It had been a long time since I had seen a shoehorn performing its intended duty. It seemed right at home, though, in Schroeder’s Department Store, nestled in nostalgia and an atmosphere of intentional dedication to tradition.
Schroeder’s stands stalwart at the corner of Washington and 17th in downtown Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The facade is aged and unassuming, not yet renovated in a futile attempt to recapture the spirit of lost glory days, but instead offering an honest testament to the days it has actually seen.
(Note: There are a number of photos of this wonderful location included at the end of the article. I simply didn’t have space for them all in the body.)
Inside, it presents itself with the same proud conviction. On the main floor, the Men’s and Women’s shoe and apparel sections are separated, each respectively attended by their own dedicated salespeople. There are no headsets, no fly-by-night part-timers.
These folks tend their shelves and displays with love, and they’re familiar with every product in their permanently assigned departments. Janice doesn’t just “work at Schroeder’s”; she works “in the Women’s department in Schroeder’s”.
“Schroeder’s Department Store holds tightly to and fiercely defends a bygone shopping experience, acting as a welcoming oasis to those who long for the personal touch and proud professionalism of the past.”
Between the departments lie the alterations rooms where slacks can still be hemmed and dresses taken in. I didn’t see a tailor with straight pins held between clenched lips or with a measuring tape draped over a neck, but I bet it’s not an unfamiliar sight in those rooms.
The gentleman in the Men’s department attended to me sharply, expertly retrieving and fitting me with several suggested pairs of shoes. I’m not a demanding customer, and I tend to downplay the importance of the customer service experience, but his genuine friendliness and sincere attention appealed even to me. I couldn’t help but appreciate the warmth in his voice as he recounted the store’s history for us.
It worked. I bought a pair of nice shoes — the type of purchase that would generally be unheard of for a self-proclaimed minimalist like me.
Everything about the store cries a resistance to the modernization that is supposedly killing department stores across the country. Schroeder’s is family-owned, positioned to someday soon be handed down from the fourth to the fifth generation. They’re celebrating their recent 127th anniversary with the release of a book on their history, big box stores be damned!
The historic “bubbler” stands dutifully off to the side of the main sales floor, the number of tag-along children’s lips and sticky hands it has seen over the decades a respectful secret it is too noble to divulge. I can almost feel the department store’s uneven radiator heat coaxing post-Depression patrons to unzip their heavy winter coats.
In the basement, the woman who clearly runs the bountiful toy department answers another customer’s questions about erector sets. Schroeder’s toy department has probably seen the birth, the peak, and the decline of many such iconic and long-lived staples. Scores of adults must fondly remember favorite childhood Christmas gifts purchased here without their knowledge.
The sturdy wooden banister leading from the main sales floor to the second floor is still as solid as ever, and the wood is smooth and seasoned with over a century of polish and the soft but endless friction of tens of thousands of hands. The salesperson at the top is quick to smile and greet me as I reach the top.
The main area of the second floor houses a knitting and sewing department now. Bolts of cloth, spools of thread and skeins of yarn create a colorful garden of domestic supplies. Scores of friends and family, children and grandchildren have snuggled into blankets and sweaters, hats and mittens and scarves, all lovingly crafted from the materials Schroeder’s provided.
The adjoining rooms are now home to a quilt shop. A handful of ladies bustle about, discussing stitches and squares. Dozens of walls are lined with bolts of material like a massive cloth library. On the floor under one cloth display I can just barely glimpse the caduceus seal on the floor of what used to be a doctor’s office.
The narrow hallways in this part of the building lead through a maze of former medical examination rooms. One of the ladies manning the quilt store showed me where the patients used to line up to wait for their turns with the doctors. A check-up and some new socks all in one visit — one-stop shopping at its hometown finest.
When she saw I was taking the pictures included in this article, one of the ladies sneaked me off to a closed door near the corner of the room with a conspiratorial wink and a nudge. She unlocked it and pulled it open to reveal the peeling paint and antique staircase leading up to the retired third floor space.
Upstairs, the exposed original brick, suspended metal door, arched windows, and hanging lights were enough to solicit a soft gasp from me immediately. My partner and I would have killed for an old industrial loft like this that we could transform into a living space. Instead, it is currently inhabited by dismembered mannequins and heavy, old showcases. The lady who showed it to me described the space as “a little spooky”, but I thought it was amazing.
We met up with one of the ladies from the quilt shop again on the way back down. She was customer-free this time, which allowed her the opportunity to tell me that the third floor was at one point used by a company that made metal tags that were riveted inside the submarines built just down the road in Manitowoc during World War II. Their production rate was amazing, she told me; they had produced 47 submarines in the time it normally took to produce 4.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as the employees excitedly revealed tidbits of the store’s history, how Schroeder’s has survived when so many of its peers have fallen. The secret, I’ve decided, must be hidden somewhere in its exact combination of tradition and flexibility.
The toy store in the basement level and the yarn and quilt shops upstairs have recently all been separated in title and finance from the remaining core of the department store. This, I was told, “just makes more fiscal sense right now”.
On the main floor, just inside the doorway, is a small, recently remodeled coffee shop with WiFi and all of the latest coffee and tea variations. I sat there to write this piece, and it kept me in the store itself for much longer than I would have stayed had I just been there to purchase the shoes. In fact, the coffee shop was how I found the department store and the reason that I went in initially.
Schroeder’s Department Store holds tightly to and fiercely defends a bygone shopping experience, acting as a welcoming oasis to those who long for the personal touch and proud professionalism of the past. On the fringes, though, it changes just enough to keep itself relevant and to keep from slipping from “nostalgic” into “fondly remembered”.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Follow me on Medium and/or on Twitter for more like it.