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With the Author: Book Traces the History of Jacobson's

Former Jacobson's store on Grand River in East Lansing. Photo: courtesy Ella Sharp Museum.
Former Jacobson's store on Grand River in East Lansing. Photo: courtesy Ella Sharp Museum.

By Gretchen Millich, WKAR News


EAST LANSING, MI – Not too long ago, Michigan had its own department store chain, where shoppers enjoyed a relaxed and elegant atmosphere and friendly customer service. Jacobson's operated stores in cities all over Michigan for more than a century.

In East Lansing, the Jacobson's building on Grand River Avenue is now a Barnes and Noble bookstore, but lots of shoppers remember its department store heritage.
Now, there's a new book that traces the history of Jacobson's. It's called Jacobson's, I Miss It So!

WKAR's Gretchen Millich met up with the author, Bruce Kopytek, at the former East Lansing store.

BRUCE KOPYTEK: It wasn't just a place to go and buy things. It wasn't a Big Box or a concrete-floored warehouse where, if they had the brand that you wanted, you could pick it up at a cheap price. It was a destination for events to occur. For someone to go out and celebrate a birthday by having lunch in a nice restaurant that was very pleasant, or for someone to select a wedding gown with their mother. I've heard these stories again and again, and I realized Jacobson's was Jacobson's because it allowed people to have an event there that was important to them. In a way, it almost became a part of their family lives.

GRETCHEN MILLICH: We are in what is still known as the Jacobson's Building, here in East Lansing. What do you see that reminds you of Jacobson's? Is there something about the layout or the architecture here that still reminds you of the store?

KOPYTEK: I notice that it has very, very gracious entryways that enter both on the street and on the parking deck side, and those were hallmarks of Jacobson's existence. You really made an entrance into a Jacobson's store through a big, heavy wooden doorway. The parking issue was one that the owner of Jacobson's felt very strongly about locating his stores in downtown areas, and he personally financed and advocated for parking to serve the whole retail area. So, he really worked to make these downtown areas very special. The building especially on the outside has the elegant detailing and materials. That was very important and very much a Jacobson's trademark.

MILLICH: This store also had a tearoom.

KOPYTEK: Yes, it was a large room on the very top floor that was not only noted for good food, it was noted for a very lovely view over the treetops of the campus across the street. It was decorated in an Asian style, so it was called the East Room, because it was on East Grand River in East Lansing and it had Asian d cor, so that was the name of the restaurant. It was successful enough that I think it even stayed open in the evenings after the store was closed, because they had direct access from the parking deck. It actually had life beyond just a tearoom as well.

MILLICH: Something else that you included in the book was a section called "Nathanisms", which were sayings that Nathan Rosenfeld said about retailing. You could read that and learn how to run a store.

KOPYTEK: The owner, Nathan Rosenfeld, was a very, very principled man. He had principles about retailing, about how to treat a customer. He felt that their buyers weren't just buying merchandise to sell. They were actually advocates for the customer. It's like a primer for good business. That's why he was so successful.

MILLICH: Jacobson's is no longer with us. They declared bankruptcy in 2002. Why did a store that was so successful have to declare bankruptcy?

KOPYTEK: Jacobson's was a very traditional retailer with a traditional customer. The world was changing around them, and it was difficult at that point. The choice was made to replace their management in 1996, and the store became probably more like other retailers. As a result, rather than having its niche as Jacobson's, that special place went for special things, it just became more like other stores. Why would somebody go out of the way to go downtown to Jacobson's when they could get the same merchandise somewhere else. They really lost their uniqueness in the marketplace.

MILLICH: The book that you wrote really seems like a labor of love on your part. It seems like you really care about the subject.

KOPYTEK: Yeah, because just like it was a part of so many people's lives, there was a certain part of Jacobson's that was a part of my life, too. And while it was a small part, reading the history, pouring through archives, talking to people that were intimately involved with the store, I almost took on this history personally. So when I'd go to bed at night after writing a chapter, I felt like I had lived a part of history. I never met Nathan Rosenfeld, but I actually went to his gravesite in Jackson and assured him I would do a good job for him. I think he was very much an unsung hero of Michigan that probably very few people, if they weren't associated with Jacobson' s, would know what his name was. But he really made a big difference, and so that should be the subject of a labor of love, I think.

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