When author Jean Shepherd's memories of Christmas at Higbee's were incorporated into the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” Cleveland, Ohio, residents didn't just share those memories of the beloved downtown department store — they were living them.
The downtown department was still alive and well — unlike Oklahoma City's own jewel, John A. Brown's.
The Oklahoma City store got its start in 1915, and it didn't take long for it to become of the “grand dame” of downtown retailers (a title bestowed on it by one of my all-time favorite Oklahoman writers, the late Mary Jo Nelson).
John A. Brown died in 1940, and it was his widow, Della Brown, who expanded the store into Tulsa, Capitol Hill, Norman and Penn Square Mall. The downtown store, however, remained the flagship of the chain. It was there that Della Brown insisted each department have its own professional buyer.
Everything could be found at Brown's — books, appliances, home furnishings, jewelry, furs, flowers, fabrics, toys and clothing. Nelson wrote that one former Oklahoma City resident who had moved to California planned vacations around visiting the store.
Much like the Higbee's featured in “A Christmas Store,” the Christmas decorations and festivities at Brown's made a trip downtown special.
Time, however, changes everything.
The Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was formed in the 1960s to do away with the old, “worn out” buildings such as those that were home to the sprawling department store.
The renewal agency, intent on bulldozing Main Street to make way for a Galleria Mall, never managed to get into a direct battle with Della Brown. She swore she would keep the downtown store open as long as Urban Renewal stayed out of her way.
But when she died in 1967, the store's control was passed on to two employees. The chain was sold to the Dayton-Hudson Corp., which at that time was starting up an intriguing new retailing concept — Target.
The company closed the downtown store in 1974 with assurances a reopening was possible in the new Galleria Mall. The mall, however, never got built.
Efforts to get a downtown mall continued through the 1980s, while dreams of attracting a department store back downtown never really went away. During planning for redevelopment of the blighted Core to Shore area between the Central Business District and the Oklahoma River, I heard several civic leaders pine for a Nordstrom's.
Nordstrom's isn't coming downtown.
John A. Brown's, like many regional department store chains, was swallowed up into bigger names such as Dillard's and Macy's.
It's that reality that finally cost Houston its historic downtown Foley's store (which ended life as a Macy's), and St. Paul, Minn., its historic Dayton store (which also ended life as a Macy's) and St. Louis its Famous-Barr Department Store (again, a Macy's in the end).
Being in an exotic locale with a lot of tourists isn't a sure bet for downtown department survival, either — Macy's also recently killed its downtown Honolulu store.
And Higbee's? It closed in 2001.
Don't despair. Almost a dozen new retailers selling clothing, gifts, home goods, wine, bicycles and basic home needs have opened in downtown Oklahoma City in the past few years.
A major downtown department store is part of the past. John A. Brown's is dead — but its spirit, spread out among many smaller retailers — lives on in downtown Oklahoma City.