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!

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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?