As told to Jen Rubin, Love Wisconsin
Nina’s Department Store has been in our family for four generations. My great grandfather, Harris Marcus, started the business. He was an immigrant from Russia.
Like countless other Russian Jews at the time, he fled religious persecution and in 1886 landed at Castle Garden, which was the forerunner of Ellis Island. He had relatives in New York, but when he made contact with them, he was told that so many family members had already come over, that they had no work for him. But there was a cousin in Chicago who might have a job for him, so they sent my great grandfather there by railroad. The same thing happened in Chicago. He met this cousin and the cousin said, “I’ve brought too many people into my business, I don’t have a place for you. But there’s another cousin, Max, who lives in the little town of Columbus, Wisconsin, who might have work for you in his store.” So Harris went up to Columbus and Max said, “I really don’t have any work for you in the store, but I can give you a pack with some fabric, thread, and needles and you can peddle.” This simple pack of merchandise is the origin story of Nina’s Department store.
For many Jewish immigrants, on the road peddling was their start-up occupation as they tried to make a living in their new home. Max told my great grandfather that there was an area along the Wisconsin River that’s not being covered. “That can be your territory. You can peddle our merchandise there.” My conversation with other Jewish historians who are familiar with how peddling worked said there was a respect for people’s territory amongst Jewish peddlers, and you didn’t step into somebody else’s territory. For seven years, Harris sold fabric and sewing supplies to farm women in this patch of the Wisconsin River Valley. He went from carrying a pack on his back, walking down the country roads, to being able to afford a horse and saddlebags. This meant he could carry more merchandise, and eventually he was able to buy a wagon.
Changing from a horse and saddlebags to a wagon opened up his business opportunities. Now Harris was selling pots and pans and household items to farm wives. And he was learning English as he went. By 1893, he was able to open his first store in Muscoda, Wisconsin, about 25 miles west of Spring Green. Turns out that the store was not a success, closed after a year, and my great grandfather went back to peddling. But a year later he tried again. This time his eldest children helped him and they opened another store in Muscoda. That store, under the influence of my great uncle, Ben, and his brothers did well. By 1912 my family had built this big, beautiful department store.
In 1912, the Muscoda Progressive, which was the local newspaper at the time, did a story on the Marcus family, which they called “a rags-to-riches story.” From peddling to this “modern” department store; our family business became an American success story.
My great grandfather had five sons and one daughter; four of his sons followed him into the family business. He named the business Harris Marcus & sons.
The department store sold a variety of merchandise: men’s suits, women’s ready-to-wear clothes, shoes, groceries and household items. Because the sons were tripping over one another and had disagreements on how to run the business, they decided to expand and opened up a chain of stores, with branches in Boscobel, Viola, and Spring Green. They bought the Spring Green property from the Cohn Family, who had opened a department store in the spot in 1911. My great uncle, Abe, was sent to run the Spring Green store. In those days, they sold furniture up on the second floor, and according to family legend, Abe could often be found taking a nap on one of the display beds or sofas. When word got back to Harris, he called Abe back to the Muscoda store where he could watch him more closely. And he sent my grandfather, Sam, to run the Spring Green store. It was fortuitous that my branch of the family owned the Spring Green store, since it was the only store to exist after the Depression.
Before the Depression, the stores were doing great. My grandfather and uncles were good promoters and would send postcards back to their customers from their buying trips in New York City. The postcard would say something like, “In New York, buying wonderful merchandise, thinking of you and your wife. You’ve got to see it—come into the store.” And the customers were thrilled because they got a postcard from New York City. During the Great Depression, our fortunes changed. We had the devastating financial loss that most businesses were dealing with at the time. But we also had the tragedy that the Muscoda store was destroyed by fire in 1934.
The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Muscoda at the time. The Wisconsin Historical Society has a lot of this history; the Klan burned crosses up in the hills, south of the river, and marched down Main Street. It was never proven but it was my family’s belief that the Klan was responsible for the fire.
