Cohen Brothers The Big Store Now Available

September 30, 2012 27 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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Once known as the “Wanamaker of the South,” Cohen Brothers department store captured the hearts of thousands of Jacksonville residents. Metro Jacksonville writers Ennis Davis and Sarah Gojekian take a wonderful trip through the store, from its beginnings as a dry goods enterprise in a small log cabin to its growth into a trend-setting retail institution and the final poignant closing of its doors. Davis and Gojekian brilliantly combine interviews with former employees, stories from the vibrant atmosphere the store created and memories from longtime residents to bring readers back to the bright glow and elegance of  one of  the South’s most distinctive enterprises.

Forward by Milt Hays, Jr.

For those of us of a certain age, shopping at Cohen Brothers big downtown store was as much a part of growing up in Jacksonville as heading to the beach in August or going to the movies to see the latest Western shoot-’em-up picture on Saturday mornings. (If we weren’t going with our parents to one of the new suburban drive-ins, we would take the old Ortega 3 bus to the air-conditioned Florida Theater, if not the Arcade or the Imperial.) Thinking back, I can still recall how impressed I was with Cohens’ wonderful open-cage elevators that took us up and down between the different departments, each a fascinating world unto itself, on the building’s various floors. Likewise, I have happy memories of running up and down the tightly wound marble staircase of the old Carnage Library, eating after-church Sunday dinners at Morrison’s Cafeteria (I can still remember the iced tea and the genial efficiency of the wait staff: “No waiting on the lower level!”) and marveling at the specialty shops along Bay Street. The Nautical Supply Company, as I remember it, was a veritable old curiosity shop, filled with strange and wonderful devices that hinted at voyages to foreign countries and mysterious ports of call.

Most of all, I remember what it was like to drive downtown at night with my parents during the Christmas holiday season to take in the lighted streets and storefront displays. The lights, the music and the happy mle of shoppers combined to transform the blocks around Cohen Brothers into something that approximated the closing scenes of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. For a child, this was a truly magical experience but one that, sadly, is now lost to anyone born after the early 1980s, when most of the other downtown department stores went away. While today we have a “festival marketplace” on the river, downtown Jacksonville looks anything but festive at Christmas and—save for the wonderful Super Bowl extravaganza of 2005—at very many other times. For this and a host of other reasons, it is difficult to convey to younger people a sense of just how much things have changed.
Seventy years before this unhappy transformation, my maternal grandfather, George B. Yenawine Sr., and his family moved down from Louisville to help open up the Cohen Brothers’ new, city block–encompassing store, and he managed the linens and furnishings department there until he passed away in 1952. After first renting a house on Laura Street in Springfield, my grandparents moved to the new, up-and-coming streetcar suburb of Avondale. During this period, my mother and her five siblings virtually grew up at Cohen Brothers, and the Big Store was an important, formative part of their lives. In accord with the fond recollections of others in Cohen Brothers: The Big Store, they ate at the Big Store’s restaurants, met with their friends at the candy counter and were dutifully watched over by the employees. Looking back, it really was a wonderful life.  

