Nov. 30 2011 12:00 AM

Author charts the rise and fall of Jacobson’s

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    For more than 58 years, Jacobson’s was
    the upscale outfitter for the greater Lansing area, selling everything
    from dainty white gloves to imported Biedermann Christmas ornaments.


    In the heyday of the East Lansing
    Jacobson’s, you could take your kids to “Breakfast With Santa” or sit
    down for an elegant dinner in the Asian-inspired 1970 East Room
    restaurant. As a Michigan State University grad, you knew you’d arrived
    when you bought your business attire there, or registered for your
    wedding. Opening a Christmas present in a Jacobson’s box was
    extra-special, making your heart beat a little faster.


    Now you can relive some of those
    memories — and maybe reflect on your first formal for the J-Hop — with
    “Jacobson’s: I Miss It So.” Bruce Allen Kopytek, a Shelby Township
    architect, has written the history of Jacobson’s department stores,
    which began in Reed City in 1838, and grew to become a chain of 30
    stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida before succumbing to
    suburbanization, malls and changing shopping tastes.


    The delightful book profiles the
    architecture, the employees and the man behind Jacobson’s, the company
    chairman Nathan Rosenfeld. The author writes about Rosenfeld’s keen
    business acumen, but also about his whimsical approach to business.


    For example, he tells how Rosenfeld
    would award “Million Dollar Roundtable” pins to buyers who basically
    screwed up and their selections resulted in “million-dollar markdowns.”
    His reasoning, Kopytek writes, was that “the reward was for taking
    risks, and in spite of their mistakes, they were able to learn from
    them.”


    Rosenfeld’s legendary sense of humor
    also found its way into some store products. There may be someone out
    there with a tie originally designed by Rosenfeld as a motivational
    gift to employees: Emblazoned with the acronym YCDBSOYA — “You Can’t Do
    Business Sitting On Your Assets” — the tie became a bestseller in the
    store.


    The 202-page book also highlights
    Rosenfeld’s attention to detail, a trait he shared with his wife,
    Marjorie. Before the opening of the East Lansing store in 1970,
    Rosenfeld noticed the life-sized Russian wolfhounds in a display lacked
    dog licenses: They were in place the next day when the store opened.


    Rosenfeld’s staff meetings were held at
    a round table where everyone’s opinions were equal; Marjorie demanded
    that her tuna casserole be served at meetings of the company’s board of
    directors.


    Kopytek is especially adept at
    describing the architecture and interiors of the Jacobson’s physical
    plants, and he singles out some of the more dazzling stores in Ann
    Arbor, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Grosse Pointe,
    Dearborn and the flagship store in Birmingham. 


    East Lansing’s varied locations are
    described and tracked in a chapter titled “A Capital Idea.” The East
    Lansing Jacobson’s was first housed in several locations along Grand
    River until 1970, when they were pulled together (with the exception of
    the home furnishings store) in a new state-of-the-art 117,000
    square-foot location, which closed in 2000 when Jacobson’s relocated to
    the Meridian Mall. (The East Lansing space was taken over by Varnes and
    Noble, which plans to close by the end of the year.)


    When the Jacobson’s chain folded in 2002, the Meridian Mall location was converted to a Younkers.


    A masterful researcher, Kopytek
    attributes his interest in department stores to his mother “dragging
    him downtown to Hudson’s as a child” and his family’s extensive
    traveling. Even as young boy Kopytek kept notes about his department
    store adventures. When he was laid off from his job a couple years ago
    as an architect, he started a blog
    (TheDepartmentStoreMuseum.blogspot.com) to give himself something to do.


    “I was searching frantically for a job,” he said, “and I needed a project or I’d go crazy.”


    Kopytek had spent most of his architectural career designing banks and credit unions. “You know what happened there,” he said.


    A comment on his blog advised him to
    contact The History Press, which was looking for someone to write a
    book on the Jacobson’s chain.


    For background, Kopytek called on
    various historical collections but especially the Ella Sharpe Museum in
    Jackson, which houses Jacobson’s corporate records. He also was able to
    gain unlimited access to Mark Rosenfeld, who became chairman after his
    father’s death in 1982.


    Two especially enjoyable chapters are “Let’s Do Lunch” and “Nathanisms.” “Let’s Do Lunch” examines Jacobson’s food service, including reproductions of menus and recipes for some of the more popular dishes served in the restaurants.


    “Nathanisms” is a collection of down-home colloquialisms
    about life or business uttered or written by Rosenfeld. One of my
    favorites: “Consumer credit should be used to benefit the consumer and
    not the retailer who tries to make his profit on finance charges.”