PINK STRAWBERRIES — Here’s a nifty cutaway view of the first floor of Furchgott’s Department Store. About fifty years ago, Jax residents made tracks to busy downtown department stores. For amusement, moreover, white residents frequented the downtown movie theaters along “The Great White Way,” nicknamed in honor of New York City’s show district. This Jax entertainment area was a brightly-lit portion of Forsyth Street between Main and Newnan streets. (African Americans enjoyed the theaters and night spots that operated in the vicinity of “The Great Black Way,” that is, Ashley Street in La Villa.)
Except for the Florida Theater, the downtown area has lost its cinemas and department stores, for they eventually went out of business or moved to suburban malls. Furchgott’s, for instance, shuttered its downtown location in March 1984. And the next year, the company also closed its branches at the Roosevelt, Regency Square, and Orange Park malls. But the pink strawberries haven’t been forgotten! The funny fruit used to adorn Furchgott’s bags.
Other River City department stores drew shoppers to the urban core, but these downtown businesses have also gone the way of the dinosaurs. In recent years, their names included Grant’s, Penney’s, Woolworth’s, Levy-Wolf, and May Cohens, located in the St. James Building, now the City Hall. Please see below for more.
SHOPPING WITH OUR PARENTS & GRANDPARENTS! — Let’s take a tour of a now-defunct River City store, thanks to a really swell brochure from the 1940s. The name may sound offbeat today, but “Furchgott” used to be one that Jax shoppers knew by heart. One former customer remembers its very attractive displays.
Furchgott’s Department Store could boast of a long history, tracing to a downtown retail outlet founded by Leopold Furchgott in 1868. Over the years, the store was said to be Jacksonville’s first to offer elevators, the first to introduce home deliveries by automobile, and the first to employ women on its sales staff. Along with such places as Ivey’s and May Cohens, Furchgott’s was considered more upscale than other local department stores.
In 1941, Furchgott’s opened a new mercantile building on the southeast corner of Adams & Hogan, one block south of Hemming Park. It occupied the former spot of the wonderful old marble post office. Floor by floor, a Furchgott brochure from the Forties furnished details about the “scientifically-designed” structure, specially created for your shopping pleasure & convenience. The first story really didn’t offer any radical surprises, though. According to the brochure, “It’s a floor that is as typically American as ‘cheese and apple pie.'” Buyers there could examine such diverse items as tuxedos, topcoats, diamonds, silverware, costume jewelry, gloves, neckwear, lingerie, umbrellas, gifts, and pens & pencils. Patrons could also frequent a “hat bar” and a rental library.
Nowadays, pedestrians walking by the Furchgott building usually don’t look up above the street level. The old structure stands mostly empty, except for first floor eateries that mostly cater to lunchtime crowds. The best known establishments include Pizza Italiano, located where the section for men’s furnishings was situated, and Akel’s Delicatessen, in the former area for sportswear, neckwear, and gifts. Gliding past the empty floors above is the Skyway monorail on its Hogan Street track.
IN THE 1960S, A RIVERFRONT SHOPPING MECCA — It surprises many Jax residents that Sears & Roebuck operated a downtown branch until the early Eighties. Yet notice the red Sears sign behind the auditorium in the photo above. The department store lay at the site of the present-day Omni Hotel. Over 40,000 townsfolk turned out for its opening day in June 1959. No doubt they packed the store’s 700-car parking lot.
The branch ranked as the largest of the chain’s 734 outlets. Indeed, it contained 260,000 square feet of floor space. (The average Wal-Mart Supercenter requires 109,000 to 260,000 square feet or more.) The main Sears structure consisted of four stories and a basement, with transport provided by escaladers and elevators. A soft, soothing music played in the background, and early advertisements boasted about the air conditioning that refreshed the whole building.
To some degree, the place operated as a mini-mall in 1959. In addition to the usual departments, separate shops existed for pets, hobbies, gifts, tobacco, cameras, health products, and Boy & Girl Scout items. Other features included a watch & jewelry repair service, a beauty salon called the Lyric, and a home furnishings center with four decorating consultants who gave advice in the store or at one’s home. Two comfortable rooms also allowed customers to listen to records, radios, and record players in sound-proof surroundings. And Sears heeded the needs of harried moms with tots under school age. While their mothers shopped, little Baby Boomers could be left at a free nursery supervised by a registered nurse.
FOOD & GAS — Sears patrons dined on one of the specialties of the Jean Ribault Room, shrimp salad served in an abalone pearl shell. This in-store restaurant, clad in cool, calming greens, was situated on the second floor. It indicated its First Coast location through a 33-foot long mural by Jax artist Lee Adams. The painting depicted the 1562 landing of Frenchman Jean Ribault at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Appropriately, coffee was served to diners by two girls in 16th Century French costumes. Patrons could also frequent the building’s Peggy Kellogg coffee shop. As one website visitor notes about this eatery, “I remember going in as a child and my parents would get me a chocolate milk drink.”
Standing at the corner of Bay & Pearl was a mammoth Sears automotive center, which serviced thirty vehicles at a time. Furthermore, customers could take advantage of a copious garden center. This was connected to the main structure by a covered walkway and a bridge over a reflecting pool. All in all, the entire Sears complex was staffed by over 1,100 employees.
The complex had replaced a hodgepodge of old buildings. These included a bus station, a meat business, a produce company, several warehouses, and some railroad offices. However, Sears eventually closed its Northbank shopping utopia. It followed other downtown department stores by relocating to outlying neighborhoods. The company shuttered its Northbank outlet in 1981 so as to reopen in a new expansion at the Regency Mall. — Click here for another Sears waterfront photo.
~written by Glenn Emery