Ghosts of Christmas Past: Holiday shopping in downtown department stores

They are all gone now, the roster of familiar department store names that once drew shoppers to a retail district said to rival anything to be found in New York City.

Starting at Public Square with Higbee’s and The May Company, the procession continued east on Euclid Avenue Sterling Lindner Davis and Halle Bros.

Sterling Lindner Davis Christmas Tree, Access was easy, with streetcars providing transportation from residential neighborhoods at a time when shopping was seen as a special occasion and privately owned cars were not universal. Women wore hats and gloves, while men wore suits and ties.

For the rest of their lives, onetime little girls reflecting as adults remember their mothers and grandmothers taking them to destinations like Higbee’s and its Silver Grille restaurant.

Many mourn the passing of these places to this day.

One of the sights not to be missed was the Christmas tree displayed each year at the Sterling Lindner Davis store located on Euclid Avenue at East 13th Street. The tree chosen was typically 50 feet tall and said to be the largest indoor Christmas tree display in the world.

In the mid-20th Century Cleveland was home to six major department stores: Taylor’s, Halle Bros., Bailey’s, Higbee’s, The May Company, and Sterling Lindner Davis. They all vied with each other to attract customers.

Founded in 1898, the May Company was an early presence on Public Square. The store was known for innovative business practices being the first local department store to issue a personal store credit card in the summer of 1966.

The downtown store was an architectural gem, having been designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. with renovations by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

After nearly a century in business, the May Company lost its identity in a 1993 merger with Pittsburgh based Kauffman’s. The former May Company store survives to this day, having recently been converted to The May apartments.

Higbee's Santa, 1955The Higbee Company was a neighbor and friendly competitor of May Co. The store began operations in September 1860. Promising first day sales amounted to $100. Starting out on Public Square, the store migrated to a Playhouse Square location before being lured back to anchor the Terminal Tower complex.

As the venue for key scenes in the beloved 1983 film “A Christmas Story,” the Higbee’s store on Public Square figures in one of the area’s best known department store Christmas stories. The film’s producers took pains to recreate the look of 1930s downtown shopping and succeeded admirably. Unfortunately, that image exists now only on celluloid. Higbee’s joined the legion of vanished stores in 1993, bought out and rebranded as Dillard’s.

The building still exists, serving today as a JACK Casino—a fate Ralphie and his friends from “A Christmas Story” could never have imagined—although JACK has been known to pull out those vintage window dressings from time to time.

Times changed. The suburbs beckoned, and shopping malls and the almost universal presence of cars signaled the end of downtown Christmas shopping. In a great irony the suburban shopping malls themselves have largely gone the way of the downtown department stores they replaced, done in by changing demographics and the ease of online shopping.

Today visitors who know where to look can go to a parking lot at the intersection of East 13th Street and Euclid Avenue and stand on the approximate spot where shoppers once marveled at The Sterling Lindner Davis Christmas tree during many a Christmas past.

Remember, all glory is fleeting.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.