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Wednesday, November 30,2011

Reminiscing about retail

Author charts the rise and fall of Jacobson’s

by Bill Castanier

For more than 58 years, Jacobson’s was
the upscale outfitter for the greater Lansing area, selling everything
from dainty white gloves to imported Biedermann Christmas ornaments.


In the heyday of the East Lansing
Jacobson’s, you could take your kids to “Breakfast With Santa” or sit
down for an elegant dinner in the Asian-inspired 1970 East Room
restaurant. As a Michigan State University grad, you knew you’d arrived
when you bought your business attire there, or registered for your
wedding. Opening a Christmas present in a Jacobson’s box was
extra-special, making your heart beat a little faster.


Now you can relive some of those
memories — and maybe reflect on your first formal for the J-Hop — with
“Jacobson’s: I Miss It So.” Bruce Allen Kopytek, a Shelby Township
architect, has written the history of Jacobson’s department stores,
which began in Reed City in 1838, and grew to become a chain of 30
stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida before succumbing to
suburbanization, malls and changing shopping tastes.


The delightful book profiles the
architecture, the employees and the man behind Jacobson’s, the company
chairman Nathan Rosenfeld. The author writes about Rosenfeld’s keen
business acumen, but also about his whimsical approach to business.


For example, he tells how Rosenfeld
would award “Million Dollar Roundtable” pins to buyers who basically
screwed up and their selections resulted in “million-dollar markdowns.”
His reasoning, Kopytek writes, was that “the reward was for taking
risks, and in spite of their mistakes, they were able to learn from
them.”


Rosenfeld’s legendary sense of humor
also found its way into some store products. There may be someone out
there with a tie originally designed by Rosenfeld as a motivational
gift to employees: Emblazoned with the acronym YCDBSOYA — “You Can’t Do
Business Sitting On Your Assets” — the tie became a bestseller in the
store.


The 202-page book also highlights
Rosenfeld’s attention to detail, a trait he shared with his wife,
Marjorie. Before the opening of the East Lansing store in 1970,
Rosenfeld noticed the life-sized Russian wolfhounds in a display lacked
dog licenses: They were in place the next day when the store opened.


Rosenfeld’s staff meetings were held at
a round table where everyone’s opinions were equal; Marjorie demanded
that her tuna casserole be served at meetings of the company’s board of
directors.


Kopytek is especially adept at
describing the architecture and interiors of the Jacobson’s physical
plants, and he singles out some of the more dazzling stores in Ann
Arbor, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Grosse Pointe,
Dearborn and the flagship store in Birmingham. 


East Lansing’s varied locations are
described and tracked in a chapter titled “A Capital Idea.” The East
Lansing Jacobson’s was first housed in several locations along Grand
River until 1970, when they were pulled together (with the exception of
the home furnishings store) in a new state-of-the-art 117,000
square-foot location, which closed in 2000 when Jacobson’s relocated to
the Meridian Mall. (The East Lansing space was taken over by Varnes and
Noble, which plans to close by the end of the year.)


When the Jacobson’s chain folded in 2002, the Meridian Mall location was converted to a Younkers.


A masterful researcher, Kopytek
attributes his interest in department stores to his mother “dragging
him downtown to Hudson’s as a child” and his family’s extensive
traveling. Even as young boy Kopytek kept notes about his department
store adventures. When he was laid off from his job a couple years ago
as an architect, he started a blog
(TheDepartmentStoreMuseum.blogspot.com) to give himself something to do.


“I was searching frantically for a job,” he said, “and I needed a project or I’d go crazy.”


Kopytek had spent most of his architectural career designing banks and credit unions. “You know what happened there,” he said.


A comment on his blog advised him to
contact The History Press, which was looking for someone to write a
book on the Jacobson’s chain.


For background, Kopytek called on
various historical collections but especially the Ella Sharpe Museum in
Jackson, which houses Jacobson’s corporate records. He also was able to
gain unlimited access to Mark Rosenfeld, who became chairman after his
father’s death in 1982.


Two especially enjoyable chapters are “Let’s Do Lunch” and “Nathanisms.” “Let’s Do Lunch” examines Jacobson’s food service, including reproductions of menus and recipes for some of the more popular dishes served in the restaurants.


“Nathanisms” is a collection of down-home colloquialisms
about life or business uttered or written by Rosenfeld. One of my
favorites: “Consumer credit should be used to benefit the consumer and
not the retailer who tries to make his profit on finance charges.”

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