Geenen relives the glory days of Schuster's and Gimbels
As the holiday season dawned last year, author Michael Lisicky conjured the heyday of Milwaukee's Downtown shopping culture with "Gimbels Has It!"
Now, the same publisher has issued Paul Geenen's "Schuster's & Gimbels: Milwaukee's Beloved Department Stores," out in paperback, which charts the course of Brew City's two legendary retailers and recounts their eventual merger.
Geenen, is only mildly exaggerating when he says he has department stores in his DNA. Raised in his family's Appleton dry good store, Geenen went on to work for Dayton's in Minneapolis, Gold Triangle in Miami, and ultimately, Gimbels in Milwaukee.
So, while he certainly had to do some research to write his book, a lot of what's in the book lives on in his own memory.
Geenen, who has also written books on Milwaukee's Bronzeville and Sherman Park neighborhoods, also has a website called GimbelsMidwest.com.
We had the opportunity to ask him about his new book and about what Schuster's and Gimbles meant to Milwaukee ...
OnMilwaukee.com: You have a family tie to the dry goods business don't you?
Paul Geenan: Department stores have always been a part of my family's DNA. My three great-aunts – Minnie, Dina and Anna Geenen – started Geenen Dry Goods in Appleton, in 1896. Both my father and my mother worked at "the store" for many years. I worked in "the store" during the summer of my high school and college years and met my wife there.
When the store closed in 1966, I started at Dayton's in Minneapolis, moved to Gold Triangle in Miami, and then to Gimbels in Milwaukee in 1976.
OMC: What led you to write a book about the stores?
PG: The History Press approached me about writing this book. They are having good success with this theme because it appeals to the large baby boomer audience.
OMC: Tell me a bit about the differences between Schuster's and Gimbels in their early days.
PG: Adam Gimbel built his flagship store Downtown while Ed Schuster built his stores in Milwaukee's bustling neighborhoods. Gimbel Brothers opened stores in Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh while Schuster's opened stores on 3rd Street, 12th and Vliet, Mitchell Street, Packard Plaza and Capitol Court.
Gimbels' windows were themed and focused, reflecting the influences of its Manhattan store. Schuster's windows were less sophisticated and featured highly visible price tags on the wide-ranging display of items carried in their stores.
OMC: By the time they merged were they more or less serving the same clientele and offering the same services, or not really?
PG: In 1958 Schuster's reached $50 million in sales, its high water mark. In 1961 Gimbels sales surpassed Schuster's for the first time. They both competed for the same customer. In 1962 Gimbels purchased Schuster's. Ralph Friedman, CEO of Schuster's, was getting older and there was no one to succeed him.
This created a retail company called Gimbels-Schusters with eight stores and 4,000 employees. Schuster's was stronger in the food area. For example, the candy making operation was Schuster's, and after the merger, Gimbels moved it Downtown and expanded its scope.
OMC: Why did Schuster's fade away after the merger but Gimbels remained?
PG: Schuster's did fade away after the merger. After two years, "Schusters" was dropped from "Gimbels-Schusters" name. Employees who came over from Schuster's in the new organization told me that, at first, the Gimbels employees were a little dominating. But that disappeared after a while. I had several requests, when I was writing the book, to lift up the Schuster's name. That is why we titled the book "Schuster's and Gimbels."
In the 1960s Gimbels expanded aggressively, both in the Milwaukee market, and in the New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets. Schuster's became a distant memory for both its customers and employees during that hectic time.
OMC: What did Schuster's and Gimbels mean to Milwaukeeans back in the first half of the 20th century? Is there anything like it today?
PG: Schuster's was the most innovative of the two retail chains. Schuster's issued Schuster's Stamps, which were given out at over 300 butcher, grocery, hardware stores and gas stations. They issued "Charga-Plates," metal plates that customers used to make purchases, tied some promotions to local charities and experimented with the central check-out concept. Schuster's purchased an IBM mainframe to manage their charge accounts in the early 1960s.
Their greatest success was Billie the Brownie and the Schuster's Christmas Parade. In 1927 it took 75 policeman to handle the crowd of 100,000 people that came out to see Me-Tik, the Eskimo reindeer handler, Billie the Brownie, and other characters. This was a crowd that was larger than the crowd that came out for Charles Lindberg earlier the same year.
Larry Teich broadcasted a children's radio program that gave updates each day on Billie and Santa's journey from the North Pole. This was a fearsome journey where even the reindeer got sea sick on their long journey over the stormy ocean. People have told me that their first memory of Christmas is listening to Billie The Brownie on the radio.
OMC: Do you think they both will continue to live on in the Milwaukee psyche or do you already see the fondness and nostalgia for these once-iconic Milwaukee stores fading as older generations depart?
PG: People often say "My mom – or aunt, or father, etc. – worked at Gimbels." Employees were loyal, and many worked for 10, 25, 50 years, with the record set by Ella Linde who worked 68 years. Gimbels and Schuster's lives on in the memory of those dedicated employees.
OMC: Is there a time of year you miss the stores most?
PG: I still enjoy remember the wonder and excitement of setting up the Trim A Tree Shop on fourth floor and the cheese gift box store in the window on Plankinton and Michigan. I always check out the Trim A Tree shop at Kohl's just to relive that experience. Not the same, of course!
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