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Wed November 27, 2013
PHOTOS: Early Wis. Department Store Offered Good Service - and an Elevator
With Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, upon us, it's nice to think of days of yore when Christmas shopping meant a trip downtown to a fancy department store.
We all probably remember the big department store names from our past: Gimbel’s, Schuster’s, Marshall Field’s. And, if you’re from Marinette, Wis., Lauerman’s.
Author Michael Leannah memorializes the store of the past in his new book, Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department Store.
Leannah has a personal connection to the store; his father worked there for more than 50 years. But Leannah says Lauerman's also represents the story of department stores across America.
"It was a wonderful place and it was much like other department stores that used to exist all over, so I think telling the story needed to be preserved," he says.
The store was opened in 1890 by three brothers from southern Wisconsin in Marinette, what was then a logging town. With its booming population, Marinette seemed like the right place for the brothers to open a department store, a relatively new trend in the United States.
After expanding a few times, the brothers opened an enormous store in the center of town. Though now closed, the building still stands.
Leannah says the store was known for having a good variety of products - something for everyone.
"A lot of the success is attributed to the fact that the people in Marinette appreciated their selection," he says. "They had top of the line merchandise, but they also had items that weren't top quality, but were more affordable."
Lauerman's was also known for its excellent service. At one point, the store offered free gift wrap and delivery, as well as classes on how to use products like bicycles and floor wax.
"When I talk to people today about Lauerman's or any old department store, people really respond," Leannah says. "People kind of yearn for those days when you could call and get good service, when you could buy something with confidence."
Like many of the big department stores in the early and mid-20th century, Lauerman's attracted customers with parades and fashion shows. It also had a few features no other store had, such as replicable malt ice cream cones and, funnily enough, its elevator.
"One of the things people liked to talk about when they talk about Lauerman's is the elevator there, because in Marinette, Lauerman's was the first store to have an elevator, or the first building to have an elevator," Leannah says. "People were just thrilled by it, they were frightened of it."
In 1930, the store employed 440 people. But by the late 1980s, it had only 28 employees. Lauerman's fell victim to competition from big box stores like Target and K-Mart that took down many other big department stores.
It lasted longer than many of the big name competitors from department stores' hey day, but Lauerman's satellite stores began closing one by one until the 1970s when only the big Marinette store was left. That store closed its doors in 1987.
Michael Leannah is a writer, radio playwright and former public school employee, Leannah lives in Sheboygan.
Arts & Culture
Arts & Culture