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