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Internet buying is killing the malls, reminding some shoppers that malls killed the downtowns

Stores that were household names among shoppers in the last century are likely alien to kids today. Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater each had "five and dime" retailers downtown, such as McCrory's, Woolworth and Kress.
From the early- through mid-1900s, downtown was where people shopped. This downtown Tampa Maas Brothers store encompassed three-fourths of a block and was seven stories high.
From the early- through mid-1900s, downtown was where people shopped. This downtown Tampa Maas Brothers store encompassed three-fourths of a block and was seven stories high.
Published Jan. 25, 2019

Malls throughout the country continue to lose anchor tenants like Sears and J. C. Penney while some of the shopping complexes are closing altogether or seeking to reinvent themselves in this era of online buying.

Those raised during the 1970s and 1980s are nostalgic for youthful days spent at malls teeming with life.

Those born earlier are reminiscing, too — about the last time there was a monumental switch in the way people shopped.

Before the age of malls, downtown shopping districts on both sides of Tampa Bay were the center of commerce.

"Everybody shopped downtown," said Peggie Schmechel, 86, who was a store detective in downtown Tampa's Maas Brothers department store. "It's where everything happened. There were always big crowds. But times changed. We can't stop change. All we can do is hold onto our memories."

Stores that were household names among shoppers from the early- through mid-1900s are likely alien to kids today, she said.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater each had a variety of "five and dime" retail stores downtown, such as McCrory's, Woolworth and Kress. Wolf Brothers dealt in fine clothing and, most famously, its Tampa locale allegedly sold red and blue bandanas to Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

Downtown movie theaters and restaurants drew pedestrians known to dress in suits and gowns, even during hot Florida summer afternoons.

On weekends, downtowns were daytime and nighttime destinations even for visitors who weren't shopping. Faces in the crowd became familiar. Store employees knew regulars by name.

"That was the way it was back then," said Pamella Settlegoode, 69, whose grandmother worked for Macintyre's Dress Shop in downtown St. Petersburg.

"As kids, we'd get dressed up and our parents would let us take the city bus to downtown where there was so much to do."

Her favorite St. Petersburg store was Webb's City, which encompassed 10 blocks and had more than six dozen different departments. It wasn't the wares that drew her there. It was the entertainment. There were real dancing chickens, for instance, and mechanical mermaids voiced by a hidden woman.

"Your parent or grandparent would fill out a form with your name on it and the mermaid would say it," Settlegoode said. "I'd think, 'Oh my gosh, the mermaid is taking to me.'"

Maas Brothers department stores anchored the downtown shopping districts.

The vintage photo website website tampapix.com includes a directory of Tampa's Maas Brothers. It was seven stories high and had departments that sold everything from fine jewelry to citrus fruit.

"I bought both my wedding gown and cake at Maas," said Judy Dery, 74, who in the 1960s worked in the store's accounts receivable and billing departments.

Like Settlegoode's memories of Webb's City, it was Maas Brothers' fun vibe that stands out most to Dery.

For instance, some employees would band together to put on shows for customers.

"One time we were dancing showtime girls," Dery said with a giggle. "Another time we dressed like The Beatles."

It's the simplicity of the times that former store detective Schmechel misses most.

In the 1960s, before security cameras were the norm, her job was to spend the day masquerading as a Maas Brothers shopper. If Schmechel saw someone suspicious, she'd follow and then, if necessary, report them.

There were also crawl spaces with peep holes above certain stores from where she spied.

Schmechel later worked in sales. When customers purchased on credit, suction systems sent their information to employees who checked if payments were up to date.

"They would then look through files and blow all the paperwork back to you," Schmechel laughed. "It was such a different time."

Then, in the 1970s, times changed with the advent of suburban malls that shoppers grew to prefer. Downtown shopping districts died and the stores were demolished, re-purposed or remain vacant.

"Malls were more convenient," said Dery, who worked at Maas Brothers. "All the stores were together where in downtown you might walk three blocks to the next. But I liked downtown."

Still, Dery admits, she later joined the mall trend.

But Webb's City fan Settlegoode has stood strong.

"I have never gone to Tyrone Square, not once," she said. And on only one occasion has she shopped at what would be considered a "superstore."

"It was absolutely dreadful," Settlegoode said. "I think people crave being treated like a person and not commodity. That's the big difference between now and then."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes

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