Gabe’s, the former Gabriel Brothers, got its start in West Virginia half a century ago as one of the pioneers of deep-discount fashion.
There’s nothing like the shopping thrill of a great find at a spectacular price. And no store delivers that thrill as consistently as West Virginia’s own Gabe’s.
James and Arthur Gabriel opened their first Gabriel Brothers discount retail shop in Morgantown in 1961. Their father, Lebanese immigrant Z.G. Gabriel, had gotten his start in retailing in the 1920s in the coal towns of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, so the company legend goes, peddling clothing out of a truck outfitted with shelves and drawers. He went bankrupt in the Great Depression, then, in the 1940s, opened a shop in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where he sold factory overruns.
So when Z.G.’s boys opened their shop on Walnut Street in Morgantown, they adopted their father’s model of selling brand-name goods at a discount. That first building has since been demolished—it’s now the site of the Monongalia County sheriff’s office—but it’s remembered as a place with creaky wooden floors and great bargains on everything from ladies’, men’s, and children’s fashions to housewares.
The shop must have been a hit because the brothers opened their second store in Fairmont in 1962. Their business model was great for customers. “We weren’t just an off-price retailer—we were a big discounter,” says Gibby Gabriel, son of James. “We always bought close-outs and distressed merchandise and our goods were always as much as 70 percent off.” It was also a new business model that only a few other companies were pursuing at the time. “It was a struggle when we were small,” Gibby says. “We would go to all these big New York manufacturers and work with them to get their distressed goods or close-outs, and we were just a nobody in the early years.” Careful attention to relationships and growing buying power made it easier over time for the company to get good deals.
Some brands were unfamiliar in this market at first, Gibby says. West Virginia didn’t have department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, where shoppers could be exposed to big-name designers. “But then they’d see the brands advertised on TV, in newspapers and in magazines; and once they recognized them they came in and bought them.” Although he’s humble about Gabriel Brothers’ influence, he does concede, “We brought the latest fashion to West Virginia and made it affordable for everybody to buy.”
James and Arthur involved their sons in the family business. They expanded their Gabriel Brothers’ stores into Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 1980s and into Ohio and Virginia in the 1990s, established discount chain Rugged Wearhouse in 1996, and eventually grew their deep-discount empire to more than 100 stores in 11 mid-Atlantic states. In 2012 the family sold controlling interest of the company to A&M Capital. Its headquarters remains in Morgantown.
In 2013 the company’s new management rebranded the stores with the nickname its loyal, affectionate following had long used—Gabe’s—with reorganized shopping floors, updated fitting rooms, refreshed color schemes, and faster checkout technology. But the model of brand names at deep discounts is unchanged and continues to draw new customers.
“It was fun building the company,” Gibby says. “We thank the people of West Virginia very much for making us who we are today.”