Steph Farber, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers and The Art Stop with his wife Phyllis Harrison, is the sole retail survivor from the period of flight from downtown following the opening of Tacoma Mall in 1965. Dean J. Koepfler Staff photographer
Steph Farber, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers and The Art Stop with his wife Phyllis Harrison, is the sole retail survivor from the period of flight from downtown following the opening of Tacoma Mall in 1965. Dean J. Koepfler Staff photographer

Business

One store’s vow to stay in downtown Tacoma

Staff writer

October 10, 2015 9:00 AM

 

Irving Farber opened a jewelry store in downtown Tacoma in 1941, and by the time his enterprise moved to its current location at 940 Broadway in the late 1970s, customers and businesses had been moving away for years.

The clothing stores, the department stores, the drugstores, the other jewelry stores, the hardware stores, the shoe stores all were gone.

“I would wrap gifts. I would sweep the floors. At Christmas, I’d take the bow machine home and make boxes of bows,” said Steph Farber, Irving’s son and current co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers and The Art Stop with his wife, Phyllis Harrison.

Today, Farber recalls a vibrant downtown.

“The movies were here, Kress was here — you could get 45s there — and comics were at Woolworth’s,” he said. “This was where people gathered.”

Until they started gathering at the Tacoma Mall.

“Downtown was where you shopped. It was where you visited friends,” Farber said. “You ran into people you knew.

“It was where you explored the toy department at Rhodes. This was our window on the world. Downtown was Rhodes Department Store with animals in the window at Christmas, in the manger.

“Downtown was like a family,” Farber said.

He recalls the faces: Babe and Herman Lehrer at Lyons Apparel, Bernie and Pearl Brotman at Bernie’s, Jay Grenley at Oakes Apparel, the Posner family at Helen Davis.

“They met every morning at Manning’s,” Farber said. “The owners had their own community. They shared the pleasures and traumas of owning a business.

“If we were busy here, Babe would come in and help. I’d spend as much time visiting at Bernie’s as I would at my folks’ store.”

 
Persistent vacancy signs sprinkled throughout downtown Tacoma and on Broadway next to LeRoy Jewelers are lasting signs of the impact of the Tacoma Mall. (Dean J. Koepfler, staff photographer.)

There was Sears down Broadway, and J.C. Penney, the Bon Marche, Rhodes, Peoples Store, Kress and Woolworth. There was the Blue Mouse Theater, the Roxy, the Rialto, the Music Box.

Then came the vacancies, the social service thrift stores, the sour scent of commercial decay.

“If we had been smarter …” Farber begins, then pauses. “It’s like Puget Sound before the next big earthquake. Why would things ever change? I don’t think it occurred to us that it would ever change.”

Farber said he learned a great lesson from his father and his mother, Hazel, who worked at the store nearly until she died.

“You put your head down and you just keep going,” he said.

Downtown was where you shopped. It was where you visited friends.

Steph Farber, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers and The Art Stop

At first, the mall was an anomaly. It wasn’t even a nuisance.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea of what it would mean,” Farber said. “Who needed it? We had the same things downtown, and you could park in front of the store.

“We did not see the locomotive coming down the tracks.”

The boom lowered slowly.

“There were rumors that Penney’s and the Bon were opening at the mall,” he said. “When we heard that, there was an uneasy feeling.”

Later plans to save downtown fizzled. The failed plans of a Portland developer caused a great deal of disappointment, Farber said, and people still debate the wisdom of turning Broadway into a pedestrian plaza.

“Boy, that was a bad idea,” Farber said.

Click to enlarge:
Three blended photographs of the area between Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the Bon Marche building in downtown Tacoma taken in September, 1965. (Richards Studio Collection, Tacoma Public Library.)

The escalators intended to move people up and down the hill downtown never did work quite the way promoters promised. Sidewalk sales didn’t live up to expectations, and does anyone remember the bed races along Pacific Avenue?

But as a teenager, Farber was as drawn to the mall as anyone.

“For kids, it was a wonderland,” he said. “You didn’t worry about the weather. There were all these stores.”

Even today, he said, he bears no umbrage for the upheaval caused when the mall opened.

“I still go out there at least once a year, whether I need to or not,” he said.

The realization that the mall would seriously affect downtown businesses came slowly.

For Hazel Farber, Steph said, “it was worrisome. She began to see her friends, the other local businesses, move. One by one, spaces became available.”

In 1966, you could spend money at 37 retail stores along Broadway between South Ninth and South 11th streets. By 1987, there were five.

Ted Brown Music was still here, as was The Camera Shop, and you could still get a hot turkey sandwich — and a handmade chocolate milkshake — at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter up until 1994.

In 1966, you could spend money at 37 retail stores along Broadway between South Ninth and South 11th streets. By 1987, there were five.

And then there was one. Hazel Farber, the de facto doyenne of downtown retail, had made a commitment to downtown Tacoma.

“In 1985, we put up a street clock. It was a public statement that we intended to stay,” Steph Farber said. “It was to show permanence, dependability.

“It told our story – that we were here, and how we were going to be here.”

His mother was a superb salesperson, and people kept coming back, Farber said.

“It would have been wonderful to have the same kind of traffic we had when I was a kid, but by that time we were developing into a different kind of business, with things you couldn’t get anywhere else.

“When one goes to Tacoma Mall, there are still a lot of jewelry stores, and they have a lot of the same merchandise.”

When she retired in 2006, Hazel Farber recalled how she felt when all the other stores were gone.

“Lonesome,” she said.

It’s difficult to pick the moment when downtown Tacoma decided to survive. For Steph Farber, however, it’s an easy thing to select the moment when downtown decided to die.

“There was a guy,” he said, and the guy had a sign that said it was time to repent because the world was about to end.

“When he disappeared,” Farber said, “I knew we were in trouble.”

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535

c.r.roberts@thenewstribune.com

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