April 15, 2010

R.I.P. Window-shopping at Porters ends April 26

Surely, my memory is playing tricks, but I distinctly remember my first visit to Porters soon after I moved to Racine in 1995. My wife and I walked through the store, admiring the furniture and room settings. Then we  came upon a particularly beautiful dining room table, china cabinet and six chairs.

Idly I reached for the price tag on one of the chairs; it said $4,000, more or less. "Wow," I said. "That's a nice dining room set, but $4,000 is way out of our price range!" My wife gave me that look -- one I've come to recognize many times over the years. It means, "You idiot; I can't take you anywhere." And so I looked again at the price tag, and discovered that $4,000 was the price of one chair. Whoops.

Sadly, I won't have to worry about being embarrassed by the price of quality furniture any more, at least not on Sixth Street. Porters has been holding its Going Out of Business sale for three months now, and it announced today that its final day will be April 26. The store is 152 years old, a victim of either the national economy or the two-year reconstruction of Sixth Street outside its front door that didn't end until last November. (It was Bob and Micah Waters of Porters who were handed the  time capsule for burial at the ceremonial finish of that reconstruction. Ah, the irony.)

Many other, lesser, Downtown stores blamed their failure on the economy or the roadway disruption. But Porters' problem dates back further. The monied class -- Racine once had plenty, as each of those industrial giants that once stamped out tractors, cars, wagons, office furniture, malted milk, lawn mowers, small appliances -- was run by executives, the folks who built those mansions along Main Street and Lake Michigan. Well that was then, this is now. The factories are mostly gone, along with the executives who shopped at Porters and the factory workers who just window-shopped. The store could not depend upon Chicagoans venturing north in their Benzes and Cadillacs.

First floor display in March, left

The Aug. 12, 1938, front page of the Journal Times -- it's framed and  hanging in the store's showroom -- heralded the Porter Furniture Company's move to Sixth Street, with a three-column picture and the lede story.  The business was already 80 years old when Ted Gottlieb, president, sat down in his lawyer's office to sign the papers buying "five old rat trap buildings"  owned by the Wisconsin Gas & Electric Company -- 120 ft. of frontage on Sixth Street and 88 feet on South Wisconsin --  in "an area described as one of the most desirable business districts in the city."

The story didn't say how much Gottlieb paid for the property, which needed extensive remodeling. (It's doubtful the price would seem like much today; the paper itself carried a price of 4 cents.) But it did say the sale was "the biggest deal of its kind in ten years." Well, yeah; ten years earlier the Great Depression began.

Gottlieb said: "We will erect a store, which from the standpoint of beauty and skillful planning for merchandising, will compare favorably with any store in the country, including those in metropolitan areas." The store was already known for its outstanding window displays -- even though it had only 40' of window in its Main Street store, one door down from the old Rialto Theatre; Gottlieb was looking forward to having 208' of windows with which to entice us to come inside. Entice they did: when the store reopened in 1939, 40,000 people toured the store, according to the company history. "People would line up around the block... for  the yearly unveiling of the Guild Galleries," says the store's history, showing a lovely picture of the waiting crowds.

And now it's all-but-over. I went through the store last month, and already many of the displays were gone. Lots of fine furniture remained, all sporting big discounts that were still not enough to bring much into my price range. A $45,000 Oriental rug for $19,000; a bedroom suite that once went for $26,000 now going for under $13,000. Yes, a visit to Porters was often like that; the unreachability overshadowed the fine workmanship.

Still, I'll miss it. It's always nice to be able to dream.

The Aug. 12, 1938, Journal Times announced Porters' arrival on Sixth Street


  1. I always took friends and family to tour Porter's whenever they visited us in Racine. It was a fantastic store. I once bought a chair and some end tables from the outlet, but otherwise, it was fun just to look over the merchandise all these years. i wish we could have afforded more. We'll miss the place.

  2. The idiots that run our city are responsible for this closing. They rebuilt 6th St over and over again until the poor family could no longer take the punishment. City Hall should be ashamed by the fact that they have killed a great business that the Great Depression could not even kill. Goes to show how daft our local politicians truely are. Also, Mayor Dickert is not exempt from the daft name tag, he should be trying to keep a great landmark, such as Porter's, alive instead of killing it.

  3. A few years ago, I discovered a near-mint bed with 2 matching bedside tables at St. Vinny's in the hood for $65. It was from the late 40's/early 50's, but who cares? It's beautiful and it's mine. Oh yeah, and it's all from Porter's. SCORE.

