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Tuesday, April 3, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Store With Lore -- A Story Worth Retailing: Frederick & Nelson Marks 100 Years Of Merchandising

If you grew up here, you remember the Frango Mints.

You remember the display windows, up one side of the block and down the other, changing and changing - constantly.

Robert Spector tells more about Frederick & Nelson:

``It was where little girls learned to be ladies, where little boys bought their first suits. . . It's part of Seattle's lifestyle.''

Frederick's is turning 100 and having a downtown block party at noon Thursday to prove it.

Spector, a Seattle free-lance business writer who is regional correspondent for Fairchild Publications, which includes Women's Wear Daily, has just completed ``More Than a Store: Frederick & Nelson 1890-1990.'' It's a work commissioned by the company to celebrate the event, and to talk about all those years.

Spector moved here about a dozen years ago from New York. But his wife, Marybeth, grew up in Seattle.

``Before I knew anything else about the store, she told me how her grandmother used to take her to the Tearoom when she was a little girl.''

The Tearoom (it was established in 1903), with its weekly fashion shows, and the Christmas season, with its elaborate decorations and long lines of children waiting to sit on Santa's lap in the big corner window, are experiences shared by a good many Seattleites.

F&N owner David Sabey says his first memories of the store date from the '40s: of sitting on Santa's lap and of playing in the

kindergarten on the fourth floor while his mother shopped.

Longtime customer Elizabeth McKinley still recalls the day in the '30s when her mother took her to Frederick's to buy her first pair of Mary Janes.

And Gerry Smith, a customer from Tacoma, says she remembers getting lost in the store when she was 4 years old. A staff member bought her an ice-cream cone while someone else looked for her mother.

The store had become a major influence on Seattle fashion and home furnishing by just after the turn of the century.

Spector says it was one of the first to bring ready-to-wear here, in 1906, and the first to buy European high fashion in the '50s.

``The same goes for furniture. Frederick's started out as a used-furniture store. . . . When the city started growing, they furnished the new hotels and the grand homes that were being built.''

Spector begins his story in 1890, when the city was rebuilding after the great fire of 1889.

Donald E. Frederick and James Mecham, who had met while mining in Colorado, were the original partners. They moved into an old barn on Second Avenue, which was the town's major retail center. When Nels B. Nelson, a buddy from Colorado, arrived and proposed he buy into the partnership, the three men sealed the agreement with a handshake.

They soon moved to a new building and did business as J.G. Mecham & Co. However, after only a few months Mecham sold his interest, and Frederick & Nelson was born.

Over the years, rumors had it that the trio parted company because they didn't get along, Spector said. ``But one of the most rewarding things in writing the book was finding this was not true.''

Spector said he found his answer in a special section published by The Seattle Times on the store's 50th anniversary.

``Mecham, who was then in his 80s and living in Michigan, wrote a letter to clarify the situation saying that he had retired because of ill health despite his partners' objections,'' Spector said.

``We remained friends throughout the years that followed,'' Mecham wrote.

Frederick and Nelson had vowed to create the largest and finest store west of the Mississippi and north of San Francisco, and they proved to be a natural team.

Frederick had an instinct for merchandising, a high regard for service, and every hair on his red head radiated energy to those around him, Spector wrote.

Nelson possessed an affable personality that quickly made friends for the store.

They survived the financial Panic of 1893 and struck the mother lode when Seattle became the ``Gateway to Alaska'' during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s. By the early 1900s, the store had a fleet of 28 delivery wagons and 61 prize-winning horses that delivered merchandise to customers.

Spector paints a grand picture as he describes ``the full complement of horse and wagon teams that pranced in tight parade formation down Second Avenue from the stables past the front of the store to Madison Street where they awaited their delivery assignments.''

In 1907, Nelson died at sea while returning from a visit to a medical spa in Bohemia. Frederick continued his commitment to the store, and about 1914 he decided to erect a landmark building.

He settled on the present site at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street, which was considered the suburbs. But he was convinced that Seattle would eventually expand north and east. It was a shocking decision dubbed ``Frederick's Folly'' by a segment of the business community.

However, within a year other businesses followed, expanding and shifting the city's retail core.

Also shocking was Frederick's decision to build a six-story building (with a seventh floor in the basement) on a foundation that could support an eventual 10 stories.

Two other significant moments in the store's history were its sale to Marshall Field & Company in 1929, and Frederick's death in 1937.

A year later a man named William S. Street became a major player in the store's history. Spector interviewed him for the book.

``Talking to Street . . . was fascinating,'' Spector said. ``Next to D.E. Frederick, he was the most important man in the history of the store. He not only headed Frederick & Nelson, but he was an officer and on the board of directors of Marshall Field. Even though he was from out of town, he was treated as an equal by the other officers. He had the ear of the rest of the board.''

It was Street who brought the store through the Depression. He didn't want to fire people, but he had no choice. However, when someone suggested firing the legendary doorman, Street balked.

``I'm the next to the last one to go; the doorman is last,'' Spector quotes Street as saying.

Street retired in 1962 and became chairman of the Century 21 Corp. that organized the Seattle World's Fair.

The store found itself caught up in the changing times without Street's clout with the Marshall Field board members. Boeing was developing the 747, and thousands of newcomers were arriving to settle the suburbs. While other retailers were jumping on the suburban bandwagon, Marshall Field took a more conservative course.

Frederick's had opened its three-story Aurora Village store in 1963 and expanded its Bellevue store. The Southcenter store was finished in 1968, but Spector's book says the Southcenter experience was ``a typical example of Field's inertia. The Bon Marche, J.C. Penney, and the hard-charging Nordstrom-Best specialty store staked out their locations a year ahead of Frederick's, which ended up with a subpar site . . .''

In contrast, he notes that by 1978, The Bon owned 24 stores in five Western states and Nordstrom had 20 stores in four Western states.

Then, between 1978 and 1980, Frederick's pace of growth changed. Under G. Arthur Henkins, president and chief executive officer, Frederick's stores nearly quadrupled in number, from four to 15, according to Spector.

Henkins replaced the budget floor with the present-day Arcade, which is devoted to gourmet food, candy, fresh produce, wine, restaurants and housewares.

He also opened the Pzaz shop, a splashy junior-apparel boutique, on the second floor.

But the changes and the business climate ``spelled Frederick's undoing,'' Spector wrote. There also was a change in attitude. Marshall Field emphasized ``deep discounting and cost-cutting.'' The store was ordered to charge for alterations and deliveries, which it never had done.

In 1982, the outstanding Marshall Field stock was purchased by Batus Inc., and as Spector puts it, ``F&N became just one of a crowd of once-proud department stores under a distant corporate umbrella.''

Again there was a switch in merchandising strategies. Spector writes that Frederick's slipped to third place, behind Nordstrom and The Bon, in the Seattle market.

``Its once-loyal clientele felt that they had lost an old friend to a slow death that was almost too painful to watch.''

Last year, Sabey, a real-estate developer and Seattle native, bought the store and immediately vowed to restore it to its former grandeur.

One of his first tasks was to change the style of management. He met with employees in all departments, had a doorman's uniform made for himself and actually opened doors for customers.

He invited the public to suggest changes and has said several times that his own mother had a to-do list for him that included bringing the oatmeal bread back to the bakery and putting benches by the bus stop.

Or, as Sabey told Spector: ``Our job is to bring back the things that make Frederick & Nelson special.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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