Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–McKelvey’s

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West Federal Street, early 1960s with McKelvey’s on the right (photo source unknown)

McKelvey’s. It was one of the two fine department stores in downtown Youngstown. I know it best because I worked there for several years in high school and college. Actually, by the time I worked there, it was already owned by the now-defunct Higbee Company that owned a chain of department stores in Cleveland. During the time I worked there, Higbee’s replaced the McKelvey name with its own. It was a sad day to see the old vertical McKelvey’s sign (light green with red neon lettering) come down.

I got the job through my father, who worked for the store until it closed in  1982. He started out working in men’s furnishings, and then became the cosmetics buyer. I went on one of his buying trips with him to Washington, DC. One of the people he bought from sent my mom a perfume gift every year, even after both he and my dad were retired. Later dad moved up from the first floor to the fifth floor where he managed the TV and appliance department as well as the once fabled Hall of Music, where children from all over the city could take music lessons. They also sold pianos.

His last position was as the manager of the McKelvey’s Grille on the first floor. It always impressed me that with no restaurant experience, he was able to come in and turn around a struggling operation into one that provided good service and good food, especially for the downtown lunch crowd. One of the side benefits was that he picked up a recipe for Reuben sandwiches which he used to love to make for the family. I wish he had passed it along, because it is rare that I have had Reubens so good!

mckelveys_postcards_package_of_8

I think I got to see the store in the last years of its glory. The men’s department on the first floor still had tailors on site where you could be measured for a custom suit. A good friend of mine worked in the camera department on the first floor for awhile. Second floor was women’s fashions, including furs, “foundations” (what a quaint euphemism!), and millinery, back when women wore hats more than most do today. There was also a hair salon. Third floor included a bridal registry located right by the china department, as well as a department for cloth and clothing patterns. I worked at the back of the third floor in layaway and customer service, where you dealt with complaints, opened credit accounts, and took payments, all of which I did at one time or another. Fourth floor was furniture as well as Abbey Studios, where I had my graduation pictures from high school taken. Fifth floor included toys, sporting goods, records (where I spent a good part of my pay!), and TVs and appliances as well as the Hall of Music. The sixth floor was executive offices, the employee cafeteria, and employee lounges for men and women. I occasionally had to go up to one of the executive offices and always hoped I wouldn’t run into Mr. McKelvey!

What most people didn’t see was the rabbit warren of stock rooms from the receiving department in the basement to a variety of rooms off the sales floors of most floors. There was one set of stock rooms where we kept some layaway items that had to be reached via this old hand-activated elevator. You released a lever, and pulled up or down on the cable to make the elevator ascend or descend and then flipped the lever again in time to catch a “stop” on the cable at the floor you wanted.

Christmas was a wonderful time when the display department unleashed all its talents to turn the store into a Christmas wonderland from the display windows on Federal Street to Santa Land on the fifth floor. I liked it because I could get lots of extra hours working just in time to pay for all those Christmas presents.

G. M. McKelvey

G. M. McKelvey (from History of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, Ohio by Joseph Green Butler), 1921, American Historical Society)

Just a little history. George M. McKelvey first opened a general mercantile business at the corner of Oak Hill and Mahoning Avenue in 1869. Later on he operated the Red Hot Cash Store on West Federal and for awhile the Hubbard Store Company in Hubbard before moving back to Youngstown in 1882 and purchasing in partnership the E.M. McGillen Company, which became G. M. McKelvey & Co. and was later incorporated as The G. M. McKelvey Company in 1901. G. M. McKelvey died in 1905 and his son Lucius took over the presidency of the company in 1917.

The William McKelvey I knew was his son and was president of the company until Higbee’s purchased it, after which he continued to hold an executive position. Unlike Strouss’, McKelvey’s did not expand to the suburban shopping centers and malls, except for several Loft stores operated for a period of time from the late 60’s to the late 70’s. These were clothing stores appealing to young men and women. There was a Loft within the downtown store, and at least at Southern Park and Eastwood Malls. As mentioned above, Higbee’s closed the downtown store in 1982 after which the buildings were razed to make way for government offices.

What are your memories of McKelvey’s?