By the time I was born just after World War II had ended, Cohen Brothers was still Jacksonville’s flagship department store, and it anchored a thriving retail district that included such lively competitors as Furchgott’s, Ivey’s, Levy’s, JCPenney, Rosenblum’s, Woolworth’s and, later, the big new Sears “Cadillac” store over by the riverfront. This core of concentrated commercial activity, along with its professional offices, restaurants, theaters and hotels, continued to define Jacksonville as a city even as its original port and warehouse facilities migrated eastward and new government buildings took their place. By the early 1960s, the trend toward suburban shopping centers was well underway, but few people imagined that these new retail outposts would one day hasten the end of the traditional downtown. As it happens, I was not living in Jacksonville during the critical transitional years of the 1980s, but there is a bit of family folklore that touches on this. Late in her life, my mother still shopped at the by then renamed May-Cohens stores, but on one particular visit, her credit card was no longer accepted. As the young clerk explained to her, she had apparently not used her card for a long period of time, and thus the computer had purged her name from the list of Cohens’ customers. Of course, she was more than welcome to fill out all the required paperwork to apply for a new one. After that, I don’t think she ever shopped at Cohens again, and for our family, at least, this truly marked the end of an era.      
Personal anecdotes aside, Davis and Gojekian's engaging and well-researched account of “The Big Store” is much more than just a nostalgic look at an important element of Jacksonville’s architectural history, although it succeeds admirably in this respect. The story of the rise, fall and eventual rebirth of the St. James Building is a parable of our changing relationship with our downtown districts and our ambivalent feelings about all that has since come to replace them. Since the death of Cohen Brothers/May-Cohens and the other old-line department stores in Jacksonville’s downtown, local residents have enthusiastically embraced the culture of happy motoring with its shopping malls, strip centers and Edge Cities. Unfortunately, there is little consensus with respect to how much actual progress has been made in terms of how people work, shop and conduct their lives.
In telling the story of how visionary retailers and architects helped create the twentieth-century American department store, Cohen Brothers: The Big Store chronicles its development here in Jacksonville and how it literally reshaped the downtown. One of the signature achievements of the New Urbanism movement, in fact, was the rediscovery of the importance of our recursive interactions with the built environment, even if we are mostly unaware of just how much we are affected by it. Viewed in this light, the decline of America’s downtowns has radically altered our basic perceptions about what constitutes a normal human landscape, and the trajectory of suburbanization continues apace to transform every aspect of our lives. Shopping, as Davis and Gojekian's book so ably recounts, has undergone a complex evolution from the downtown retail districts of the 1920s to the strip centers and ubiquitous big box stores of today.
Now, as I recently heard on the news, online retailers are poised to challenge the hegemony of the big box stores, just as today’s Sprawl-Marts began to eclipse the chain department stores of a generation ago. But what does this next step in the evolution of mass marketing portend for the human experience of place and community, and how will people reshape their social interactions in light of this? Or, as James Howard Kunstler suggests in The Long Emergency and Too Much Magic, are we instead looking at a return to merchandising at a much smaller and more intimate local scale?
Another aspect of this history has to do with the increasingly contentious relationship between employers and their employees. In their own, mostly unregulated, era, the Cohen brothers were thought to be very enlightened in the way that they treated those who worked for them. Although they were probably rather paternalistic by current standards, their concern for the welfare of their store associates (before this term had taken on today’s Orwellian overtones) was, by all accounts, genuine. Likewise, their bottom line included a thoughtful appreciation of the local community that supported them, a much different approach from the dominant, shareholder equity–centered business model of today. Through their practices and associations, the founders of the Big Store evidenced an understanding that they were an intimate part of the local ecology of commerce, and employee picnics and perquisites were merely one expression of a much broader and deeper concern. Fortunately, the ethical imperative of mutual support within communities has never entirely gone away, as Joseph William Singer reminds us in his book, The Edges of the Field. Whether or not such “uncommon decency” will one day return to the world of business is another question for the future.
Finally, the loss of May-Cohens and the other old-line department and specialty stores from Jacksonville’s downtown offers a cautionary tale about the limits of planning in an era of rapid social and technological change. While the death of retailing in the city’s central core may not have been inevitable, it would be difficult to say what—if any single action—might have prevented its eventual demise. As Cohen Brothers: The Big Store recounts this history, the central business district suffered from a death by a thousand cuts, with each successive store closure and industry relocation contributing to the atrophy of the district’s life-sustaining social infrastructure. Unfortunately, by the time the full extent of this loss was grasped, the response of Jacksonville’s city officials (despite an abundance of consultant studies) always seemed to be a day late and a dollar short, whatever might have been tried. Three decades later, concerned parties are still trying to come up with grand concepts and “magic bullets” to reanimate Jacksonville’s downtown, conflating a poorly connected collection of single-use activity zones with the richly diverse urban tapestry that Jane Jacobs Jacobs has described.
Encouraged by the emergence of the New Urbanism movement, many of us have anticipated that more people would come to recognize the critical importance of creating and/or preserving more functional, culturally sustaining built environments. In this respect, Jacksonville’s recent history has been a very mixed bag, with a smattering of significant successes (including its nationally recognized neighborhood preservation movements and the wonderfully executed adaptive reuse of the St. James Building) and a discouraging number of missed opportunities. This book’s real importance, therefore, may be in documenting all of the many factors that came together one hundred years ago to create a truly vibrant and successful urban form. If having a sense of place continues to matter, I would like to think that Cohen Brothers: The Big Store is not so much the autopsy of a historic community that has passed away but a guidebook for appreciating (and perhaps replicating) the genius loci of its age.

"Cohen Brothers The Big Store" Table of Contents

Foreword, by Milt Hayes, Jr.

1. From Germany to America

2. Growth and Disaster

3. The Big Store Comes to Jacksonville

4. An Institution for the People

5. A New Name

6. Growing Up Around the Big Store

7. Changing Demographics: Suburban Explosion

8. The Big Store Heads to the Suburbs

9. A Mall for the Big Store

10. An Icon Vanishes

11. A New Lease on Life

12. Remembering the Big Store

From the Candy Kitchen



About the Authors

Authors Ennis Davis and Sarah Gojekian

Special Thanks

Special acknowledgment is extended to the following individuals, organizations and businesses who have served as major resources for the preparation of this book.


Royce Bardin
Micheal Berry
Linda Bremer
Paul Bremer
Ron Chamblin
John Christian
Steve Congro
Stephen Dare
Mike Dreaden
Mike Field
Daniel Herbin
Dorothy Fletcher
Sarah Gojekian
Milt Hays, Jr.
Jennifer Hewett-Apperson
Jerry Higingbotham
Mike Johnson
Drew Kaplan
Arash Kamiar
Hazel Mack
Robert Mann
Autumn Martinage
Joel McEachin
Lauren Swain Mosley
William Nussbaum
Lisa Sheppard
John Sullivan

Organizations and Businesses

City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office
City of Jacksonville Planning & Development Department
Chamblin's Uptown
First Coast Section of the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association
Florida Center for Instructional Technology
Florida East Coast Railway
Florida Times-Union
Jacksonville Business Journal
Jacksonville Historical Society
Jacksonville Magazine
Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department
History Press, Inc.
Library of Congress
Malls of America
Metro Jacksonville
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
State Archives of Florida
Temple Congregation Ahavath Chesed
Transform Jax
University of Florida Architecture and Fine Arts Library
University of Florida George A. Smathers Library
University of North Florida Thomas G. Carpenter Library
Whiteway Corner

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Books are scheduled to be delivered to Metro Jacksonville the week of October 12th, 2012. Books are expected to hit the retail shelves in November.