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Patricia Wolf and Christopher Sawyer’s Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premier Department Story

By Harvey Fenigsohn

copy-of-3950-denholms-cvrIn this warm, nostalgic combination of memoir and history, Patricia Wolf and Christopher Sawyer reveal how a 103-year-old department store became a Worcester icon. It all started in 1870 when two enterprising Scotsmen discovered they could make a good profit selling dry goods to the burgeoning number of factory worker who kept the machines of the Industrial Revolution humming.

At the corner of Main and Mechanics Streets and later at Main and Franklin, in a state-of-the-art building funded by furniture magnate Jonas Clark, William C. McKay and William Denholm set up shop. Ultimately their “Boston Store” would become what the book aptly describes as “…a Disneyland, a shopping adventure and a community center.” Indeed, “Meet me at Denholms” became an oft-repeated refrain on the streets of Worcester for more than a century,

Patricia Wolf’s father, Harry Wolf, was just one in a succession of dynamic businessmen whose visionary leadership transformed a department store into a legend. Each generation of shrewd, imaginative merchants, most notably Frank Krim and Russell Corisini, introduced cutting edge innovations ~ credit accounts, electrical lighting, lavish interiors, eye-catching window displays, holiday promotions, international exhibitions, central air conditioning, fashion shows, gleaming escalators, and sophisticated advertising  ~ all to increase sales and establish Denholms’ reputation for retail excellence.

In what became the largest Massachusetts department store outside of Boston, employing over 500, “the grand dame of Main Street” attracted legions of loyal shoppers. The store’s six floors offered every variety of quality merchandise ~ from fashionable cosmetics to children’s toys, from ladies’ lingerie to kitchen appliances. Customers went to Denholms to choose a suit for graduation, to shop for an Easter outfit, to select a wedding gown, and to furnish their homes.  At Christmas, ecstatic children bounced on Santa’s knee and the whole family marveled at the 80 foot tall fir tree, listening enraptured as the store’s choir sang carols to the crowds.07-31-2011103b013b59am28229

Co-authors Sawyer and Wolf carefully chronicle Denholms’ evolution through the centuries, demonstrating how the store’s periodic changes in women’s fashion, progressive hiring practices, and innovative marketing strategies reflected America’s social, political, and financial history. We learn, for example, how in 1963 Denholms’ management was compelled to take a hard look at the store’s hiring policies when a group of angry picketers gathered outside to protest the fact that “In the ninety one year history of the store, only one African American had been promoted above the blue collar level.”

Always sensitive to community relations, the store’s managers made the reforms necessary for fair employment and Denholms continued to thrive. However, on January 14, 1973, to the city’s lingering regret, the doors of Worcester’s premier department store closed forever, one of the many downtown businesses no longer able to compete with nearby shopping malls. Nevertheless, through this charming book and the vivid memories of all who recall the pleasures of shopping in downtown Worcester, Denholms, in the words of Patricia Sawyer, will “…forever live as a symbol of a kinder, grander era of retailing.”

Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premier Department Story is available at amazon.com.

Pictured: Denholm and McKay Company, 1945

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