 

16 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–McKelvey’s

  1. The downtown stores are a great remembrance for me. We shopped there before Boardman became the shopping Mecca. McKelvey’s was a fine store. I enjoyed taking a break from my undergrad classes at YSU and browsed the store. Like you Bob I had my high school pics done at Abey’s in the store.
    Thanks for the memories!
    Michelle

  2. My first job out of college was to write and produce the broadcast advertising for McKelvey’s. I worked for a local advertising agency (then called Thomas Farragher and Associates), and Vera Friedman was my client at Mckelvey’s. We did the promotions for the opening at the RAM stores (young men’s fashions) in both the Southern Park Mall and the Eastwood Mall. The stores opened on the same day with a live remote from WHOT at Southern Park and a live remote from WNIO at Eastwood. It was a huge success, giving away RAM albums (Paul McCartney) with each $20 purchase. Loved working for McKelvey’s and Vera Friedman. She was an amazing talent, too. Her performances at the Youngstown Playhouse were award-winning.

  3. Wonder who did the illustrations for McKelvey’s, livingstons and Strouss’? Was it the same person? They were fabulous! Aside from that, my memory is being on the Junior “In” Board in ’67-68. It was made up of girls representing every high school in the area. It was my pleasure to represent Campbell Memorial. What a GREAT experience!

    • Connie, I’m glad you like these. My name’s Bob Trube, I grew up in Youngstown, live elsewhere in Ohio now, and write these to capture what was, and perhaps could again be, great about Youngstown.

  4. Hi Bob – I have a 28″ x 11″ cardboard advertising sign of McKelvey’s – specifically in relation to women’s hats on the second floor millinery. I thought you might get a kick out of “seeing” the sign & would love to send a photo to you via email if you’d like to receive a blast from the past.

      • Sorry – traveling a lot this week & not on internet much. Not all that computer literate – how would you message me – by email? (Not sure what “messaging” entails…)

  5. My first Christmas job during college was gift wrapping in the China Dept. I was amazed at the fragile items customers wanted shipped across the country. We packed with shredded paper; also handmade the bows by the boxfuls with every color ribbon so they were ready. After college, moving away, then returning to Youngstown, I applied for a job at McKelvey’s again. This time I was interviewed by a few men and sent to the 6th floor to be Executive Secretary to (Pres.) Mr. McKelvey, and the General Merchandise Manager, and the Assistant Merchandise Manager, 3 men. Far different from gift wrapping! I enjoyed this position and all men were considerate and helpful. The credit office, billing, and financial offices were on this floor and all of the ladies included me in parties and dinners – we became a ‘big family’. Also on this floor was the Tube Room, the little room where all those pneumatic pipes in every department ended up. The little carrier was put in the pipe in a department, and it ended in the Tube Room where the clerk finished the transaction and sent the carrier back in the correct tube to get to the department. Also, in those days (the 60’s) we were paid in cash, but left a lot of it there to pay our credit bill. Since we got an employee discount, it was easy to run up a balance. Wonderful memories, thank you for the opportunity to reminisce. Gail

  6. My parents met at McKelvey’s. My mom worked in the record department, and my father was a DJ at WBBW, which was located just down the street in the Warner Theater in the late 1950s. The story I was told was that they met when my dad went looking for a record he needed for his show that night.

  7. What a great experience I as a cousin didn’t know.
    My first experience was riding the bus from Steele to downtown with my grandma Karako. I was maybe 5 yrs.old.
    Later I have my poor children visiting Santa and surviving. What a fun and wonderful time in downtown.

  8. Bob,
    Thank you for that memory. I have wonderful memories of McKelvey’s myself. During the late 50s and 60s my grandmother took me a couple times a year to update my wardrobe in McKelveys. She always preferred McKelvey’s to Strouss’s. It always began with lunch in the Grille. Her favorite was the club sandwich. Next stop perfume and cosmetics we are there was always something we needed. Then on to the shopping where she knew all the ladies by name. It was a wonderful experience and McKelvey’s was a big part of my life. I’m so happy to hear that you have such great memories of it. Thank you for sharing them and making my day.

    • In reading responses to this post, I am amazed how many had experiences like yours, whether they shopped or worked at McKelvey’s. It has helped me realize what a special Youngstown place it was.

  9. My Grandmother worked in the Boy’s Dept in the basement. My Grandmother also introduced my parents to each other while working there also. I think the one thing I miss the most is the Christmas Windows.

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