shortly thereafter, appointments were made with the managers of V.F. Outlet, The Great Factory Store, Talbotts and David Crystal. It took a great deal of selling to convince them that tourists were a potential market for their products, but they did join the association.”
Once outlet operators were on board, Solomon said four suggested itineraries for tour brokers, motor coach operators and service organizations were developed. Incorporated into the itineraries were attractions, festivals, historic sites, meals, lodging and a one-hour stop at one of the four outlets.
“This office (the travel association) made meal and lodging reservations and placed hostesses on the buses upon their arrival in Berks,” Solomon said.
In addition, the travel association printed thousands of copies of an artistically ornate Pennsylvania Dutch brochure with tulips, hearts and a distelfink. It was called “Plan a Shopping Spree to Berks the Beautiful” and included a listing of outlets, restaurants and a map of the Reading area.
While the brochure referred to Reading as “The Factory Outlet Capital of the U.S.A,” the city and its environs were soon upgraded in media references to “The Outlet Capital of the World.”
“We had found the common denominator (with shopping),” she said. “Some tourists are interested in historic sites, some like festivals or recreational activities, but obviously all love to shop, especially for top brand-name products at reduced prices.”
Scores of chartered buses entered 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. recognized the popularity of outlet shopping and 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 was about $15.
As the ’80s progressed, articles in national magazines and newspapers and exposure on television put Berks County and its outlets in the national spotlight.
Other old towns in the Northeast and even newer shopping centers mimicked Reading and started opening their own outlets-there were outlets everywhere.
“Outlet shopping exerted a tremendous economic impact on every facet of the county,” Solomon said. “Bakeries, dairy products, paper goods, food products, gas stations, gift shops, laundries, etc. all benefited…thousands of job opportunities opened up.”
The outlet industry reached maturity in the late 1990s. Imitations began springing up all over the country, turning outlets into a major retail industry. The number of outlet centers nationwide leaped from 142 in 1988 to 329 in 1996 because of the industry that Kitty Solomon helped to create.