Mention shopping to anyone who lived in the Hartford area during the '50s and '60 and they'll tell you about taking the bus downtown, (often in hat and gloves, if you're talking to a woman), on Saturdays, to spend the day browsing the shops and lunching in the restaurants that lined Main, Pearl, Pratt and Asylum Streets.
They'll talk about the five-and-dime emporiums — Grant's, Kresge's and Newberry's; and Brown Thompson department store.
They'll reference Savitt Jewelers, "35 seconds from Main," at 35 Asylum St., and owner Bill Savitt's POMG, (peace of mind guaranteed) promise. They'll reminisce about Baker's and Mary Jane's shoe stores, where clerks searched stock rooms for styles and sizes and slipped footwear onto customers' feet "as if you were Cinderella."
They'll talk about buying back-to-school clothes at Youth Centre, prom dresses at Wynshaw's and wedding gowns at Blue Bird Bridal.
They'll rhapsodize about raspberry lime sodas and chicken salad sandwiches in Sage Allen's subterranean cafeteria, birthday cakes at Federal Bakery and chocolates from Fanny Farmer.
But first and foremost, they'll tell you about G. Fox — the iconic department store that anchored Hartford's Main Street retail district from its founding in 1847 to its closing in 1993.
"Connecticut's Department Store," as it was labeled, was known across the state and beyond for its Art Deco styling, merchandise, holiday displays, community events in Centinel Hill Hall, Connecticut Room restaurant — and most of all, its legendary customer service.
Because before self-checkout, there was customer service and before "buyer beware," there was "the customer is always right." And nowhere in Connecticut was the customer more right more often than at "Foxes," as the store was called.
"Going to Foxes in its heyday, from 1950 to 1968, was like going to Disney World," says Elizabeth Abbe, director of public outreach at the Connecticut Historical Society. "It was known for its glorious variety of goods and unsurpassed service. Anyone who ever shopped there remembers it to this day and they can't get enough of its history."
Like the fact that G. Fox & Co. made free deliveries to anywhere in the state and no order was too small. In a booklet the Historical Society has done on the store, Ira Neimark, general merchandise manager in the early 1960s, described how far the store went to please customers.
"The policy was if a customer wanted to return a spool of thread, the great G. Fox fleet would pick up the thread," he recalls.
"It's amazing how many people have connections to and memories of, that store," says Kevin Flood, whose book, "Remembering G. Fox & Co." will be published in May by History Press. "It had everything from a pharmacy to a fur salon. It even had a repair shop just for zippers. It was like a Westfarms onto itself."
Abbe has presented her lecture, "From Hula Hoops To High Fashion: G. Fox In The 1950s" to more than 9,000 people across the state. In it, she covers the company's progression from a two-room dry goods shop to one of America's largest privately-owned department stores and its years under the direction of Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the woman who ran the store from 1938 to 1968, and set the standard for it legendary customer service.
"I'll go to a small town to do the talk and think maybe a dozen people will come and then 80 show up," says Abbe. "They come with their memories, they come with their G. Fox shopping bags and hat boxes, and they even come wearing clothing they purchased there. People love to talk about Foxes and shopping on Main Street. It makes them feel happy and brings them back to a place in time that they loved."
More Than Just Shopping
Ginnie Oleskewicz Schwartz, who grew up in Hartford and remembers her shopping adventures in the late '50s and '60s, echoes that sentiment.
"We lived on Franklin Avenue and every Saturday, I would take the T bus to Main Street with my friends," she says. "We'd go to Korvettes, Casual Corner, BT's, Sage's. We'd go to Savitt's, look at the diamonds and dream about the engagement ring we were going to get someday. And then we'd go to Foxes and take the escalator to every floor. Then we'd take the bus just in time to get home before dark. Imagine letting kids do that now? It was a different time that's gone forever."
Holidays were the busiest time for Main Street retailers and G. Fox was a major draw. The store's outdoor marquee featured a Christmas village featuring built-to-scale historic Connecticut buildings. A toy store with model train displays and Santa's Village took up the entire eleventh floor.
"At Christmastime, a staff of more than 5,000 employees waited on 30,000 customers a day during the Christmas shopping season," says Abbe. "It was magical."
On "Old Hartford" a Facebook page where close to 3,000 followers share photos and memories of Connecticut's capitol city back in the day. Lynn Ferrari, long-time Hartford resident and one of the page's founders, says few things evoke as great a response as postings about shopping Hartford's downtown stores.
"People love to reminisce about Main Street and they remember the tiniest details. It was a time when each store was unique and had its own personality," says Ferrari. "There was nothing impersonal about shopping there, like it is at a mall. People marked the milestones in their lives with the purchases they made at these stores and they have those memories to this day."
"It was more than shopping," says Abbe. "It wasn't just run in and grab something, like we do today. It was a special experience each and every time."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun