Sunday, August 24, 2008

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 12, Plus a Train

Fixation on jeremiads led me to neglect this feature. Here is a look at a part of downtown Passaic, N.J., showing two small buildings that were the local centers of retail trade; Passaic never grew much beyond the neighborhood-business level, stuck as it was between Newark and Paterson. The tallest store at left center was the Fair Store -- there were so many department stores across America called the Fair Store. The largest Fair was in Chicago, but there was a Fair in New Albany, Ind., and one in Flint, Mich., that was unrelated to it, and one in Anderson, Ind., that was started by the Stillman interests, just like the Flint one, but was spun off and ultimately became part of the charmingly named Weiler's Banner-Fair Inc. Passaic's Fair was owned by the Shier family and was still open in the early 1990s when I was in downtown Passaic. You can still see "Fair" written on the side of the building.

Next door to it to the right, at 636 Main Ave., was Passaic's longest-lived department store, J. Abbott & Son. Abbott's also was never a large store, but what makes it distinctive is that the "J." stood for Josephine. When I was a child, one of the things that interested me about department stores was the initials -- what did the "L.S." in "L.S. Ayres & Co." stand for? (I remember "Lyman," don't remember the middle name.) The J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit was for Joseph Lowthian Hudson. Department stores run by women were rare enough -- I. Magnin & Co. in San Francisco and G. Fox & Co. in Hartford being among the most famous examples, as well as Ronzone's in Las Vegas -- but a store actually named after a woman is incredibly rare. The Abbott family held onto it until the 1950s, when it was sold to a Newark man named Vicarisi and then disappeared.

Not pictured here is Passaic's third department store, Wechsler's, which was at 200 Jefferson St., but I am not sure enough of what building it actually was in to post a photo.
Many cities at one time had railroad tracks in the middle of some downtown streets -- here's a wonderful picture of a giant Monon locomotive making its way down Fifth Street in Lafayette, Ind., having just gotten a green light at the previous traffic signal -- but Passaic at one time had a line of the Erie Lackawanna dividing the heart of downtown, right down the main street and not a simple single track laid down in the street like a trolley line, either, but two tracks with gravel on the sides. Here's a photo that sort-of shows what this was like. In steam days, this certainly would have made Passaic an interesting downtown. Now there's just a parking lot in the middle of the street that makes you wonder why it is there.
Here's another great photo from Lafayette.

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