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Chicago Tribune

Everything Must Go

Where Will Their Customers Go To Get Their White Cotton Skivvies, Or Their Pots And Pans? Meyers On Chicago Avenue, The Store That Served A Neighborhood For 50 Years, Is Closing.

By Ellen Warren,Tribune senior correspondent

June 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

On the day they left the hospital with their first child, a beautiful little girl they named Yaritza, new parents Ruthy and Abraham Ramos dressed the baby in a yellow and white outfit, everything matching, down to the mittens and a tiny hat.

But instead of heading straight home to begin their new life as a family, the couple was determined to make a detour. They headed for Meyers on Chicago Avenue, the small department store where they both worked, just east of Ashland Avenue.

It certainly was not that the Ramos family needed to buy any baby items. Generous co-workers had taken care of all that with a huge baby shower that was held -- where else? -- at Meyers. No, they stopped at the store to show off the baby to Shirley and Donald Esrig, the owners of the store and the Ramos' beloved bosses and friends. The Esrigs, along with the rest of the people who worked at the near West Side store, were the Ramos' second family.

Similarly, three years later, when baby Lilliam was born, the Ramoses drove straight from Northwestern Memorial Hospital to the store to introduce daughter No. 2 .

"This store is half our life," explains Ruthy Ramos, 37, making change at the cash register, her hair in a neat little bun.

But after serving the neighborhood for some 50 years -- most of those under the Esrigs' watchful care -- Meyers is going out of business, a relic of an era when small department stores could be found in every neighborhood in every city in the country.

It was here 14 years ago that Abraham, 42, met Ruthy when she started working at the store.

The couple's co-worker Bernadette "Bernie" Pabon, 55, Meyers' zippy, dark-haired bookkeeper -- and ad hoc staff social director -- says she played cupid by writing romantic notes for Ruthy in Abraham Ramos' name and leaving them in a microwave in the small appliances department.

The notes worked. Ramos proposed -- and gave Ruthy an engagement ring -- right there in the shoe department.

The couple will mark their 12th wedding anniversary on July 27. Sadly, it will be the first wedding anniversary the Ramoses have not celebrated with Bernie and their other co-workers at Meyers. By then, the "junior department store" as such places were once called, is set to be closed and vacant.

After that, lifetimes of recollections will have to suffice.

A retail concept

Shirley Esrig's father purchased the store, then part of the Leader chain, in 1956. It's a retail concept that dates to the time before anyone had heard of a retail concept. It was just a store, conveniently located, that sold almost everything you needed, except furniture and large appliances, at a reasonable price.

Meyers offered easy layaway terms, even the occasional handshake emergency loan. Down the basement steps at the rear of the lower level, there even was a window where customers could pay their utility bills, cash their paychecks, buy money orders.

Meyers on Chicago Avenue -- that's its full name -- is the victim of a changing clientele, changing shopping habits and even changing career ambitions. The offspring of store owners often are not inclined to take on the long hours, tough competition and shrinking profit margins that are all part of the retail picture today.

The Esrigs' children, Jerry Esrig, 50, a Chicago lawyer, and Terri Blenner, 48, assistant director of a day camp, worked in the store as kids. Their kids, too, have helped grandma and grandpa on the sales floor.

But, says Jerry Esrig, "My dad told me from the very beginning, `Get a profession so you don't have to work these hours.'" And so it came to this: After 80-year-old Donald Esrig died of a heart attack last Feb. 11, Shirley, 76, decided to close the store. Shirley is a compact and composed woman wearing handsome beige slacks, comfortable shoes and tasteful gold earrings. She said that after her husband died, she did a lot of soul-searching. But finally, she concluded, "I can't handle it by myself. He and I did it together for 35 years, and I really can't do it without him. Emotionally, it's too difficult." As she speaks, this strong, career woman's eyes fill with tears.

She's not the only one who has been emotionally undone by the decision to close the store. Most of the staff -- some of them have worked for Donald and Shirley, and her father before that, for 30, even 50 years -- start to cry, too, when they think about the end of the store.

And when customers stream in, as they have for the past few months, with hugs and stories? Well, get out the handkerchiefs.

Don't have a hanky? They're 3 for $2.50 in the men's department.

"This was their life together," says daughter Terri. "My dad worked 13 days straight. He only took off every other Sunday." Shirley worked alongside her husband except for Fridays, when she would stay home to prepare a Shabat dinner for the family.

"For my mother, this is her business since she was 16, " says Terri, whose grandfather opened the original Meyer Bros. Department Store onWest 47th Street in the 1920s. Four immigrants from Eastern Europe started that store. Three of them, including Shirley's father, had the first name Meyer (the fourth was Irving), which is how the store got its name.

Opening `the big store'

In 1933, the year the World's Fair came to Chicago for the second time, the partners moved a few blocks away to what the family calls "the big store" at 4805 S. Ashland Ave. Shirley met Donald at the big store when she was 20 and he was 25. Her father, Meyer Hirst, had hired Esrig to run the lunch counter there. (The big store closed soon after Meyer Hirst's death in 1986 at age 91.)

The lunch counter manager and the boss' daughter married two years later and continued working together at the 48th and Ashland store until Shirley's father and his partners bought the store at 1533-39 W. Chicago Ave. Donald and Shirley Esrig managed the place, then bought it from her father 19 years later, in 1975.

Saleswoman Louise Crawford is 70 years old. This does not, however, make her the oldest Meyers employee. Not even close. That would be Julia Mietlicki, 87, in the shoe department, who started working here when she was 65, after her husband died.