  4. I almost forgot. The road itself does look just wonderful. Such beautiful sidewalks for unemployed people looking to rent a storefront for a new art gallery, to walk on. I am sure that during the days of the photo above, it was quite an electric feeling to see all of those people walking the shopping district when Racine had jobs and industry instead of art galleries and fluffy nonsense.
    I guess that is why the are called the "Good Old Days".

  5. I don't know that there are any downtown furniture stores flourishing anywhere. One of Porter's drawing points was that it was unique in our time.

  6. "The idiots that run our city are responsible for this closing. They rebuilt 6th St over and over again until the poor family could no longer take the punishment."

    The store sells $40,000 dining room sets in the Walmart era, but fixing the street killed it? Do you think before you type?

    Do you think they had ANY customers that happened to drive by and say "Oh, what nice furniture, let's buy some" ?

    Their customers came from far and wide. The closed because the market for expensive furniture is shrinking. The economy killed a lot of nouveau riche and the old money crowd is dying off while their heirs aren't interested in quality furniture.

  7. The sad part is that the building will likely sit empty for years. "The building" is actually many smaller buildings where the floor don't line up and parts sag. It served its purpose for Porters but it is hard to figure out what else it could be used for in its current configuration. It is the only store I have ever been in that they give you a map when you enter. Likely so they don't need to try to find you when the store closes each night.

  8. Porter's was a wonderful institution in Racine. It was a family business handed down over time. Yes, the furniture was expensive, but you got what you paid for. Anything purchased there could last a life time. The store did draw far outside of Racine which was another opportunity for other local business in Racine. It was just fun to stroll in the store espcially when they had their gallaries. Sure the 6th Street construction did not help, but unfortunately the closing was inevitable in this economic climate. I wish the Water's family well in the future and thank you for the wonderful furniture and experiences.

  9. Rees Roberts4/16/2010 10:21 AM

    When my mother, Kay Roberts, moved into her apartment, we needed a bedroom set. We looked all over the place but couldn't find anything she liked. I suggested we look at Porters and her first reaction was "how could we possibly afford it?"

    Well, we went down to Porters and took a look around. After going through most of the store the sales person said, "wait, I just thought of something". She came back a minute later and suggested we follow her.

    If my memory is right, crowded near the entrance next to what appeared to be the stairway to a downstairs area was a set my mother was immediately drawn to. The sales person knew we couldn't afford the "typical" Porters price tag and went to "management" to see what they could do.

    Lo and behold, they came up with a price we could afford. That furniture was in her apartment and later in our home when she came to live with us. It was truly a purchase of a lifetime. She enjoyed it until she passed away a number of years ago.

    We all will miss Porters and what it represented... the place where we could hope some day we could shop there and afford to buy something. My mother had that dream fulfilled and she was so delighted. Didn't matter to her that she paid pennies on the dollar. It was that she made the purchase at Porters.

    Thank you to the people at Porters.

  10. Who need Porters when we have Rowdy Roddy Piper Day in Racine?

    Party on!

  11. Orbs - That comment was of real value.

    Rees - we finally agree on something - too bad to see Porters go.

  12. C'mon, Racine is a party town. There's no room for stodgy old enterprises like Porters in our vibrant downtown art community where we get drunk and pee and puke on a memorial to our war dead. Elite art connoisseurs do not want to deal with high priced furniture as they pour millions of dollars into our local economy. Get with the times.

  13. Orbs - you said "where we get drunk and pee and puke on a memorial to our war dead." I would not be so proud of yourself for doing that - Sir.

  14. It's nearly impossible to find quality American-made furniture anywhere at all, really. A few years ago, when we moved into a larger house, we wanted to find some pieces to match our bedroom furniture, we found that the company that had made the set had gone out of business. Some Chinese company offered similar furniture, but it proved to be veneer over composite wood.

    I imagine that Porter's problems stem not only from the demand side but also the supply side.

  15. Couldn't resist going down today to buy a new replacement chair and another set of nesting tables, just like the old ones, which we'll donate (still good).

    A couple nice fellas even delivered the furniture for us today.

    Nice folks, good bargains, considering. Glad we went one more time.

  16. There are some fantastic deals there right now. I bought a great desk there that I would never had been able to afford before this last sale. Sad to see the store go but the prices are amazing right now.