TRAVERSE CITY — Crunch time is here. Anyone doing last-minute Christmas shopping is feeling the stress. But while challenging, searching for those hard-to-find gifts can lend itself to humor, not to mention the joy of discovering just the right present for a loved one.
Browsing through back issues of the Record-Eagle reveals that Christmas humor is nothing new. It also reveals how shopping local has changed over the decades, from 1920, to 1970, to today.
Start with the paper’s Dec. 16, 1920 issue. One cartoon features Santa Claus being held up at gun point by a robber. It is titled “Everybody’s Doing Their Christmas Shopping, DO Yours!”
In it Santa says “Hey, have a heart, I’m Santa Claus,” and the robber replies “Blow us your roll, kid.”
In the 1920s, spending your money (hard-earned or stolen) meant shopping downtown. There were no malls or big box stores. However, pretty much anything could be found along Front Street.
The Economy Store offered wool and silk hose, suspenders and boudoir caps (who wouldn’t want a boudoir cap?). Shoes could be found at A.V. Friedrich’s, jewelry at F. A. Earl and Company, and books at the City Book Store. These were just a few of many thriving businesses.
The Hannah & Lay Mercantile stood on the northeast corner of Front and Union streets. Three stories tall, and at the time stretching six bays west to east (the eastern two bays burnt in 1940), this store had long dominated downtown both physically and commercially.
Multiple departments offered Hannah & Lay shoppers a great variety of goods. They could browse women’s, men’s and children’s clothing. If traveling, they could purchase a Hartmann Wardrobe Trunk at “special prices for Christmas.” Also offered was furniture, dry goods, toys, sporting paraphernalia, shoes and groceries. There was even a hardware department, with one advertisement urging shoppers to “Make it a Hardware Christmas.”
Further on, Milliken’s Department Stores at on the southeast corner of Front and Cass streets. It sought to bring in customers by declaring a stock of: “Timely Gifts for Those Who Have Not Yet Decided.”
Ironically, Millken’s and its partner store, The Hamilton Clothing Company, had both received part of their original start-up money from Perry Hannah.
Someone looking for a gift of elegant leather could check out Votruba’s Leather Goods. Snuggled under the City Opera House, this store asked the shopper to “Let the Leather Good Store Help You with Your Xmas Problems.”
Imagine browsing through Votruba’s in December 1920. Fast forward 50 years to 1970 and you could still be shopping there, as you can still do today. In fact, with roots going back to 1874, Votruba’s is likely the longest continuously operating business in Traverse City.
What else remained the same between the 1920s and 1970s? And what had changed?
Humor was a constant over the decades. In a Dec. 16, 1970 “Peanuts” cartoon Lucy was featured saying to Charlie Brown “I’m finished but I pity the poor shoppers who’ve got only seven days left.”
Shoppers speeding through those last seven days could still visit Milliken’s, beckoned by ads declaring “There’s Magic in a Gift from Milliken’s.”
The Hannah & Lay Mercantile had closed in the mid 1920s, and in 1970 that building housed Montgomery Wards. There shoppers would find “Great gifts for him, great savings for you.”
Many other stores offered downtown Christmas shopping. These included The Quality Store at 140 East Front, with “Toyland” upstairs; and Kresge’s at 211 East Front, offering “Yuletide Bargains.”
Even further east, at 243 East Front, Christmas cash could be spent at J.C Penney’s.
By 1970 The City Book Store had closed its doors, but in 1961 Horizon Books had opened in the building today occupied by Cherry Hill Boutique. Horizon moved across the street to its present location in 1993.
That larger space was available because long-time downtown anchor JC Penney’s had moved into to the newly-opened Grand Traverse Mall. That move exemplified nationwide changes that had started well before 1970.
If in 1920 all Traverse City shopping was downtown shopping, not so by 1970. Stores, large and small, were opening outside of downtown, mostly along the main streets stretching out of the city.
For example, The Tempo Department Store had opened in Garfield Village. It tempted Christmas shoppers to drive a little further out in order to find “Special Gifts of Glamour – Leading Brands Priced Low.”
Smaller boutique shops, like Benjamin Twiggs at 524 Munson Ave. were also drawing business away from the city center.
Cherryland Mall opened in the 1970s, joined by the Grand Traverse Mall in 1993. In turn, today the existence of such indoor malls is being challenged both by big box stores and internet shopping.
In a way, internet shopping is challenging all in-person shopping. Who hasn’t struggled between shopping “safely and conveniently” on line, and masking up and heading out to support struggling local businesses?
But that type of a shopping conundrum really isn’t new. An ad in that same December 1970 Record Eagle features a stylish woman saying “I shop from home ... I know I improve my community that way!”
It continues: “Smart shopper! She’s aware that money spent at home helps build up this area!”
In 1970 “at home” meant shopping in Traverse City, rather than heading south to Grand Rapids or the Detroit area. In 2020 “at home” means shopping on line.
Similar decisions being made 50 years apart, showing that commerce has always been a competitive enterprise. Shopping wisely at Christmas, or any time of year, requires careful consideration. Such decisions can be challenging. With luck, Traverse City’s shopping scene will survive all such challenges, providing residents with notable shopping choices for years to come.