By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 24, 2002 at 5:54 AM

When my brother-in-law and his wife visit from San Francisco -- the city of fabulous sushi, uber-fashionable shoes and famous folks -- they always go to Goldmann's.

San Francisco may have Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Nordstrom's, but it's only at Milwaukee's Goldmann's Department Store where you can buy a mumu, play the lottery and eat a plate of meatloaf all in one shopping experience.

"It's a little slice of heaven here," says Milt Pivar, store owner.

Goldmann's, 930 W. Mitchell St., is Wisconsin's oldest department store and recently celebrated its 106th birthday. Although the eclectic stock changes regularly, the building itself -- as well as many of the employees -- remains the same. The wide, wooden staircases creak, the "bargain basement" smells like a basement, and Essie still works in lingerie.

"I don't know a damn about hosiery or lingerie, but I can tell you one thing: we are one of the only department stores that still sell snuggies (old-school undergarments that your Grandma wore in lieu of long underwear or leggings) as well as bras that would fit on the side of a building," says Pivar, while Essie holds up a 52FF-sized bra.

The store not only carries gargantuan brassieres, but also men's shirts up to a 10x and size-70 belts.

"There are a lot of fat guys in Milwaukee," he says, laughing. "And I'm one of them."

The availability of mega-sizes is only one of the many niches keeping Goldmann's alive today. Other store specialties (or peculiarities) include racks of school uniforms, a classic candy counter selling retro sweets like jaw breakers and candy raisins, zoot suits, African clothing sets, stacks of flour sack towels, an extensive selection of shopping carts, unique lights and lampshades, bolts of fabric, upholstery and fake fur, and more.

The store also sports inexpensive men's, women's and children's fashions.

"Recently I bought fabric to make a bird cage cover, upholstery to recover my friend's Airstream camper cushions and loaded up on licorice babies on all in one visit," says Renee Bebeau, a Mitchell Street resident.

The lunch counter is the state's sole remaining department store diner, and will appear in the upcoming movie, "Milwaukee, Minnesota," starring Randy Quaid and Bruce Dern. The diner has a certain "greasy spoon" appeal, and although it's not the kind of restaurant where one would order a tuna sandwich, the grilled cheese is always safe and tasty.

Pivar is not a member of the Goldmann dynasty, but the 70,000-square-foot department store is still a family tradition. His father, Sam, leased the Men's Department from the time Pivar was 12.

"Back then, Mitchell St. was the number two shopping district in Milwaukee," he says. "On weekends, there were wall-to-wall people in the store, on the street and at the other major chains on the block like Sears, JC Penney and Woolworth's." (You can marvel at old photos depicting the Mitchell St. shopping mayhem in the Goldmann's Museum, located right inside the store.)


After graduating from Washington High School, Pivar attended college for a semester, but realized he inherited the retail gene from his dad and went to work at Goldmann's. He later purchased the store with Jerry Lewis (not the actor) in 1988.

Last July, at the age of 72, Pivar decided he needed a change, so he stopped working regular shifts in the Men's Department for the first time in more than 55 years. He still spends full days in the store, and has no plans to retire.

Pivar attributes the store's survival to their high level of customer service. With more than 80 people on payroll, there's always a clerk nearby to answer questions or to help you pick out just the right housecoat.

"It's more like a family here than anything else," says Milt, whose own family is grown. His wife passed away 10 years ago, and his two daughters are living in California and Mequon.

"I love what I do," says Milt. "But you have to make it fun. It doesn't just happen."

In pursuit of fun, Milt once hired Hawaiian singers to entertain the lunch counter regulars and a concertina player to perform from the store's balcony. He also frequently jokes with customers and staff in a G-rated Rodney Dangerfield sort of way.

"You still cold, Essie?" he asks the sweater-clad sales lady. "She's been here 15-years, but she's still on a trial basis, right Es?" Pivar says with a wink.

Wal-Mart, take notes.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.