By Lisa Schmelz
The first department store I ever entered alone was in Winters, California, a sleepy railroad town 70 miles northeast of San Francisco, where we visited my great-grandparents on weekends. One Saturday, I skipped the grocery store and took my allowance to Greenwood’s Department Store, crossing the threshold into what seemed a very grown-up place. Inside, wood floors creaked and racks of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing towered over me. Just one story, there was nothing here my quarter could buy. Even in 1973, embroidered handkerchiefs were forty cents. Still, that didn’t stop the clerk from offering me a warm greeting and I lingered because I felt welcome.
That a sales clerk would treat a seven-year-old with the same courtesy as adult customers doesn’t surprise Kelly Freeman or Lois Stritt. Both have extensive roots in small town department stores. Freeman’s closed in 1996 and Stritt’s is in its 166th year. Unlike the big box stores that have transformed the off-ramps of America into a sea of sameness, a small town department store’s mission extends beyond a homogenized bottom line.
“We’ve been here since 1852,” says Stritt. “Anyone who walks in becomes a friend. Our customers are our friends.”
Once upon a time, small town department stores were as much a gathering place as they were a retail establishment. An anchor before the term “anchor store” was coined, their presence paved the way for other businesses in historic downtown districts.
“We had some people who came in every day. It was sort of like people who visit a library,” recalls Freeman, whose grandfather started Waals Department Store in Walworth. “They feel they’re at home. They know the employees and its generations after generations, who keep coming back. It was wonderful while it lasted.”
What lasted for Freeman’s family was impressive. Her grandfather, Myer Cohn, immigrated to America from Lithuania, where he had studied to be a rabbi. With a $50 loan from his brother in Crystal Lake, Illinois, he sold housewares door-todoor in the Village of Walworth. By 1900, he’d saved up enough to rent a storefront. His dreams were bigger, though, and he always wanted his own store. In 1914, and after some difficulty securing backers, he found financing from an unlikely source: Milton College.
Why would a Wisconsin college, with roots in the Seventh Day Baptist faith, back a Jewish retailer still new to America?
His granddaughter doesn’t hesitate with her reply: “I guess they thought it was a good investment,” says Freeman.
A good investment would be an understatement. By the time Waals Department Store closed, the regional retail icon was four years shy of the century mark.
Over in Delavan, Bradley’s Department Store, which was founded in 1852 and has been in its current location since 1887, is one of the oldest, continuously operating department stores in the country. Today, it’s owned and run by Stritt, a pint-sized-powerhouse who bought the store after losing her husband of 51 years, Jack, in 2010.
I have interviewed Stritt many times over the years, and buy most of my husband’s clothing from her. When I am in need of a simple black dress or something quietly chic, Bradley’s never disappoints. Like any good business owner, she knows the names of her customers and uses them frequently when conversing.
“I love this store, Lisa,” she says, seated on a chair in the center of the men’s department. “I don’t want to be the one who turns the lights out here. I don’t have any grandchildren, so I call this my grandbaby. If I had a grandchild, I wouldn’t be doing this. When my sons came home for their father’s funeral, I told them ‘I bought myself a grandbaby since nobody gave me one.’”
As soon as she finishes that sentence, her attention focuses on a customer.
“That jacket is so cute,” she offers. “Every year, Keren Hart does a new jacket. Pull it down in the back. Yes, I like it. That’s nice on you.”
Then, because she is not a pushy saleswoman, Stritt leaves her customer in peace.
“I just love coming to work, Lisa. I just love it. I can’t imagine not being here.”
WAALS — A DESTINATION FOR GENERATIONS
Kelly Freeman also loved going to work. Waals Department Store in Walworth, on the south side of the town square, was more than a beacon for customers. It was Freeman’s childhood home. When Freeman was born, her grandfather, Myer, was no longer alive and her father, Sam, was running the store with her grandmother, Dora Cohn. The family lived on the top floor.
