One December day it was gone.
At home in Miami on a Saturday night, a week before Christmas, I sat at my father’s desk and listened to history burn; it crackled through my computer’s speakers. Gimbels Department Store in my hometown of Vincennes, Indiana was being destroyed by fire. True, the store went out of business the year I graduated high school, but its memory, my memory of Christmas at Gimbels, had always stood steadfast on the corner of 2nd and Main.
Adam Gimbel was a young Bavarian immigrant whose American dream became a retail icon. His flagship store located in New York City’s Herald Square was Macy’s largest rival. He also founded Saks Fifth Avenue.
Gimbels became a star of sorts in television and movies. Lucy and Ethel shopped there. In the Oscar winning 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s Santa Clause informs a mother that archrival Gimbels has better roller-skates for her daughter. Then again in 1958’s Oscar nominated Auntie Mame, Rosalind Russell’s character tells a Macy’s customer trying to buy roller-skates to, “Get ‘em at Gimbels.” Both movies playfully showcase the two retail giants’ competitiveness during the holidays. Yet Gimbels was so much more than roller-skates.
Main Street was my playground in the 1970’s. My family and I lived on 3rd street a few blocks south. During the holidays parked cars lined Main’s two lanes. Sidewalks bustled with activity. American National Bank’s lobby became a winter wonderland complete with mechanical Santa, hungry shoppers stuffed themselves at Tresslar’s lunch counter, and the crisp air echoed with Salvation Army’s ringing bell. At night, following a large snow, my friends and I pulled one another in our sleds over fresh powder covering the abandoned street. Our snowsuits and sock-hats mirrored in shop windows.
I loved the architecture on Main, it fascinated me. The Clothing Hall was one of my favorite. The façade of Hills Department Store was cool, seemed ultra modern, but its boys department was down a flight of stairs in the basement. Gimbels was better. Its building was fancy. It had a curved staircase. Their boys department was on the main sales floor alongside merchandise for grown-ups.
During the holidays Main Street sparkled. Strings of multicolored lights swooped and twinkled above my head. Mannequins wearing the latest winter fashions posed in storefront windows framed with frost. Garlands of Evergreen or silver tinsel lined doorways. I knew nothing of longing for a small town Christmas. I had one.
On Saturday after Thanksgiving the annual Christmas parade kicked off the holiday season. Santa arrived on a float or a fire truck then made his way to Gimbels. I recall my disappointment the year I recognized Santa’s voice. It belonged to John Klemeyer, a regular customer at my grandfather’s restaurant, Charlie’s New Café. Yet somehow, I was still swept up in the magic of a Crosby-esque White Christmas. This year however, the holiday glow of Main Street, the flickering light reflected was heartbreaking.
I watched images flash before me on Facebook. The ornate building, the Clothing Hall, its neighboring storefronts reduced to rubble and ash. The online scanner buzzed with familiar voices, hometown men, trying their best to save a piece of our collective history. I shared a sense of loss with those living there. And those, like me, living elsewhere. All of us felt the heat from Christmas past burning.
My father’s desk is from Gimbels, not the sales floor but their office. His uncle Elmer Winkler bought it during their going-out-of-business sale in the late 80’s. I have no idea how old it is or who spent their retail career sitting at it daily. It’s a heavy piece of furniture, solid oak with cupped wooden handles that open tongue and groove drawers. I picture a black rotary phone and a metal wire invoice basket sitting on its massive desktop. It served our restaurant office at Charlie’s Smorgasbord for nearly twenty years. I use it now to write.
Sitting at my father’s desk from Gimbels that recent Saturday night in December I watched a world familiar disappear. I listened to firemen and first responders soaked in loss. I thought to myself, so this is what growing older feels like.
‘Memories of Main Street’ originally appeared December 19, 2011 on the website VincennesVoice.com. Thank you to Norbert Brown and his ‘Vincennes Indiana Remember When’ Facebook page for the photographs.