Business

Loyal Younkers customers share memories

'Younkers has always been my happy place'

Nancy Carey, 74, of Marion, saved this 1960s ad for a white-elephant sale at the downtown Des Moines Younkers store, where Carey worked as a waitress in the Tea Room. (Photo by Nancy Carey)
Nancy Carey, 74, of Marion, saved this 1960s ad for a white-elephant sale at the downtown Des Moines Younkers store, where Carey worked as a waitress in the Tea Room. (Photo by Nancy Carey)
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It’s been 70 years since Dorothy Loterbour bought her wedding dress at Younkers.

It was a suit, actually — pale tan with black trim. For underneath, Loterbour purchased some very special blue lingerie from an experienced Younkers sales associate she still remembers by name.

“They had a wonderful lingerie clerk named Hazel,” Loterbour, now 88, of Cedar Rapids, said about the Mason City Younkers store. “When you wanted to buy a bra, she fit you.

“She was a feisty little thing. She told you if things didn’t fit right.”

When Loterbour heard last week Younkers will close all its stores by the end of August as part of a bankruptcy deal, she was heartsick.

For many Iowans, Younkers was a magical place where customers in the 1950s and 1960s dressed up to ride the “electric stairs” or joked with an elevator operator on the way to departments that sold furs, hats and gloves tucked into crisp white paper. What Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s are to New Yorkers, Younkers has been to Iowans.

Even as times changed, Younkers has remained a reliable go-to store where Iowans have worked, shopped and sought refuge among the Bonus Buys and Yellow Dots, knowing that if it wasn’t on sale, they could always use a coupon.

A glimpse of glamour

Marcus, Samuel and Lytton Younker opened the first Younker and Brothers Dry Goods Store in Keokuk in 1856, according to a timeline by the Des Moines Public Library. Des Moines became the store’s headquarters in 1879, and Younkers moved to its longtime downtown location at Seventh and Walnut Streets in November 1899.

That location was destroyed by fire in 2014.

Younkers expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, with branches in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Mason City, Sioux City, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Omaha and Austin, Minn. Younkers and Sears were anchor stores of Lindale Mall when it opened in 1960 — as Lindale Plaza — and Younkers opened in Westdale Mall in 1980.

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When The Gazette asked readers to share their memories of Younkers, several described donning fancy clothes to go with mothers, grandmothers and aunts to the Younkers Tea Room on the fifth floor of the downtown Des Moines store. In 1961, a lunch customer could get a golden fried tenderloin, new peas in a whipped potato nest, Spanish slaw, hot rolls, dessert and a drink for $1.

 

This is according to a menu saved by Nancy Carey, 74, of Marion, whose first summer job was as a waitress in the Tea Room when she was 17.

“We wore a uniform of a gray dress with long sleeves, to which we had to pin white starched cuffs and collar,” Carey wrote in an email. “A white starched apron and hat with a hair net topped us off.”

While Carey delivered hot baked ham sandwiches, chicken salad and strawberry shortcake, she often saw fashion shows put on by members of Younkers teen board, “made up of popular, beautiful girls representing each of the four Des Moines high schools.”

“This was difficult for me as I looked like a poor drudge, in my drab gray uniform, carrying a heavy tray around these pretty girls, some of whom were in my classes at school,” she said.

But when Carey got off work at 3:30 p.m., she would shop and flirt with boys who worked in the Younkers men’s department and in the record department.

Joye Winey, 79, of Cedar Rapids, also recalls the Younkers basement record store, where teens crowded in booths to listen to music.

“We could go through rows and rows of our favorite records, then 45s, take them in to the booths and listen to our heart’s content,” Winey said. “Sometimes we bought one, but mostly we would just listen.”

Memorable purchases

Colleen Hartman, 79, of Cedar Rapids, bought Nancy Drew mysteries for 88 cents in the Des Moines Younkers mezzanine and devoured them on the ride back to her childhood home in Creston.

“My favorite memory is shopping in the French Room at Younkers, where I purchased my dress for the Crestubilee Prom in 1956,” Hartman said.

The dress cost more than $30, which was a lot of money then, but Hartman wore it many times in college, her mother cutting it shorter to keep up with the styles, she said.

Hartman still has the dress and recently her granddaughter, Molly Hartman, 17, of Fort Dodge, tried it on for a photo.

Younkers was one of the few places that would hire a single mother back in 1928, said Terri Byers, 55, of Iowa City. This allowed Geneva Crofoot, Byers’s great-aunt, to support her daughter by working in the millinery department until 1975.

Bob Campagna, 69, of Loveland, Colo., was a stock boy at the Iowa City Younkers from 1969 to 1971, when he was a University of Iowa student. He and the other stock boys — who preferred the title “merchandise engineers” — spent much of their time painting walls, ceilings and counters a pea green shade called “Younkers green.”

“In January 1970, I was assigned to paint the main-floor ceiling,” Campagna wrote to The Gazette. “It was a tall ceiling, requiring us to use what must have been a 10-foot step ladder, which I dutifully unfolded to straddle racks of coats and clothing.

“I got lazy, moved the ladder without first removing the tray, and the paint tray slipped off the ladder and fell directly on to a rack of winter coats.”

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The manager, Don Crum, had all the coats cleaned and put them on sale. He didn’t fire Campagna.

“Don understood the convergence of these things that January: semester-ending finals, the potential of being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War (and) that I was breaking up with my girlfriend, who worked in cosmetics at Younkers.”

Lifelong loyalty

 

Matt Shankles, 22, was a well-dressed child because his mother, Tracy Bradley, worked at Younkers in the Lindale Mall.

When Shankles was 16 and saving money for a car, his mom helped him get a job as a junior sales associate during the Christmas season. He worked his way from the crystal and china department to menswear, where he learned about styling outfits and about customer loyalty.

Shankles heard his share of complaints, usually from older customers, about how far Younkers had fallen from its glory days. To defuse the situations, he would ask for more details.

“They would describe a situation where a sales associate would build an entire outfit for them from the ground up,” he said. “It had been years since we’d offered that type of service, but people were still coming here and saying it was their favorite store.”

Shankles left Younkers in 2015, but he’s still working in retail and enrolled in apparel merchandising and design at Kirkwood Community College.

Loyalty has led many Younkers customers to keep old credit cards, including some printed on metal plates the size of military dog tags. Kathy Bock, 73, of Cedar Rapids, plans to frame hers.

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“Younkers has always been my happy place. I opened my charge account 48 years ago. I was pregnant with my daughter and bought a Portacrib,” she wrote.

“I will miss Younkers so much. However, I am comforted in the fact that I did everything in my power to help their profits.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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