Carol Gaynor cried when she watched the demolition of the old downtown Maas Brothers store in 2006.
"It was the best place I ever worked,'' she said.
Fellow former Maas employee Lisa Lichtenberg was upset, too. "Our building is now a parking lot,'' she said, adding the line from Joni Mitchell: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.''
Though the store at Zack and Tampa streets had closed in 1991, its shell remained a reminder of a happy era to hundreds of former employees. For most of the 20th century, Maas Brothers was regarded as the premier department store in the Tampa Bay area. It generated loyalty from both customers and employees.
Those who worked the sales floors hold periodic reunions. On Saturday, the office workers will hold their first. About 200 of the former merchandise buyers, marketers and other behind-the-scenes workers are expected to converge on the Tampa Bay History Center to reminisce and look over memorabilia like Maas shopping bags, a 1948 employee handbook, a "charge-a-plate'' — a forerunner of credit cards — and the huge porcelain glazed concrete sign that faced Zack Street.
"Even though it was a very large corporation, it still felt like a family business,'' said Lichtenberg, who organized the reunion with Gaynor and Ruthie Rorebeck.
They hope to get a lot of store memorabilia to donate to the Maas collection at the history center. Lichtenberg, who worked as director of the merchandise information office, searched for but couldn't find an autographed picture of Jim Palmer, the former Baltimore Orioles pitcher and chiseled Jockey underwear model. He once stood in his Jockeys as a live advertisement in the picture window of the Maas store, creating a sensation.
"Every girl in town stood around that window,'' Gaynor said.
• • •
Abe Maas, a retailer from Georgia, founded the business as the Dry Goods Palace in 1886. The next year, his brother Isaac joined him and the store was renamed Maas Brothers. It operated as an independent family store until 1929, when it was sold to Hahn Stores, which changed its named to Allied Stores in 1935.
Under Allied, Maas Brothers expanded eventually to 39 stores throughout Florida, the downtown Tampa store remaining the home office. (Part of the office staff later moved to a building on Gandy Boulevard.) Pictures from the days before suburban malls show sales floors teeming with people who dressed up to shop downtown — ladies wearing dresses and hats and men in coats and ties. Its Suncoast Restaurant was a popular dining spot for downtown workers. Half a dozen or more judges from the nearby Hillsborough County courthouse gathered for lunch at a large table there every weekday.
"We grew up with the brand, grew up with the store,'' said Rorebeck. "It was a special place to shop.''
Rorebeck started working at Maas on the sales floors, was recruited for executive development, and joined the office staff as a buyer of lamps, rugs and furniture accessories.
"It was lot more fun in the buying office,'' she said. "We were a close group of people. We traveled together, partied together.''
Gaynor, who was administrative assistant to the vice president for home fashions and special events, enjoyed meeting the celebrities who came through for store promotions. In addition to Jim Palmer, she met Eva Gábor and Suzanne Pleshette, and she once took Lord Wedgewood to lunch. She and Wedgewood, a seventh-generation descendant of the famous chinamakers, dined at the old Selena's Restaurant in Hyde Park. "I learned an awful lot about Great Britain,'' Gaynor said.
• • •
Lichtenberg recalled the fabulous party the company threw for its employees for the 100th anniversary celebration in 1986. More than 850 people gathered for the black-tie event at the Hyatt in downtown Tampa. They were served a seven-course feast; Skitch Henderson led the orchestra; and the comic Alan King performed.
"We didn't know it, but while we were celebrating, this crazy Canadian, Robert Campeau, was plotting to buy Allied department stores,'' Lichtenberg said. "So that year, 1986, while we celebrated our 100th year, was the beginning of the end of Maas.''
In 1991, all the Maas Brothers stores merged with Burdines and were renamed for that Miami-based chain. (Now they are Macy's stores.)
"We did have a pink slip party,'' Rorebeck said. "We got together at Davis Islands Yacht Club, wore pink and danced and had liquid libations.''
Gaynor was out of town and couldn't go, but she knows it wasn't the happiest of parties.
"I was depressed,'' said Gaynor. "I was losing the best job I ever had and all my friends.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.