“I arrived there when I was six-weeks-old,” recalls Freeman. “They were very happy memories and I loved it. And our employees over the years, it was an extended family. Two of our employees worked for us for over 50 years.”
At its peak, Waals covered three stories and 30,000 square feet. Early ads, which featured the moniker Myer Cohn General Merchandise before the name was changed to Waals, boasted clothing, shoes, rugs, linoleum, groceries, furniture, wallpaper, paint and china.
“It was interesting how it worked. This was the beauty of having a department store. When one department was doing really well, another wasn’t,” says Freeman. “The departments carried each other.”
Freeman and her husband, Richard, who assumed ownership in 1962, furthered the store’s reach by tapping into the wealthy Chicagoans who summered here.
“The ‘70s and ‘80s were wonderful,” Freeman says. “We largely depended on tourism and Lake Geneva is a wonderful destination. Many people who had summer homes up here, we furnished them and outfitted their children to go back to school. And we had local customers, too, through the year.”
Among those loyal locals was Nancy Lehman.
“When we had Waals Department Store, my house had their carpeting, their fabrics and we had their clothing,” says Lehman, a board member with the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie. “People came from all over Lake Geneva, Elkhorn, Harvard and other towns to shop at Waals. It was a destination.”
Then came the ‘90s. Online commerce was in its infancy, but giving brick and mortar something to fret about. Big box stores were expanding into smaller communities. Kohl’s and Walmart didn’t open in Delavan until 2002 and 2003 respectively, but their interest was known.
“I have strong emotional ties to the store,” Freeman says. “It was a hard decision to make, but our children were not going to be involved. And with the advent of the big box stores, we could see what was around us. So we made the decision to close. In the end, you are running a business and you have to make decisions based on that.”
For a while, the building operated as an antique store. In 2015, it was torn down to widen traffic lanes around the town square — all physical traces of Waals Department Store gone forever.
PERSONAL SERVICE IS THEIR FORTE
Small town department stores aren’t the only ones struggling today. The sun seems to be setting on large department stores, too.
In 2016, department stores had $155.5 billion in total sales, down from $230 billion in 1999, according to Fortune magazine. Economists blame too many stores, the shift to online shopping, and demands for extreme discounts.
But if department store giants like Macy’s have half the energy Lois Stritt of Bradley’s has, they might survive. In her eighth decade of life, Stritt was a homemaker for most of it. When her husband, Jack, sold his paint manufacturing business in 2002 and retired, she needed some time away from all that togetherness. So she started working at Bradley’s for then-owners Bill and Diane McKoy. When the McKoys wanted to sell, she purchased the store with her husband’s blessing. He died five days before she signed the final papers.
“He knew I would be OK because I’d have the store,” she says.
Bradley’s was founded in 1852 by William Wallace Bradley. Born in New York, Bradley apprenticed as a tailor in Kenosha. His first solo proprietorship was a men’s clothing shop across from the water tower in downtown Delavan. The present-day store was built in 1887 and featured men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, shoes, and housewares. It became wellknown for its knitted clothing.
Stritt is Bradley’s fifth owner. She closed the children’s department when Kohl’s came to town. But even in an era when drones can drop off packages at our doorsteps, she believes Bradley’s has a part to play.
“Overall, it’s OK,” she says of business today. “It’s not like it used to be. But we have loyal customers and we offer personal service … I still think there’s a place for that.”
Then, as if on cue but clearly not, a man strolls into the store and the octogenarian retailer leaps from her chair and literally runs to greet him.
“Frank!” she shouts, throwing her arms around him. “It’s so good to see you.”
After pleasantries are exchanged, Frank is taken under the wing of Linda Rayfield, a clerk at Bradley’s for the last 37 years, and Stritt returns to her seat.
So who’s Frank?
“Oh, Frank, he’s a great customer.” says Stritt. “He found us not too long ago. He buys stuff for his wife here. He’s such a nice man.”