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Old-Fashioned Store Is in a Class by Itself

Goldmann's mixture of nostalgia, friendship and diverse inventory cemented its staying power, giving it loyal customers, workers.

September 05, 2004|Melissa Trujillo | Associated Press Writer

MILWAUKEE — Trixie Morse is dancing with the teenager who runs the candy counter at Goldmann's Department Store, then twisting and twirling among the Sunday hats, artificial flowers and gummy bears.

At any other department store, this might be a bizarre scene, but not at Goldmann's.

This is where you'll find Trixie most days -- chatting with friends, eating at one of the U-shaped lunch counters, buying lottery tickets. Antoine Carter behind the candy counter, Madeline Toro in crafts -- these are the people who orbit Trixie's world, the new family that has stepped in for the five children she rarely sees.

"Where else you going to find this, unless it's a small town -- a very small town," she said.

Strip malls and national chains invaded Milwaukee decades ago, forcing out dozens of small businesses and mom-and-pop stores that once were a precious resource providing the best products at the lowest prices. But Goldmann's mixture of nostalgia, friendship and a diverse inventory cemented its staying power, and won it a following of intensely loyal customers and employees.

"No matter what they need -- even if it's just to talk -- we're here for them," said Debra Samolinski, a buyer for the women's clothing, sportswear, shoes and candy departments.

Goldmann's opened a 35-foot-wide store on March 28, 1896, and for decades its boxy, light green and tan exterior has been a hallmark on historic Mitchell Street as vivid as the neon "GOLDMANNS" and "OPEN TONITE" signs.

Inside, on three sprawling floors, there are the familiar sounds of antique cash registers, each a couple of feet high, clanking and dinging with each purchase. The candy counter is near the rear of the main floor, offering sweet treats in bulk, including candy raisins -- brown, gummy chews the store often ships thousands of miles away.

The lunch counter is where Trixie, 62, a retired seamstress, sat one recent Wednesday eating the daily breakfast special of biscuits and gravy with eggs and a cup of coffee, for a grand total of $4.12.

On Tuesdays, she likes the cinnamon rolls, and she's already decided to have the stuffed peppers on Thursday because the other special, pork hocks and sauerkraut, is not on the menu.

After breakfast, Trixie heads up to the second floor to visit Toro, 32, who has spent more than a decade working at Goldmann's. It's become something of a family affair. Toro started when she was a teenager and found her husband stocking products here. Her mother works in lingerie.

Toro went to school to become a travel agent, but no job in that industry has managed to top what she gets at Goldmann's. "I consider this my second home. We're like a family here," she said.

At her wedding, she even danced with the store's 75-year-old owner, Milt Pivar.

Pivar understands the connection that this store that he and two partners bought from the Goldmann family in 1988 has to the community. He's been a part of it his whole life, starting in the men's department with his father when he was 12.

Goldmann's can't compete with the Wal-Marts of the world in terms of size, advertising or buying power, Pivar says. The world's largest company, as measured by sales, reported $256 billion in sales last year, compared to roughly $3.5 million for Goldmann's.

"[But] we definitely can beat them at service, No. 1. We know we can beat them at quality," he said. "We're accessible to the customers. If they want any help, we're accessible. If they have any concerns, we're accessible. You don't get that in the box stores."

Goldmann's often makes special orders for customers, such as the unfinished white tablecloth that Trixie recently requested for her roommate's embroidery project. And it carries those hard-to-find items few department stores will have, such as rug beaters and men's pants with a 72-inch waist.

"If we don't have it, they don't make it anymore," Samolinski said.

Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA Inc., a Southfield, Mich.-based retail design and brand strategy firm, said few independent stores had survived like Goldmann's.

"Twenty years ago, I would have told you they were one of hundreds," he said. "Now I tell you they're probably one of a couple dozen that exists in the country."

One reason for the decline, he said, was that owners couldn't find anyone to take over their stores.

Pivar doesn't plan to retire soon and has the energy of someone half his age, but his children have no interest in running the store. He hopes some employees will eventually take it over just as he and his partners did.

About four years ago, he began preparing for that transition with Judi Keller, executive director of the Greater Mitchell Street Assn., which works with property owners to revitalize the area.

The goal is to make Goldmann's as profitable and easy to manage as possible.

So far, they have computerized the store's billing and inventory systems, and are redesigning its website. Eventually, they would like to rebuild the store's original facade, which was changed in the 1950s.

"Whatever we do, it still has to be Goldmann's in the end or we've lost the battle," Keller said.

And losing that, Trixie added as she smoked a cigarette at the lunch counter, would be devastating: "I think I'd die twice, if it's possible."

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