Author Paul Geenen has a fondness for writing about Milwaukee. His first book, “Milwaukee’s Bronzeville: 1900–1950,” was published in 2006. In his second and third books, “Schuster’s & Gimbels: Milwaukee’s Beloved Department Stores” and “Sherman Park: A Legacy of Diversity in Milwaukee,” both published in 2012, Geenen continues to regale readers with fascinating facts from Milwaukee’s history.
I spoke with Geenen about “Schuster’s & Gimbels,” a book lined with alluring anecdotes about how the city’s history of growth and expansion was tied to that of the stores, the connection between Gimbels and Saks Fifth Avenue, and how escalators found their way from the New York World’s Fair to Gimbels.
Gregg Shapiro: How long did it take to write the book?
Paul Geenen: It took me eight months total. My research methods were twofold. I interviewed employees and got their personal stories. Also, the Milwaukee County Historical Society has a wonderful collection of Gimbels and Schuster’s artifacts. Both companies’ newsletters are archived there. I went through each monthly newsletter from the beginning to the end.
Did the closing of your family’s dry goods store to make way for the Gimbels/Schuster’s store contribute to your interest?
It is a personal link. Because I spent so much of my childhood and high school years and college years in that store and they tore it down and built this new store. I worked for Gimbels. My dad worked there too, in his retirement years. It was a neat link.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching the book?
What a vibrant and innovative company Schuster’s was. Gimbels expanded very quickly, so they were more corporate, hierarchical. Schuster’s had all kinds of innovative merchandising. They had their Schuster’s weekly, they had a flier that they distributed to everybody in the whole metropolitan area with the Schuster Boys. They had Schuster Stamps and they had their own charge plate. They had promotions tied to charities. They experimented with the central checkout counter concept. Of the two, they were the first to install an IBM mainframe. But the biggest innovation that Schuster’s had was (the holiday character) Billie the Brownie.
What do you think (store founders) Adam Gimbel and Edward Schuster would think about the current state of department stores?
They would be shocked at the scope, the size of the chains. It’s called rollup, where small companies are bought and made into large companies. In the years that I wrote about in the book, department stores were run by families. Ken Dayton gave out boxed chocolates on Christmas Eve at Dayton’s when all the employees left. Those days are gone, baby (laughs). I challenge you to go into any Macy’s store in this whole country and tell me what city you’re in. They all look alike.
The Milwaukee department store legacy lives on in Kohl’s. How, if at all, do you think that reflects on the groundwork laid down by Schuster’s and Gimbels?
That’s a very good question. The one thing that everybody I talked to agrees on is that when Gimbels closed, Kohl’s picked up a lot of very valuable product lines. Think Carter’s or Oshkosh B’Gosh – kids’ clothes. That was very important to the business they developed. Kohl’s was started because Max and Herb Kohl figured out that if they put a department store next to their grocery store that the grocery store did 30 percent better business. I don’t want in any way to take anything away from what Kohl’s has done with growing their department store chain from 18 stores in Milwaukee to 1,000 stores in the whole country.
What about the tradition of department store holiday windows? Is it a lost art?
Where you see that displayed today is in signage. I saw some cool-looking signs at Target, also in the graphics that these big box stores are using to spiff up their stores. There are very few display windows left.