By Lee Davis
For 120 years, few family businesses have been more intertwined with the history of the Birmingham community than Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk Factory.
Founded by J.D. Rosenberger in 1897, the company originally specialized in luggage, leather goods and travel items. Its logo – an elephant placing one foot on top of a trunk – became an iconic symbol. Through the years, Birmingham Trunk Factory became a destination for shoppers looking for that special gift that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Birmingham Trunk Factory even had an impact on University of Alabama football. Rosenberger’s provided the Crimson Tide football team with red elephant-shaped good luck luggage charms before its train trip to the 1927 Rose Bowl against Stanford. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice is credited for first referring to the team as the “Red Elephants of Alabama.”
When Alabama returned to the Rose Bowl in 1930, Rosenberger’s provided leather suitcases for the players, complete with the red elephant logo – and thus a university mascot was born. Or so goes one version of the mascot origin story.
All of that will come to an end early next year, when the company – now called Rosenberger’s Birmingham Trunk – will close, probably in February.
“120 years is long enough,” Birmingham Trunk President Ken Rosenberger said last week. “It’s been 47 years for me. It’s just time.”
At its peak, Birmingham Trunk had stores in downtown Birmingham, Mountain Brook Village, Roebuck and Eastwood Mall. It later added stores at Brookwood Village and the Riverchase Galleria, with the Galleria store moving to the Summit Shopping Center in 2006. Since 2013, Birmingham Trunk has been located in downtown Homewood, where the company had kept a warehouse since the 1980s.
Despite the varied locations, Birmingham Trunk operated with one consistent philosophy over the decades. “We’ve always stressed customer service,” said Rosenberger, who runs the store with his wife, Ann. “It’s important to give customers the best possible quality for whatever their price range is. If their price range is $20, we want to find them the best $20 gift possible. It’s the same thing if their price range is $200.”
Evolving shopping habits led in part to the decision to close Birmingham Trunk.
“It’s getting harder for the smaller stores to compete,” Rosenberger said. “The issue isn’t so much the big box stores as it is the internet. People just don’t want to leave home now.”
Rosenberger said he has been touched by the reaction from the community since the store’s closing was announced.
“We’ve had so many people call, come by or write and say how sorry they are to hear we are closing,” he said. “And that’s what we’ll miss the most. Making money is important, but it’s really all about the personal relationships that we’ve built over the years.”
Another highlight for the Rosenbergers were their frequent trips to product shows across the country, where in addition to looking at the latest in luggage and travel bags, they would seek the most entertaining gadgets available.
“That was a great part of the fun, going to the different markets and looking at everything they had to offer,” Rosenberger said. “We were always trying to find the best executive gifts and knickknacks; they were so fun to bring to the store.”
Rosenberger represents the third generation of his family to operate Birmingham Trunk. J.D. Rosenberger was Ken’s grandfather. After his death in 1945, the elder Rosenberger’s son Mel – Ken’s father – took over the business. Ken began working at the store as a pre-teen and was helping on the sales floor and driving deliveries to stores by the time he reached high school.
After Mel died in 1971, Ken and his mother, Mae, ran the company. In 2001, Ann Rosenberger retired from a lucrative career at Merrill Lynch to join the team.
“We never thought it would work out this way,” Ann said. “I went from working at Merrill Lynch to becoming a gift buyer and loved it. We worked well together.”
Ken Rosenberger said the store will probably remain open through Valentine’s Day or until all merchandise is sold. Birmingham Trunk may become a memory, but Rosenberger’s future plans don’t involve a rocking chair.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do,” he said. “But I don’t plan on retiring or sitting around.”
Whatever he does, Rosenberger’s name will always be associated with Birmingham Trunk as one of the community’s most historic retail names.