Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trip down Jacobson's memory lane enjoyed at Castle Museum

by Janet I. Martineau

Cheese soup....cashmere sweaters...Christmas shopping trips...personal customer service.
These were the memories, and images, Saturday afternoon at the Castle Museum, 500 Federal, when more than 60 people gathered to hear author Bruce Allen Kopytek talk about his book “Jacobson’s: I Miss It So!”
And making the talk even more poignant is that it was given in the shadow of, and visible through the Castle’s windows, Saginaw’s very own Jacobson’s -- the department store at 400 Federal which, Kopytek said, at 2007-square-feet and taking up an entire block was the largest in the chain’s eventual 30 stores.

“Every year my brother took our sister to Jacobson’s for a lunch or a dinner and then she would pick out her Christmas gift from him there. It was a tradition every year. For me, I remember the friendly employees who would call you if something was on sale.” --Tom Mikolaski, Saginaw.
Jake's employees June Johnson, Joan Billingsley
With slides and anecdotes, Kopytek took his audience through the history of Jacobson’s -- its rise and fall; its whimsical owner Nathan Rosenfeld who would fire people in one breath and then hire them back minutes later and who waged wars with newspapers in Jackson and Saginaw; how the stores always backed the downtowns where they located.
“Nathan hated malls,” Kopytek said. When Jackson dropped its funding for city bus service, he recalled, Rosenfeld started it up again with his own funds. And in Saginaw, when it became clear 1976’s new superstore needed an expanded parking deck, he bought the bonds from the struggling city to make that happen.
As for why Kopytek, an architect by profession, landed writing this book, he said his mother was a great shopper, at Hudson’s and later Jacobson’s, so he was raised knowing the store.
But, as everyone in attendance seemed to agree, Jacobson’s was more than just about shopping. 

Kopytek noted how each store in the chain was rooted in the community and became a part of that city’s  events, how shoppers thought it was their town’s store and not part of a chain, how the billing came from each store and not the chain’s headquarters, how the employees (called associates) served them personally.

“Remember Delta College’s ‘Holiday Benefit Preview’...Jacobson’s was terrific to allow over 1,000 ticket holders, tri-county restaurants and entertainment on site to raise funds for Possible Dream students” -- Karen Peterson MacArthur, Midland.
“I spent lots of time at Jake’s (and money). I remember the wonderful associates and the cookies!” -- Connie Frays Kreft, formerly of Saginaw and now living in Colorado.
Kopytek and book
The Jacobson’s history dates back to 1868, just after the Civil War, and a store in tiny northern Reed City; begun by Abraham Jacobson and his three sons. It advertised itself as selling “fancy goods” and son Moses eventually went on trunk tours downstate to sell the store’s wares.
In 1904, Moses opened his own store, called M.I. Jacobson, at 113 W. Michigan in 1939, Ohio-dwelling Nathan Rosenfeld heard it was for sale by descendants of Moses...bought it...moved to Jackson...kept the store’s original name instead of inserting his....and the rest is history.
Kopytek recounted how Rosenfeld and his wife “were there (at the store) every day, ruffling feathers”; how he worried that department stores in the future “would become vending machines with checkout counters”; always reinvested the annual depreciation on property funds back into the stores; made sure the interior design of his stores evoked a homelike atmosphere, with custom-made fixtures.
Every year or two, Rosenfeld expanded the chain -- Ann Arbor and Battle Creek came with the purchase in 1939, East Lansing was added in 1942, Saginaw and Grand Rapids in 1943, Grosse Pointe in 1944, Birmingham in 1950 and so on.
Originally mostly selling women’s clothing, in the 1950s children’s wear, men’s clothing and homewares were added; furniture and interior decorations in the late 1960s. Hair salons and restaurants were part of the Jacobson’s experience as well. (And the book contains seven well-guarded recipes from the restaurants.)
“I loved my $200 haircuts. $100 spent on the way up (to the salon on second floor)  and $100 on the way down and out. Saginaw was never the same after the store closed” -- Julie Stevens, Thomas Township
“They had the best cheese soup”-- Kathleen Scott, Freeland.
“I miss their fabulous Cobb salad .... and their beauty salon. Used to treat myself once a year to a manicure. It was fabulous!”-- Kathy Bocade, Saginaw
The Saginaw store, Kopytek noted, was not located in the best of locations  yet prospered, drawing customers from not only this region but northward and into the Thumb.
“Nathan’s son, Mark, who took over when his father died, told me it was because ‘our staff knows our customers and how to drive them to the store,’” said Kopytek. Nathan died in 1982, at age 79.
The author said that in writing the book he interviewed countless former Jacobson’s employees who agreed with Rosenfeld’s slogan that “if you have to work this is a good place.” They told him, he said, they appreciated “the enlightened management that allowed them to do their jobs,” and the fact they were often treated to trips and special events.
With the downturn of Michigan’s economy, and in the downtowns in many of its cities, in the 1990s so began Jacobson’s decent, said Kopytek -- ending in the chain filing for bankruptcy and closing in 2002.
“Our daughter bought her wedding gown there the month they closed and they came through for her. And they altered my mother of the bride dress even after they closed” -- Jenifer Kusch, formerly of Midland now living in Port Huron.
“I am still in mourning”-- Barbara Mahar Lincoln, Freeland.
“I spent 26 years working there....still sad” -- Cheryl Hadsall of Birch Run, who worked in the beauty salon and now owns and operates The Willows Salon & Day Spa in Saginaw.
Millie Bierlein and her raincoat
Kopytek said to his mind, no other store  the size and scope of service of what Jacobson’s had exists today in Michigan.
But in the audience at the Castle were both former Jacobson’s employees and shoppers still carrying the torch.
Millie Bierlein of Frankenmuth was clad in an orange/red raincoat with the Jacobson’s label. “I bought it in 1994 and it is still in style and I am wearing it.”
And Saginawian June Johnson, who worked in clothing sales at the Saginaw store for years, was sporting a spiffy gray cashmere sweater with the Jacobson’s label still affixed (see picture at top). “I didn’t buy it at Jacobson’s however. I recall it sold for $200 at the store, but I volunteer at a thrift  shop and I got it there for 50 cents.” 

(To which Kopytek added that Johnson was considered a  “legendary  top performer” in the chain, known for writing notes to customers to the tune of $500 in postage. Sales plummeted when she left and the notes stopped, he said.)
Mikolaski, quoted at the beginning  of this story, bought some of the restaurant’s dishes when the store sold was selling all its possessions. Others in the audience  were wearing jewelry they bought there.
“I still have and wear some things I bought at Jake’s in the 1970s. Expensive as all heck, but classics, finely made and ageless. Fantastic customer service always. You don’t see that anyplace now” -- Betty Hansen, former columnist for The Saginaw News who recalls running to the store on her lunch hours.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for attending, Janet, and giving such a fine and accurate review of the event. I appreciate it very much. Sadly enough, I had additional photographs to show, but ended my talk a slide too soon - I stayed up late a few nights ago preparing pictures of the old store which would have resulted in a nostalgic "virtual tour" of the interior of the Saginaw Jacobson's store; I got caught up in the moment and forgot that I added them to the end of the presentation. Alas, some other time...

    Nonetheless, I am thankful for the enthusiastic response of the audience, and for the many nice things you said about Jacobson's and my treatment of the subject in the book.