Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–McKelvey’s

EPSON scanner image

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!


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?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Restaurants


Classic Restaurants of Youngstown

The Mural Room, The 20th Century, Palazzo’s, The Brass Rail, the MVR and the Golden Dawn. The arrival in the mail of Classic Restaurants of Youngstown took me on a walk down memory lane as I paged through its contents last night. In a number of posts, I have discussed how Youngstown was, and is, a city of great and diverse food.  Part of it, I think was that there were so many women who cooked so well for their own families that any self-respecting restaurant that wanted to stay in business had to do as well or better. And all of them served generous portions. Skimpy plates of gourmet food just didn’t cut it for working class people with big appetites.

I had several reactions as I paged through this book. One was to remember all the places I liked and the memories associated with these. There were all those Saturday night pizza’s we got from Molly O’Dea’s, which contrary to its name had a strong Italian food menu and great pizza.  I was interested to learn that at the time this book was written, they were still around. There were all the Sundays we’d drive across town to get a bucket of chicken at Golden Drumstick. Palazzo’s was where we went out to eat for my senior prom (of course spent lots of money and broke up with the girl a month later!). There were the Spinning Bowl Salads at the 2oth Century. We had a college group at Youngstown that had an end of the quarter ritual of going there for dinner. We once almost got kicked out for the exuberance of our celebration. There was Lums in the old McKelvey’s Parkade where my wife and I got some food on our first date. Of course many of us would go and get pizza during college at the Pizza Oven. I asked my wife to marry me at the Brown Derby. When I was visiting a faculty friend at Youngstown State, I remember finally getting introduced to the MVR, which set the standard for good Italian food for me.

There were memories of later life and trips back to Youngstown. The book mentioned the Armadillo on the West Side that had great food but closed after a short time. My dad loved to bring in Brier Hill pizzas from Avalon Garden when we visited him and mom in their apartment at Park Vista. My dad also loved going up to Kravitz’s Deli on Belmont, and we later discovered the Kravitz’s in Poland Library.

I had some regrets as I looked through the book as well. I never ate at the Mural Room, which was one of the great Youngstown restaurants, not only for the food but the murals. Nor did I get to the Brass Rail, a favorite downtown spot. I worked downtown for several years in high school and college in what were basically minimum wage jobs so I ate cheap at Jay’s Hot Dogs or Lum’s or the Hasti House or the Strouss’ Grille. The Western Reserve Room at Strouss was too expensive. Also, had to remember store loyalties–I worked at McKelvey’s, later Higbee’s and always had to remember to take off my store badge if I went down to the competition.

The last thing is that I looked for references for the Grille at McKelvey’s. My father managed the restaurant for the last ten years or so before Higbee’s finally closed the store in 1979. I remember two things. One was that he was dedicated to fast and friendly service and often personally seated customers. Second was that he picked up a recipe for Reuben sandwiches that were some of the best I ever had. One of my regrets is that I didn’t think to get it from him! While the Grille was mentioned at several points and there is one picture of the outside, they didn’t get much coverage, nor was my dad mentioned. Personally, I thought he did pretty well for someone who had never before managed a restaurant–but then I’m a bit partial!

What is striking is that all, or nearly all of these places and so many others in the book were locally owned, and often passed from parents to children. Every one was unique. I haven’t even begun to touch on all the mom and pop bar/restaurants scattered throughout Youngstown neighborhoods, many covered in the book. How different from today with all its restaurant chains and big box stores that are the same everywhere. There was a richness to life in working class Youngstown during the years we were growing up that I don’t think is understood–a richness in the fabric of community, a flourishing of the arts, and outstanding and unique restaurants.  This book reminded me of all of this.

What are some of your restaurant memories? Favorite restaurants?