Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Laurels

On Thursday, the Laurel Leader-Call in Mississippi -- a four-day-a-week newspaper for the last few months, which still qualified it as a daily -- suddenly announced, We're done. This is it. Goodbye. Doubtless the death-of-print people will hail this as another example of the triumphs of the digital world.

But -- Laurel, Miss.? This is even weirder an epicenter than lower Michigan.

It seems to be in large part a different story, one that's been seen before. Community Newspaper Holdings owned the Leader-Call, and had people in the community write local columns. One of them was Jim Cegielski, who moved to Laurel in 1996, possibly -- it's hard to track some of this stuff -- from right here in Burlington County, N.J. (He may be the same Jim Cegielski who wrote a fan book about Howard Stern, or he may not.) At any rate, when the newspaper holocaust started in the mid-2000s, CNHI apparently cut off its freelance local columnists' pay, asking them to write free. (Getting this from a fuzzy copy of a front page of the ReView.) Among them were Cegielski and some other local citizens, including Mark Thornton, who became editor of the ReView, who was a local businessman. They started a competing weekly newspaper, the ReView of Jones County, which delighted in pointing out what it considered the shortcomings of the Leader-Call. It also pointed out that the Leader-Call's owners were based in Alabama. Didn't know there was an Alabama-Mississippi feud, but apparently.

This wasn't a matter of a small newspaper not having a Web presence -- the Leader-Call posted everything, while it appears that the ReView kept stuff behind a paywall. It's hard to tell, there's little online documentation. But we've seen this before in small towns. Big newspaper company lets go of publisher, editor, columnists, whoever. Publisher, editor, columnists, whoever, being the sort who have determined they plan to spend their lives in this community, get P.O.'d and start their own weekly newspaper. They defy the conventions of the newspaper business and get personal about the competitor. They often run articles with a bit more of an attitude than the competition, and go to John Q. Storekeeper and say, Now don't you want to keep your money in the community?. Local merchants put their ads in the locally owned (and cheaper) competitor. As there aren't that many local merchants, the established paper's profit margin quickly falls away.

The publisher of the upstart always says that the big, bad chain paper isn't serving the local community. And it very well may not be. However, it usually was serving the community just fine until it let him or her go. (How many upstart weeklies and websites and journalism critiques are started by people whose initial motive is revenge!) There's nothing wrong with this at all. It's old-fashioned newspaper warfare. And today, the winner doesn't feel the need to go to six days a week, because daily obits and the like can be published online. But it doesn't say very much about the future of journalism in print or online. It says a lot more about, don't piss off the wanna-be opinion makers in a small town. If Jim Cegielski indeed was the guy who wrote a book about Howard Stern, CNHI should have known that he was going to take having his pay cut as 1) the Evil Empire against the Little Guy and 2) don't be bound by the conventions of propriety.

At my first job, in Richmond, Ind., we had a weekly paper, the Graphic, run by a man named Vic Jose. Our paper had no classified base because the Graphic basically gave away the ads. It merely needed enough money to enable Vic Jose to opine every week on what was wrong with Richmond and the world. (Full disclosure: His son lived next door to my mother and I went to grade school with his nephew. In the small world of the North Side, Vic Jose was a childhood friend of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose uncles owned the Vonnegut Hardware Co. where my grandfather and grandmother worked.)  Vic was often attacking the Pal-Item. The Pal-Item rarely even deigned to notice Jose. In part, Vic was running an alt-weekly without the counterculture gloss. Vic was a hard-working, often crusading journalist tilting against the windmills of the power structure and the Way Things Are, who cared deeply about his community, his country, freedom of the press, and the role of the small-weekly, mad-as-hell type newspaperman. But because the Graphic very clearly was the voice of  Vic Jose, it could say things that the Pal-Item -- both when it was owned by a prominent local family and when it was owned by Gannett -- thought it could not do. The Pal-Item saw itself as part of the civic leadership of the community. It felt it needed to reflect a balanced opinion. It was in the same civic sphere as the Second National Bank and Knollenberg's. Vic Jose saw himself as Vic Jose. He was a leader in the chamber of commerce, he was a contributor to civic causes, but the newspaper reflected him and not "responsible opinion." I expect the Laurel Leader-Call saw itself the same way as the Pal-Item. The ReView doubtless saw itself as a guerrilla band of local journalists saying what the Leader-Call wouldn't say, couldn't say. All well and good. But if the Leader-Call had kept paying those community columnists, they would have seen it as a perfectly fine newspaper. The lesson to take from this is: The people who want to be community journalists are not doing it because they care about your newspaper. They care about what they want to say. They can turn on you in a second. Deal with them at your peril.

