A couple of years ago, the new owners of the building that once housed the Selber Bros department store at Milam and McNeil Streets invited me to walk through the space. For years, the building had been used only for storage. It was dim and cavernous, filled with dust and boxes, but as I poked around, I saw hints of a finer life. An unopened gift set of Estée Lauder perfume and hairspray, applications for a Selber Bros. credit card inviting me to “enjoy the special privileges of a Selber’s charge account,” as well as envelopes and credit card receipts. I stumbled over what looked to be an old window display, but when I opened it, I discovered it was the 92-year-old proof book containing original Selber newspaper ads from 1923-1925. Advertisements for $5 Mallory hats in spring colors and $35 Hart Schaffner & Marx suits with “smart English flavor” shared space with postings for tailors and salespeople and a newspaper article complimenting Selber Bros. as the most “pretentious (ambitious) store in the state of Louisiana.”
By the time I moved to Shreveport in the 1980s, the heyday of downtown department stores was over. Selber Bros and Rubenstein’s were still downtown, but they were coming to the end of their heyday. Palais Royal, M. Levy & Co., Sears, Feibleman Department Store, Hearne Department Store, Winter Company, Montgomery Ward, Goldrings, Zodiag Department Store and The Fashion had all closed or moved to suburban malls. It was more than the physical locations that changed—the experience changed as well. The days of dressing up and riding the trolley to enjoy a Saturday filled with shopping and looking in windows, of getting a bag of M & M’s with a purchase of children’s shoes at Selber, or filling an entire tray at Morrison’s Cafeteria because everything just looked SO good were gone, but the memories were not.
When it came time to write this article I turned to Facebook for firsthand memories of the department stores of Shreveport past. “BingbingbingbingbingbingbingbingBING.” My Facebook page exploded. “What did you just DO?” asked my husband, Steve, looking first at my computer screen, then at me. “Uh, I just asked people to share their memories of downtown department stores,” I told him as comments filled the page and the number of ‘shares’ climbed. “I guess people have a lot of them.” That, they did.
“My brother and I used to run up the escalators at Sears!” “I remember these forest green pants and a cute floral blouse from Selber’s—all the girls in my dorm wanted to borrow that shirt!” “What I really loved was the Moonlight Madness sales downtown. The stores would stay open late and we would shop until we dropped!” “I remember getting hair ribbons and bows for Easter and Sparkle Toe patent leather shoes from Rubenstein’s.” “White gloves and party manner etiquette classes at Selber’s.” “The ‘Sputnik’ beach ball suspended over a Sears vacuum cleaner in the store window right after the Russians launched in the 1950s.” “My wedding dress! It cost $68 at Hearne’s in 1966…and it was a nice dress!” “I’d get on the trolley at Youree Drive for downtown wearing a broad brimmed hat, gloves and heels.” “In the 1950s, my Grandfather went downtown to purchase my Mom a formal gown. He wasn’t comfortable going into a ladies’ shop (The Fashion), so the saleslady and my Mom had to go outside to his car to get his approval. Can you imagine the looks they must have gotten?”
In 1971, Barbara Winkler was 17, newly graduated from Woodlawn High School and on her own. Winkler and her best friend Debbie Cross both had jobs at Rubenstein’s on Milam Street, and shared a unit in downtown’s Townhouse Apartments. They had no car, no television and no phone, but life was a wonderful adventure. They would walk to work each day, eat breakfast at Panos’ Diner (two eggs over easy, bacon, toast and coffee for $3), and since Barbara could not clock in until 8 am, she would sit at the courthouse and watch the squirrels. Dinner was spaghetti and little cans of tomato sauce from the Lo-Mart grocery. “Rubenstein’s was a remarkable place,” she told me. “It just drew you in. People were pleasant and friendly, they gave you the time of day.” “I know that I was young and probably kind of stupid, but I learned to make good decisions. I wouldn’t take anything for those memories.”
Lena Thomason was one of those pleasant people at Rubenstein’s. By 1971, Thomason had already been in the shoe department there for 26 years. Just 16 when she started working in 1945, Thomason came to Rubenstein’s from a job at Morrison’s Cafeteria at the urging of George Trainer, the head of the shoe store. Her first week on the job, Lena earned $55, a princely sum for a 16-year-old in an era when a lunch special cost 50-cents. Thomason cared about her customers. Each time someone came in, she thanked them for coming, and she asked them to come back as they were leaving. She remembered their sizes and preferences and would call them when things they might like came in. She measured their feet with Shoe Fitting Fluoroscopes and those metal plates called Brannock Devices, and she always had a suggestion if a size wasn’t working. Her job turned into a career, lasting 71 years and spanning three generations.
Competition was fierce, but the stores also assisted each other—sometimes. Now 87 years old, Bertha Greer was 13 when she started working downtown in 1943. She was hired at the Tru-Value Dress Shop on McNeil Street, a store that appealed to bargain-minded shoppers. During her years there, Greer ‘did it all’ from maintenance to sales. Just across Texas Street from the Tru-Value was Hearne’s dress shop, a lovely, ‘sophisticated’ store, Greer relates, that was considered more upscale than Tru-Value. Then it happened. The same beautiful black cocktail dress went into the front window display at both stores. Even worse, you could stand on the corner of Texas and McNeil and see both dresses. For the manager at Hearne’s, this needed to be rectified. She wasted no time in paying a visit to Tru-Value and demanding that Miss Gertrude Myers, the manager, “remove the black dress from her window.” Greer chuckles as she remembers that not only was the dress NOT removed, Miss Myers kept it up two weeks longer than was usual.
More than just about commerce, downtown Shreveport’s department stores and other retail stores, restaurants and theaters were places where memories were made, saved, and shared with others. Downtown Shreveport has changed, just as the stores have changed. Our new memories won’t be of trolley rides but could feature art walks throughout downtown. They won’t feature shoes from Rubenstein’s, but could include a gift from The Agora Borealis. We won’t be ordering platters from Morrison’s, but we could enjoy coffee and pastries with a group at Rhino Coffee. Instead of catching a John Wayne move at The Don, our new memories might come from seeing a film (maybe even John Wayne!) at Robinson Film Center.
Let’s make some memories.