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Reliving the golden age of retail

Collectors look back at Christmas shopping in downtown Detroit

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 27, 2017

  A father props up his little one to see one of Hudson’s famed holiday window displays generations ago in this old photo.

A father props up his little one to see one of Hudson’s famed holiday window displays generations ago in this old photo.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

METRO DETROIT — If you’re on the couch icing a black eye and swollen feet after a fervent day of snagging deals on Black Friday, you’re not alone.

Holiday shopping is very different than it was in the past, when families would put on their finest duds and head to downtown Detroit to shop and admire the elegant department stores and their elaborate Christmastime displays.

Michael Hauser remembers being fascinated with the bright neon lights that set the city aglow. For years he’s been reliving those days of retail glory through his collection of memorabilia from classic stores like Hudson’s, Kresge, Fyfe Shoes, Kern’s, Grimell’s and plenty more.

Last month, Hauser shared his collection during a presentation at the Bloomfield Township Senior Center. His stash of photos, boxes and signage helped to paint a picture of a time when stores were as concerned with a shopping experience as they were with sales.

“Can you imagine? A whole window display just for buttons,” said Hauser to the audience as he pointed to a black-and-white photo of a store display devoted entirely to fashionable buttons for garments.

Hauser explained that the holiday season started as it does now, with the Thanksgiving Day Parade traveling down Woodward Avenue. Hudson’s started the parade in 1924 with a modest lineup of seven bands, four papier-mache-head marchers and 10 floats — some of which are still in the show, including the Mother Goose and, of course, Santa Claus floats. By the following year, the parade had more than doubled in size, with more than 300 Hudson’s employees marching as clowns, gnomes and other children’s characters.

It was Crowley, Milner and Co., known later as Crowley’s, that first offered photos with Santa Claus, Hauser said, and other stores quickly jumped on board to outdo each other by way of decorations and activities. Campus Martius was the center of the action, which eventually expanded north up Woodward past the Fox Theatre, and the nearby Kennedy Square hosted a huge Christmas tree that rivaled New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

“Christmas was so busy in Detroit,” Hauser said, displaying a photo of crowds lining the streets. “You can’t even see the pavement, there were so many people.”

Which explains why there was such a shortage of parking, according to Hauser, who said decorated buses and shuttles would drive shoppers from different parts of the city and even in from the suburbs to shop.

Carol Malinowski Kohut, of Troy, said she remembers making such trips with her mother and sister as a young girl.

“My mother would take us on a bus downtown to shop at Hudson’s. She wore white gloves and a hat,” she recalled. “We would shop and have lunch; it was a whole day.”

Others shared memories of old Detroit retail: grabbing a kiss under the Kern’s Clock, installed in 1933; grabbing fresh-roasted chestnuts and hot chocolate at the newsstand just under Hudson’s Woodward Avenue marquee; and seeing Newcomb-Endicott Co.’s “Greater Toyland” exhibit with Santa and live reindeer.

“There was something for everyone,” Hauser said, noting the ample seating available for weary husbands inside Fyfe Shoes, then the world’s largest shoe store with 14 levels of shopping. “There was a miniature golf course on the upper level they could go (play).”

Kern’s celebrated its last Christmas in 1959, and as stores spread to the suburbs, the grand tradition of shopping downtown began to die out. That is, until a recent resurgence, Hauser said of new generations discovering the heart of the city with draws like the Campus Martius tree lighting, Christmas pop-up shops in Cadillac Square and old buildings being refurbished each year.

“We’ve been working with Dan Gilbert, who’s developing the new Hudson’s site,” Hauser said. “We want to put an interactive tribute inside the public atrium that (shows) what old Detroit was like.”