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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Perhaps more than at any other time, Milwaukeeans miss Gimbels as the holidays near.

"Gimbels Has It!" recalls old Milwaukee holiday cheer


Gimbels wasn't a Milwaukee company, but Milwaukeeans had such a strong tie to the department store, that most probably thought it was a home-grown business.

Even now, 25 years after it locked the door for the last time Downtown, Gimbels remains alive in the Milwaukee imagination. And maybe no more so than during the holiday season.

Anyone who's walked these streets long enough remembers visiting Gimbels do shop for gifts, check out the decorations and maybe, if they're old enough, see Billie the Brownie, a character Gimbels adopted from Schuster's (which was first a competitor and was later purchased by Gimbels).

That's why Michael J. Lisicky's new book, "Gimbels Has It!," now out in paperback from The History Press, is perfectly timed. It arrives as many Milwaukeeans are likely feeling a pang of nostalgia for what was once the gem of the city's shopping scene.

"I think that Milwaukee felt Gimbels loss the most," says Lisicky, who was born and lives in the Philadelphia area. "By the 1960s, Gimbels became such a distant player in the other cities. Society changed by the time Gimbels realized that it needed to change. Discount stores killed Gimbels' customer base out east. But people still took notice when Gimbels fell. I think that they took it for granted that it would always be around."

Milwaukee fell especially hard and it's easy to see why when you look at the photos in the heavily illustrated "Gimbels Has It!." There are a lot of images of Milwaukeeans working, shopping and, yes, even one of a little Brew City boy sleeping, in Gimbels.

Even if the company was founded in Indiana and had locations in numerous other cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee felt like Gimbels was ours.

"Milwaukee was Gimbels first 'real' department store location," says Lisicky. "In 1887, Adam Gimbel helped find the busiest street and the busiest corner in Milwaukee before he helped his sons build the Midwest's largest store. Gimbels Milwaukee played a different role than it did in its three other cities.

"Yes, the Milwaukee store had a value component but it also had a strong level of visibility, prestige, and service associated with it. Boston Store could never catch up in volume and Chapman's was its own entity. By the 1950s, Schuster's was the highest grossing store in Milwaukee and its was a coup for Gimbels when it purchased Schusters in 1962. Also by the mid 1980s, Gimbels was irrelevant and largely unprofitable in the east. Milwaukee was its only profitable division."

Lisicky notes, every city in which Gimbels had a presence felt like it was a "Gimbels city." But, Milwaukee, he says, was especially connected to its Gimbels identity.

"Milwaukee is a very proud city and protective of its identity," Lisicky says. "I think a certain amount of people knew that the first real Gimbels was in Milwaukee. Its store on Wisconsin Avenue was such a landmark and the building itself still is. Milwaukee also has a larger certain working class component and Gimbels marketed the Milwaukee store appropriately."

As a child we visited Milwaukee every other year and I remember trips Downtown as a child. But I moved here three years before Gimbels closed and every year I went at the holidays with my mom and grandmother to shop. And I spent enough time there throughout the rest of the year that I remember it pretty well. But talking to others who grew up in the city, almost everyone seems to miss Tasty Town most of all.

They will be happy to see that Lisicky has included some Tasty Town recipes in "Gimbels Has It!."

"Food service was such a large component that department stores offered," he notes. "It kept people in the store and helped make the whole shopping experience a little more special and social. Tasty Town wasn't the finest restaurant in town but it could have been one of the most popular! Most of the recipes in my book are from the Tasty Town archives."

It's no real mystery why Lisicky, who was dubbed "Official Historian on East Coast Department Stores" by Philadelphia's City Paper wrote a book about Gimbels. After all, he's already written "Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle" and "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops."

"I was always surprised that there was never a book written about Gimbels," he says. "I always felt that even if you didn't have a Gimbels in your city, you at least have heard of the name. In 1986, I thought the rumors of Gimbels closing was just that, rumors. I never thought that there would be a time that there wouldn't be a store named Gimbels.

Our family had stopped shopping there for the most part but we always expected it to be there. Many of us took these stores for granted. After losing Gimbels, I began to study department stores and became friends with microfilm machines. I now own the country's largest newspaper archive on department stores. Call it an obsession or a passion but really it's about history and paying respect to the loss of identity for many cities. I also encourage people to try to stump me when it comes to department store history. It's kind of my 'party trick'."

While researching and writing the book, Lisicky was reminded that there's always more to learn, even when you're an expert and he found his research in Milwaukee especially interesting, he says.

"On a local level, I was fascinated to learn that Schuster's was the highest grossing store in Milwaukee and it really wasn't even Downtown! I enjoyed learning about Billie the Brownie and Gertie the Duck. But what I've learned most about studying and writing about department stores was that it wasn't really about shopping, it was about socializing.

"As stores dropped special services, closed restaurants and lessened their labor force, they lost their purpose. Society changed and shopping patterns changed. If stores are going to survive in the future and compete with the internet, you have to find a way to get a customer to leave his/her house and provide instant product gratification and somehow combine in with some type of entertaining presentation."

Michael Lisicky will read from and sign copies of "Gimbels Has It!" at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 3 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 12. Admission is free.


Talkbacks

wiscdance | Dec. 8, 2011 at 1:18 p.m. (report)

I still miss Gimbels, it was a great store. I'll have to get this book for my mom for Christmas, she worked at Gimbels Southgate.

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danno | Nov. 29, 2011 at 12:03 p.m. (report)

Let's not forget the Gimbel's at Capitol Court on 76th and Capitol. Hot food, a great toy department, and everything else on 3 floors IIRC. Then there was Hobby Horse too for models of everything.

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danno | Nov. 28, 2011 at 9:06 p.m. (report)

The downtown store had its own art department that was responsible for putting ads in the papers and magazines and for the displays. It was a close group and my Mom was responsible for layout. Her good friend Charlotte was the chief working artist who eventually moved to New Mexico and Ken was the artist boss who came down with AIDS in 1984 and died (and couple others). The art department closed long before that.

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