But Louise, a tall and beautiful African-American who looks not a day over 50, does get the Meyers seniority prize. She started working at the big store when she was 19. Louise met Shirley there a few weeks later, and they've been friends ever since. That's half a century.

Crawford talks about her long career with Meyers as she stands in the ladies' underwear department. (Nobody who works in this store ever seems to sit down.)

Through the front door on your left, in the foundations and sleepwear section, you can buy such contradictory items as a "comfort control" brassiere in size 48DD and a see-through, lipstick red negligee trimmed in marabou. Something else available here that you won't see in too many shops are skivvies -- women's white cotton underpants that extend almost to the knee. They are favorites of the store's elderly immigrant customers who are still a big part of the client base at Meyers.

Crawford is best known for the colorful, dressy suits and matching hats she selects for the womenswear section where she reigns supreme.

Crawford has commuted here from the South Side on public transportation -- she has to transfer twice -- for more than three decades.

"She's my saleslady," says shopper Parania Dudycz, 79, as Louise hands over a suit and tells her, "This is your size." This shopper, mother of former state Sen. Walter Dudycz (R-Chicago), says her daughter drives in from suburban Palatine to shop here.

"Girl, if you came to my house, you'd know I'm a Meyers shopper," says Bea Robinson, 51, modeling a tan jacket she bought here a while ago. "I have a black one just like it."

"My bedspreads. My curtains. Even my gold tablecloth comes from here. Pots and pans. This store has everything," she says. She turns to Shirley Esrig and tells her, "Please keep the store open."

"I can't," says Shirley, shaking her head, distressed.

"If I had the money, I'd buy you out just to keep the store open," replies Bea.

Loyal clientele

That's the sentiment of many of the faithful customers who have been coming back to Meyers in the past few months since word spread that the store was closing.

"I had the son of one of our employees who passed away come in. I told him, `Your mother's picture will be here until we close the store.' He broke out in tears and ran out of here," Shirley says.

With its open-floor plan, central cash register and wooden floors, Meyers hasn't changed much since the family bought it.

Donald and Shirley thought about remodeling but, she reports, "I said, `If we remodel, it'll lose a lot of its flavor. We'll become a Wal-Mart, a Kmart.'" So, Meyers stayed the same, even as business began a decline seven or eight years ago.

Part of the problem was that people don't walk to the store much anymore. They drive, and there is very little parking near the store. And, of course, the family couldn't compete with the discounting that the giant chains offer.

A few years before Donald died, his son says, he looked into whether there might be a buyer when the couple decided to retire -- since the children were not interested in keeping it going. But he quickly found that find a buyer was unlikely. "Retailing has dramatically changed in the last 20 years," says Chicago retailing expert Jim Dion of Dionco Inc. "It no longer a mom and pop kind of business. You're faced with incredibly strong competition. "In just about every small town or small city in the U.S. there were one or two family-owned department stores 25 years ago. Today, in almost all of those communities from Peoria to Kalamazoo to Kenosha to Fargo, N.D. -- you name it -- there are none, or maybe one still surviving," Dion says.

"This is commonplace," for the third generation of a family to decide not to carry on the tradition, says Pat Dunne, a professor of marketing at Texas Tech and an expert on retail strategy.

"The first generation starts building it. They're the entrepreneurs. The second generation carries it on and the third generation . . . they probably worked there as kids and have been burned out by it."

The Esrigs' son and daughter didn't burn out. They had just taken their dad's advice and pursued different careers.

Nonetheless, Esrig offspring -- who own the Meyers building and will try to rent it -- say they have an emotional attachment and pride in the store and its staff. Almost all of the veteran employees have vowed to stay on until the last day, expected to be in the next few weeks.

A sense of loyalty

That sense of loyalty, of belonging, of something much larger than merely a job, came as a surprise to retailing veteran Frank McMichael, who came in from Florida to oversee the liquidation of the Meyers inventory. An outsider, he has witnessed the outpouring of affection among staff and customers alike over the past few months.

"I've been in merchandising for 30 years . . . I've never seen anything like it," McMichael says.

"I grew up in the neighborhood. . . . Meyers was the greatest for the community," says Alberto Guevara, 45, who drops in to embrace Shirley and give thanks. "My aunt said that when we first came to this country [from Puerto Rico] it was very difficult to be accepted. It was the Meyers who gave us credit."

"All we took was a signature," says Shirley Esrig. "There have been a number of Puerto Rican families who told me how important we were to the new immigrants. They said, `You took care of us with dignity.'"

Bernie the bookkeeper produces a stack of the Meyers Christmas party programs she composed every year, each filled with memories from the 12 months just past.

From 1982: " . . . Let us remind each other that the greatest gift we have received is that of each other."

From 1983: "This year has been rough in many instances; but with Gods help we managed to pull through . . . "

And the 20th anniversary party in 1995:

"Mr. And Mrs. Esrig we thank you, just for being who you are, for being family oriented, for being of strong character, and mind and for being a hard worker and trying to keep the business going and most important for being our friend, we are proud to work not only for you but united as family."

Shirley Esrig has not allowed herself to focus on what she will do once the store closes. It has been a grueling up-and-down of emotions as Meyers slashed prices by 20 percent, then 50 and now 80 percent. The details of the going-out-of business sale have kept her busy with the wearying day-to-day routine.

In grave understatement, she says, "It's been kind of hard." First the death of Donald, now the end of a life shared at the store.

She is comforted by the words of the people who continue to drop in to say farewell and thanks, and by the deep and enduring love of the staff.

That part, she says, has been nice, "Very nice."

"Donald would be pleased."

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