They all loved Lazarus.
They all loved Lazarus.
When David Meyers told people that he, his wife and their daughter were working together on a book about the Lazarus family and their “grand emporium” in downtown Columbus, the invariable response was:
“I loved that store!”
“In ‘Look to Lazarus,’ my wife, daughter and I attempt to explain why,” David Meyers wrote in his introduction to the book he co-authored with Beverly Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker. “We also hope to convey to younger generations what a truly wonderful place these grand emporiums were.
“Sadly, there is nowhere left they can go to experience what it was like when Lazarus and its kindred institutions were in their heyday.”
The family from Clintonville each brought a little something different to the table in producing “Look to Lazarus: The Big Store,” which was published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C.
As a young man, David Meyers worked one summer and over Christmas at the downtown department store, which would eventually have branches in Northland Mall and the major central Ohio shopping centers that followed.
“So I had a little bit of knowledge from the inside,” he said.
“The plastic Lazarus badge pinned to my shirt was my passport to another world,” David Meyers wrote. “Behind the scenes was an Escheresque array of chutes, tubes, monorails, conveyor belts, stairways, elevators and tunnels connecting the far-flung corners of the store like secret passages in a gothic novel.
“I felt like a kid at Disneyland exploring this parallel universe, unseen and unsuspected by the thousands of customers who swarmed daily through the store.”
Beverly Meyers and her daughter, like thousands upon thousands of others, both shopped at Lazarus, and have enchanting but different recollections.
“We could be shopping and I could have a piece of cake, and normally when you’re going clothing shopping that’s not an option,” Walker said.
“Riding the bus downtown to Lazarus to spend the whole day, it was truly an event,” Beverly Meyers said.
Collaborating on books about local history is old hat for father and daughter; they previously co-authored “Central Ohio’s Historic Prisons” in 2009 and “Historic Columbus Crimes: Mama’s in the Furnace, the Thing and More” in 2010. The latter was also published by The History Press, and the editor there commissioned the work on Lazarus.
“He thought there’d be a lot of interest in it,” David Meyers said. “It wasn’t something that I would have come up with on my own.”
“Look to Lazarus,” at least in its subject matter, is a marked shift from the punishment and crime theme the father-daughter writing team had going.
“To us it’s not such a departure,” Walker said. “I realize to the reader it is, but to us it’s still a book about local history and a book about our city. We’re writing about the city we love. We’re telling the truth about it.”
Beverly Meyers accompanied her husband on interviews with retired store executives, and her presence helped bring another perspective to the finished product, that of the wives of these men.
“They got into the Lazarus spirit,” she said. “They felt like they belonged to Lazarus, too.”
Among those interviewed, Beverly Meyers said, was the man who first introduced pantyhose into the Columbus market. “He’s kind of embarrassed about it,” she said.
Before agreeing to write the book, David Meyers met with Robert Lazarus Jr., the “last man standing” in terms of the department store family.
“He wholeheartedly approved,” David Meyers said. “Since the book has come out, he’s called me several times to say how much he liked it.
“There wasn’t any other establishment like it in the country,” he added. “Lazarus was the envy of all the other family-owned retail stores because they just so dominated the market. The other side of that is, how did they do that? They did it because people trusted them. They bent over backwards to make sure that was how people viewed the store. They intuitively knew what they needed to do and what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work.”
“The storied history of the Lazarus flagship store finally came to an end, not with a bang or a whimper but with a prolonged clearance sale, concluding on Aug. 14, 2004,” the family members wrote. “Sales manager Janet Fraime made the final announcement over the store intercom, ‘It is now 5 p.m. and the downtown location is closed. Thanks for your support.’ Only 50 employees were left to witness the end of the great adventure.”
“The closing of Lazarus I thought was very sad because it sort of signaled the passing of the grand emporium,” David Meyers said. “It was one of the last family-owned department stores.
“I learned a lot of things that I didn’t really know as far as how involved the Lazarus family was in the development of the city.”
“Columbus grew up with Lazarus and vice versa,” the book states. “For more than 150 years, the Lazarus family profited from the patronage of Columbus citizenry, and in return, the city benefited from the dollars that flowed through this incredible economic engine. At its height, Lazarus controlled one third of the retail activity in the city, a feat that no other store in the country ever matched.
“The story of the Lazarus is a story of enterprise, perseverance, gumption, innovation, loyalty, commitment, family and change. Lots of change. It is also a story of the love between a store and a community.
“ ‘There has been a love affair,’ Robert Lazarus Jr. told (Dispatch) columnist Mike Harden. ‘The downtown store has a sentimental place in people’s hearts. It was, for many, something special.’
“The Lazari, as the family called themselves, did not hide from the public. They were listed in the phone book. Bob Jr. says that it was never a problem because people always respected them. When a customer called late one evening, it was to ask the proper way to serve tea, which Robert’s father took the time to patiently explain. Unlike many modern-day captains of industry, they didn’t feel the need to have bodyguards for their children.
“But Lazarus is now history.”
And now there’s a book about that history.