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Frank Gray

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Jim Barron with his third book, “Shopping for Memories, a Nostalgic Look at Downtown Fort Wayne.”

Shop for nostalgia in new book

When times are tight, nothing seems quite as therapeutic as remembering the good old days.

Fond memories also make for good business sometimes. Jim Barron, a local radio personality, hit pay dirt when he wrote two books about Wolf & Dessauer, the massive downtown department store that closed decades ago.

Downtown Fort Wayne, though, was made up of a lot more than just W&D, as it was known, and over the years people have been telling Barron about the other stores that once made shopping downtown a special event and telling him they deserved a book, too.

So Barron listened and wrote a third nostalgia book, “Shopping for Memories, a Nostalgic Look at Downtown Fort Wayne.”

For people who are nervous about the economy and paring their Christmas lists to the bare minimum, it’s hit the market at just the right time. People who can’t afford to shop can at least remember the old stores they frequented back when they could afford to go on holiday spending sprees.

The book does deal with a different time, a period when going out was special and people dressed up to do so, and the shops were unique.

The stores in the old Fort Wayne – old meaning the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s – were special because most weren’t chains but were individually owned.

Customers knew the owners and the sales staff knew the customers, often greeting them by name, something that might even scare some privacy freaks today.

“That’s the reason they found such a warm place in our hearts,” Barron says. “They were unique and family-owned. They all had a unique personality.”

There were the higher-end stores, Hutner’s Paris and Nobson’s, a place called Patterson Fletcher and a store called Stillman’s, which for a while called itself Grand Leader before changing its name back to the original.

Murphy’s was a landmark, known if not for its doughnuts and the machine that made them, then for its candies, or, depending on what you fancied, its hot dogs, or pet department or its fashion shows. Yes, even Murphy’s, a variety store, actually had fashion shows from time to time.

Sometimes, the places that have been forgotten are the most curious. Meyer Brothers Drug Co., a drugstore, sold a cure for malaria. Dreier Drugs, another drugstore, was the place where Royal baking powder was invented.

A place called P. Pierre’s Dry Goods on Broadway had a habit of never discarding old merchandise, even when it went out of style.

The business’s philosophy, Barron said, was that eventually everything would come back in style. So even in the 1960s, one could find top hats there.

Those were different times. Life moved more slowly. No cell phones or computers or faxes. A shopping trip was devoted to just that – shopping.

The stores, though, seem to have had one other thing in common. They all eventually closed their doors.

P. Pierre’s closed about 1973, when its owner died; Stillman’s closed about 1975; Patterson Fletcher closed in the 1970s; Dreier’s disappeared in 1970; Nobson’s; Mayer’s, a high-end men’s clothing store; Murphy’s; Hutner’s Paris; as well as a group of small specialty groceries in and near downtown all locked their doors between the early ’70s and early ’90s.

It makes one realize, yes, thinking of those times were nostalgic, but they were just as hard and toxic for businesses as times are now.

Barron’s book, by the way, is on sale at Nature’s Corner at State Boulevard and Spy Run Avenue.

Frank Gray has held positions as a reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982, and has been writing a column on local issues since 1998. His column is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached at 461-8376; by fax at 461-8893; or e-mail at fgray@jg.net.

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