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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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The store that everybody wanted to beat was Schuster’s. Although it wasn’t situated in the downtown shopping core, Ed. Schuster & Co. was Milwaukee’s highest-volume department store.
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“The Store Milwaukeeans Prefer” was established in 1884 on Upper Third Street. It wasn’t long before Schuster’s added locations at Twelfth and Vliet Streets and Mitchell and Eleventh Streets. Milwaukeeans were told that Schuster’s was “blocks closer and minutes nearer” than the other department stores. The company capitalized on its convenience, both by location and as a one-stop shopping environment.

Schuster’s earned a place in Milwaukee’s heart with its Billie the Brownie character. Billie the Brownie dates from 1927 and was Schuster’s personal North Pole elf. He helped promote the Brownie Toyland and answered letters from children who had questions for Santa. Billie the Brownie was not only a friend of Santa Claus; he was also a friend of Me-Tuk, Santa’s silent reindeer driver. The year 1927 also marked Schuster’s first Reindeer Parade. This annual Milwaukee event gave parade-goers a chance to greet Santa and Me-Tuk, along with live reindeer. Schuster’s parade was usually held on the last Saturday evening in November, and its route passed by all its stores.

Billie the Brownie was the Christmas mascot at Schuster’s in Milwaukee. Billie had a wildly popular radio show on WTMJ.
Collection of the author
.

A Schuster’s promotional advertisement from the late 1950s.
Collection of the author
.

Billie the Brownie hosted a popular radio show on WTMJ beginning in 1931. Children listened to the fifteen-minute program every weekday at 5:00 p.m. to hear Billie and host Larry Tisch discuss the trials and tribulations of Santa’s upcoming Christmas Eve journey. Children always equated Christmas with Billie and Santa. Historian Steve Daily remembers, “Everybody wanted to go to Schuster’s Toyland to see Billie the Brownie. If you were a kid in Milwaukee, you lived for that time of year when Billie was reincarnated. It’s part of being a kid in Milwaukee.”
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By 1945, it was estimated that 1.5 million letters were sent to Billie the Brownie, with the hope that they would be read over the air. But by 1955, Billie’s radio show was cancelled. He still appeared in the annual Christmas parade, but like the Schuster’s stores, he was less popular. By the 1960s, Gimbels had found a way to team up with Schuster’s and keep Billie, Me-Tuk and many other Milwaukee traditions alive.

G
ROWING
P
AINS

Believe it or not, I never in my life set foot in Gimbels. I hope this doesn’t make me a bad person!

—columnist Liz Smith
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Here lies Plain Old Gimbels. She’s dead, done, finished, through. We come to bury her, not to praise her,” read a full-page advertisement from November 1950. Back in 1947, Gimbels had decided to update the New York store, and noted commercial architect Raymond Loewy was chosen to help accomplish this. Loewy decided to redesign the store in a way that “would please the customers, not awe them.” He added hints of pink and blue color to the street floor and removed tables of stacked merchandise so customers could see from wall to wall. It was Raymond Loewy’s job to modernize the store, but it was Bernice Fitz-Gibbon’s job to celebrate the new Gimbels.

Fitz-Gibbon wrote some of her best copy work to promote the store’s new physical image. “Gimbels Candy Kitchen is so clean that you can eat chocolates off the floor! What an unheavenly hash Gimbels street floor used to be, but now we’re homogenized, just like our chocolates.” Another said, “Plain Old Gimbels is as dead, withered, stale, passé as Gimbels new street floor is fresh, keen, blooming, buoyant. Raymond Loewy has organized us but all of Gimbels prices are just as low as ever. Come and see how ‘Loe-wy’ really are.” By the end of 1951, Gimbels had spent $7 million on the New York renovation. Sales increased, but some critics felt that the increase would only be a flash in the pan that would flicker out.

In May 1953, Bernard Gimbel quietly passed the torch of his presidency to his son, Bruce. Bruce was not the charismatic personality that his father was. He tended to be private and distant. Bernard became the company’s chairman, but Bruce was in charge of making the day-to-day decisions. It became Bruce’s responsibility to take the store into the future and into the suburbs.

The main floor of the New York Gimbels in 1951 after the renovation by Raymond Loewy.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
.

The cover of a directory of the Pittsburgh Gimbels from the 1950s.
Collection of the author
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A famous exterior photograph of the New York Gimbels.
Collection of the author
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In the 1950s, downtown department store sales numbers peaked all across the country. Many people wanted to live the American dream and began to leave cities to own houses in the suburbs. Successful department stores followed their fleeing customers and set up opulent branch stores in the suburbs. As the shopping experience slowly turned from the era of browsing and socializing to the era of convenience, department stores had to adapt to their changing customer base in order to survive.

Gimbels Basement Store sales continued to be an important part of the company’s operations. The New York Basement Store was the first of its kind in the city and rumored to be the largest of its kind in the world. The Basement attracted “value-conscious” shoppers, and by the 1950s, the basement accounted for from one-fifth to one-fourth of the store’s total business.
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Years later, humorist Art Buchwald famously said that the suit-making shops in Hong Kong “looked like Gimbels’ basement on a Saturday afternoon before Father’s Day.”

The Milwaukee Southgate store was the very first branch store of the entire Gimbels operation. It opened for business in October 1954.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
.

A view of an upper floor at Christmastime in the downtown Milwaukee Gimbels.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
.

The Gimbels organization established its first suburban store in Milwaukee. Located in the southern fringe of the city, Gimbels Southgate opened for business on October 1, 1954. The company did not see this as a branch store but a complete store, just as complete as the downtown flagship. Chairman Bernard Gimbel told the press, “Southgate will be all store—every smidgen of merchandise at Gimbels downtown will be on sale at Gimbels Southgate.” Gimbels highly touted its very first venture into the suburbs. Advertisements said:

All Wisconsin will like Gimbels-Southgate better than any other store in all Wisconsin because Gimbels-Southgate is unlike any store in Southgate, or Milwaukee, or Wisconsin, or the United States, or to be honest, the whole, wide world. The inside is so lovely it makes you want to stay inside. Gimbels-Southgate will have what you want, where you can find it, displayed so you can see it priced at Gimbels famous low prices
.
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