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.
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