Saturday, August 24, 2013

Department Store Saturday--A Visit to Providence, and Via Books, One to Marinette, Wisconsin, Once Home of Lauerman Brothers.

This weekend I am visiting my mom and sister before the packed fall schedule leaves me with no travel time. After arriving at Boston Logan, I decided to take the Silver line to South Station and take the MBTA to Providence and walk around for the afternoon and see my old friends Mary Heather and Tim, who moved there from St. Paul. My sister could join us for dinner (it's only about 40 minutes from Worcester) and we could drive back together.

I think this is my fourth trip to Rhode Island's capital, though one of them is a high school field trip, and really doesn't count. It's interesting that for a city about the same size as Worcester, and same distance from Boston, it has a very different feel, mostly owing to it not only being in a different state, but has a state capitol too. And while both cities have an unusually large number of colleges, Providence's seem to have more investment in dowtown (or in Providence's case, Downcity), though the recent growth of the MCPHS campus downtown has really made a difference in Worcester.

For a city its size (160,000, but with a market area said to be similar to Milwaukee), Providence seemed to have a lot of department stores, compared to the one major local store in Worcester, Denholm and McKay (or Denholm's). Without me doing my normal four hours with library microfilm (or fiche, or however it would be stored now), it's hard for me to really get a feel for the various stores. I think that Gladdings, Shepards, and Peerless were all general department stores, while Cherry and Webb, knowing that they continued on as women's special stores in strip centers through the eighties, might have limited themselves to women's clothing and accessories when they were downtown. I can only imagine the bulk of the old Providence Journal in its heyday, with four stores fighting for ad space.

Unlike many cities, all the buildings seem to be still be standing. According to this local blogger, the Gladdings building is used by Johnson and Wales University, having closed in 1972. The Peerless building (closed sometime in the 1980s) was turned into housing. It's the Shepard conversion, that really sparkles, however, as much Shepardness is preserved, from the S insignia to the clock, to old photographs in the lobby. There's this crazy metal sculpture with advertisements from various decades that periodically rotate around a central core. Crazy!

Coincidentally at the same time I was exploring old stores, I was reading a new book about a small-town department store with big-city ambitions. Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department Store, by Michael Leannah, focuses on Lauerman's of Marinette Wisconsin, which is on the border of Menominee, Michigan. 

The store opened in 1890 and closed in 1987, just after I moved to Milwaukee, but before I got my driver's license. I went to a number of small-city Wisconsin department stores, including Barden's of Kenosha (closed 1997) and Schuette's of Manitowoc (closed 1994), but it sounds like Lauermans might have had a much wider trading area, much like the legendary Hess Brothers of Allentown (closed 1994). Hess had a lot of branches, especially after they were bought out by a real estate devloper, but really only Hess's Main counts.  (Note the photo at right is Shepards of Providence.)

Similarly, Lauerman Brothers grew to about 15 locations, buying stores as far flung as Iowa--the Paul Davis store of Waterloo was renamed Lauremans, as almost all of the acquistions were, and lasted 11 years under their ownership. At one point, they even operated a store in Marinette's twin city of Menominee, The Lloyd Store, which they also ran for 11 years. This branch stuff is hard, which is one of the reasons why I haven't opened a second location. Like Marshall Field's, they also had a wholesale division and like Fields, they even had a manufacturing division, the once very successful Marinette Mills.

Much of the joy of department store books are in the shared memories, and there are a lot here. The brothers Lauerman, Joseph, Frank, and Charles, each brought something to the table. It's clear that Frank was clearly the one in charge, partly because he oversaw the stores for close to seventy years. Leannah tries to show the charitable side of Frank, but it's hard to not get the feeling that he was probably one tough boss.

I love that Leannah was able to get the rights to so many photos, including newspaper ads, family photos, and displays. Was there a paper handled shopping bag? I suspect at one point, though Leannah notes that for a long time there were no bags, just twine and an attached handle, and lots of free delivery, including from their grocery department (bucher closed 1960 with grocery following a few years later). I love how folks would come in by the train, from the Chicago Northwestern and Milwaukee Roads Depot. Lauerman's would offer a free shuttle back with your packages.

For someone who's read a lot of department store books, I still picked up much about the industry itself. Trading stamps? As much as they were a consumer incentive, they also allowed the company to keep tabs on keeping cashier's honest in cash transactions, much like the "if we don't give you your receipt, we'll give you cash back" promotions that were in vogue for a while.

And the buying trips? The Lauermans kept prices low in part by weekly buying trips to Chicago, doing a great deal of opportunity buying along the way. They might be from other distressed retailers, or have slight fire damage. Pricing might depend on who else was stocking the item, but they kept people coming through a wide assortment of goods matched with pricing and service. The only thing that confused me was how many clerks and department heads seemed to be on the gruff side. That sort of conflicts with my idea of service, but maybe that's just me.

One of the best chapters discusses the five most-memorialized features of Lauermans, and interesting enough, two were sweets--the Downyflake donuts and the frosted malt cones, which I perceived to be soft serve with some secret ingredient that is apparently lost to this day. All I could think of was selling two sticky, gooey, crumbly treats in the middle of a department store seems quite daring and would probably have driven me crazy.

Michael Leannah had long-time ties to Lauermans. His father ran the camera department, and then for almost forty years, the stationery department, succeeded by Michael's brother Bruce, who headed it until the store closed. I assume cameras was first, but since the references to the two departments were in different chapters, I couldn't be sure. (As an aside, I learned that it used to be acceptable to pronounce film with two syllables.) So as much as anything, Something for Everyone is a family story, and probably not just for the Leannahs, but for everyone who worked and shopped at Lauermans.

More on Something for Everone in EHExtra (that's the Marinette Menominee Eagle Herald). A little more about Marinette on their home page. It's "the city on the bay." Plus Lauerman's Home Furnishings lives on in Marinette. It has the same typeface, but now with an apostrophe.

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