CNHI wasted no time in shutting off the Leader-Call's server. That paper is just gone. You can only see some cached pages. That says to me, boy, this was personal. Someone in CNHI, I'd say, just got tired of dealing with the problem in Laurel. The question now is: What does the ReView of Jones County become? Does it reach out to all the people who liked the Leader-Call? In doing so, does it become more of a typical newspaper? Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Time Fades Away

Went last night to hear Michael Lisicky speak on Gimbels at the New York Public Library and promote his book, "Gimbels Has It" -- and announce he's working on a book about Filene's in Boston as well as a "memories" sort of book about all four big department stores in Baltimore, not only Hutzler Bros., which he wrote about previously, but Hochschild Kohn & Co., Stewart & Co., and the Hecht Co./Hecht Bros/May Co. operations that ended up being one. Michael is such an engaging speaker -- I didn't realize he also is the Baltimore town crier. If you love old department stores, and you see him listed in your area, take the time and the effort. Amazingly, the building in which he spoke -- not the main library, but across the street -- was built as the store of Arnold Constable & Co. when it moved to Fifth Avenue from Broadway.

Michael was asked by a member of the audience why Gimbels did not survive, and he cited its stubborn resistance to moving "out of the middle" -- department stores had tried to be all things to all people, and when they lost the "price" market to discounters such as, originally, E.J. Korvette and Kmart and Caldor, some, such as Macy's -- remember, its longtime motto was "It's Smart to be Thrifty" -- and Bloomingdale's realized they could never underbid those stores, particularly on hard goods, and traded up. Gimbels continued to appeal to its traditional customer, but more of its traditional customers were leaving for lower-priced stores and, more important, their children just didn't come in at all -- they didn't see themselves as Miss or Mrs. Oldsmobile Kingsford Briquette. And as Michael noted, if you don't get the next generation through the doors, you are doomed.

Gimbels in New York also pursued an odd branch policy -- all in for a few years in the 1960s, then they forgot about branches until Bruce Gimbel came up with the Gimbels East idea to redefine Gimbels with an upscale store on the Upper East Side. But, like Oldsmobile with the Aurora, Gimbels East couldn't redefine Gimbels in the New York mind when Gimbels itself was sitting a few miles away. Macy's, Michael noted, had branches all across the country -- San Francisco, Kansas City, etc. -- from which ideas like "the Cellar" emerged. While Gimbels operated in four markets and was generally profitable outside New York, it tended not to see its units as sources of inspiration -- where would McDonald's be if the Big Mac, originated in Pittsburgh, had been  ignored by corporate?  Gimbels was Just Doing Business, which had worked well for so long but whose era was grinding to a close.

Michael didn't mention (his talk being about department stores) the effect that new entrants into the clothing field had on department stores as well. Indianapolis in my childhood was not a city of specialty stores, having essentially Morrison's and a couple of smaller stores (Peck & Peck, Schamberg's) for women and Harry Levinson for men, as well as L. Strauss & Co., a clothing store that was more like a department store. But even cities such as Detroit with many more clothing stores -- Winkelman's, Himelhoch's, and B. Siegel for women along with the national Franklin Simon chain and neighborhood stores like Belle Jacob, and Hughes Hatcher Suffrin for men -- weren't operatiing in the complicated environment that started to emerge in malls with the Gap and the Limited, and then exploded into today's world of Old Navy and Zara and H&M and niche stores like White/Black and Hot Topic. While the discounters, and later the big-box stores, ate away at department stores in appliances, furniture, and home goods, the smaller clothing stores pulled in the younger fashion shopper -- in part by being a place Mom would never take you.

So when Michael was asked -- as I'm sure he always is -- could different management have saved Gimbels, his answer was -- probably not. "Macy's," as we know it today, is not even Macy's -- which went bankrupt in the 1990s -- but Federated Department Stores, which decided that "Macy's" was a brand that meant "quality department store" across the country in a way that "Lazarus" or "Bullock's" or even "Marshall Field & Co." didn't. And "Macy's" refers to a company that operates most of the surviving store units of the divisions of Allied and Associated and Mercantile and Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field's that DID successfully trade up in the 1960s but became too beset by competition to operate as independent units -- too much money spent on having divisional staffs, different advertising, different tags, different profiles -- but when you go into a Macy's, chances are you're going into what still looks in some way like a Bamberger's or a Denver Dry Goods or a Foley's or an L.S. Ayres. While the names didn't survive, the companies didn't survive, most of the downtown temples of retailing didn't survive, the Macy's store in Cherry Hill Mall was built in 1961 -- it's now 51 years old, younger by less than a decade than then were the downtown Ayres and Block's stores I went to as a child in the 1960s that felt like Chartres Cathedral. It just doesn't feel that way because it was built the same way department stores are built today and not the way they were built even just 10 years before Bamberger's opened in Cherry Hill.

So Michael's answer -- and he, as I do, loves department stores of the past not just for the trivia and stories but because these stores defined their communities and their communities defined them, Trenton was Dunham's and Wilmington was Kennard's and therefore Trenton was not Wilmington -- was, with a tinge of sadness, that these things just went away. Society changed, retailing changed, people's self-perception changed, the middle class changed, transportation changed, zones of safety changed, and in the end we're pretty lucky that all these stores operating as Macy's are still here, let alone the occasional Boscov's and Bon Ton and Younkers.

The implication this has for the newspaper business is, alas, pretty clear. We won't get into it now, but we will in a subsequent column.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Department Store Buildings of York, Pa., No. 2

As mentioned in the previous post, York, Pa., was a city of strong department stores, one of which was the base of one of the country's last department-store chains still existing. The Bon-Ton appeared to be the strong middle-class store, with the upmarket store being Charles H. Bear & Co.

Bear's was at the northwest corner of the "square" -- which, as in so many Pennsylvania cities, was an intersection with the four corners notched back, presumably to allow a small town hall or market in the center in colonial times. The same thing was done in Camden, N.J., where to my knowledge no such structure was ever built in the small "square" that resulted. This is different from the "diamond" found in Wilkes-Barre or the many courthouse squares across the Midwest and Southwest in that it was simply an enlargement of an intersection and not a city block turned over to a public purpose, or even a large "market" widening such as in Reading or Harrisburg. Nevertheless, these "squares" served to anchor downtown in Allentown, Easton, and York, and I'm sure in other smaller communities.

Charles H. Bear opened for business in 1888, and his location never changed from 1 W. Market St. Bear, a York native, had taken over the established business of Jordan & Bro. Sometime before 1909 the business passed into the hands of his children Charles Jr. and Jennie. After World War II it was being run by, presumably, the widow and daughters of Charles Bear Jr., Anna Bear, Nora Deardorff, and Charlotte Stock. Charlotte Stock appears to have enjoyed skeet shooting, as did, according to this article, Robert R. Rodale of Emmaus, of the famous Organic Gardening & Farming family.  Not that it matters, just a curiosity. In 1970 the surviving Bear heirs sold the store to the expansion-minded Zollinger-Harned Co. of Allentown, which closed seven years later after expanding into the Lehigh Valley as well.

Here's a fine photo of downtown York, looking north on George Street from Market, in the mid-1960s, before downtowns fell apart. Bear's at this point has a "modern" front, but it's a tasteful one. The photo above shows that the building has been put back as it was. The Bear store seems to have taken up at least three buildings and probably four (the low building facing the alley with what appear to be a couple of old skylights).

Finally, a quick look at P. Wiest's Sons at 14 W. Market St., one of the stores owned by the Hydeman family and its various branches. One member, Albert, who ran Wiest's, became a noted collector of American art. Another, Edwin, owned "the Mona Lisa of Rare Coins." Peter Wiest founded the store far down West Market in 1848 and moved closer to downtown after a flood in the 1880s. When Harry Wiest was the only surviving Wiest son, he brought two former Gimbels executives, Leon Hydeman and James Rodgers, into the ownership. (Leon Hydeman at one time operated a small department store in Norristown, my records show, but Moses Hydeman, the family patriarch, had been in business in York.)

The York County Historical Society has an amazing collection of the business records of Wiest's showing that the Hydemans also had an interest in Yard's, a Trenton store. The same partnership also ran Kennard's, the Wilmington, Del., store, as this article obliquely indicates by mentioning James Rodgers. (The only way I knew this was that Kennard's and Yard's both had the same motto: "They do sell nice things at...(store name)." No one would copy that except for common ownership.) This operation kept itself pretty low-key; Rodgers lived in Philadelphia, and directory listings for the various stores would only mention the manager in most cases, although occasionally a reference to a Rodgers or a Hydeman would slip in. Yard's and Wiest's never were the dominant stores in their communities, and Kennard's simply outlasted the previously dominant Crosby & Hill's. The owners seemed to be willing to spend enough money to stay in the game by opening suburban branches, but not to try to win, as was shown when two Philadelphia stores invaded Wilmington in the 1950s because the local stores were seen as weak. Perhaps this was because the owners' main interests were politics, art, coins...  Not every department store was owned by obsessive merchants who lived and breathed retail.

When TTPB returns to looking at old department store buildings, it will go back home again to Indiana.