During the Depression, all four of the Harris Marcus & Sons stores went bankrupt. In 1936, the bank took possession of the Spring Green building. My grandfather didn’t waste any time and rented half of the building from the bank so he could reopen the store the next day. He renamed the business The Economy Store, and sold five-and-dime merchandise. He knew it didn’t make sense to sell suits and furniture during the Depression. So the nature of the business changed to match the times. To this day, the older locals still refer to Nina’s as “the dime store.”
I am not certain when this actually happened, but by World War II my grandparents were able to buy the building back from the bank, and owned and occupied it again. In 1946, my grandfather put the business in my grandmother’s name, and it became known as Nina, Incorporated. The business adapted again and was mostly a variety store selling general merchandise at inexpensive prices. My grandfather died in 1946, and my grandmother inherited the business. The following year, my father fresh out of the Army Air Corps, came back to Wisconsin to run things.
My father saw his mission as serving the working people of the community. There were other stores that had men’s suits and fancy women’s clothing, but we primarily sold the workwear that the farmers needed. Nina’s was the lower-cost store in town. One of the pleasures of being rooted in a community for so long is that customers remember my dad. I have customers today that tell me stories about how they’d come into Nina’s as kids and my dad fit their shoes for them. Mrs. Wright would bring the children from Taliesin for shoe fittings.
My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 1978, and by April, he had died. I left law school in the middle of my second year and returned to Spring Green to close up the store. I had no intention of taking over the business. I think that by the fact that the store still exists, you can figure out how that turned out.
My heart just wasn’t in my law studies anymore. I thought about the family history, my grandfather starting with nothing as an immigrant and building a successful business, and my father building on that.
I thought about what the store meant to the community. And I just realized that this was where I wanted to be, and this is what I wanted to do. I took over the store and started to make some changes, but my mother was very resistant to change. It was a constant battle between us.
But then something happened that really necessitated a change. Walmart moved into Southwest Wisconsin in 1986. They opened their first store in Dodgeville, which is 18 miles south of us, and then Richland Center, which is 22 miles west. And that really changed the equation. People that used to hang out in our store every week suddenly just disappeared. We never saw them again. I realized we had to change our business model if we wanted to stay in business. Small local businesses don’t have the deep pockets of large chains. Stores such as Walmart can buy merchandise in much larger bulk quantities than stores like Nina’s, which means they buy each item at a lower price and they can sell it for less and still make a higher profit than us. So we needed to reinvent the store again. I was told that the only way to survive as a business was to become a dollar store, but that was not what I wanted to put my name on. It made more sense to me to go full circle and return to our department store roots.
I started bringing in more clothing, upscaling our variety merchandise, but it was slow going until I met Judy. We married in 1999, and Judy moved to Spring Green. She has her own family history in retail that was just invaluable because of what I was hoping to do in the next couple of years. We knew we couldn’t fight prices with Walmart because they were always going to win. So we made the conscious decision to slowly upgrade. Over time, we brought in new merchandise. When the owner of the men’s store in town retired, we brought in men’s wear. Same with the women’s clothing store. Judy has a textile background, and she built up a yarn department. We restored the storefront facade and won a Sauk County preservation award. I am proud of the work Judy and I did to build Nina’s into a working department and variety store that distinguished itself from Walmart.
While we were making these changes to the business I thought a lot about my father’s approach to running it. He was a strong believer in co-ops. He never had a desire to own a bunch of stores under his own name. But he belonged to a group of independent variety stores around Wisconsin that banded together to place merchandise orders so they could get favorable prices. These business owners became family friends. In the years after Walmart came in we started to witness stores closing down one after another. “Oh my goodness, the Barrs had to sell their store, the Carlsons closed down.” It was very personal. We saw the toll of these family businesses failing much like we saw the toll of family farms closing.
In 1979, there were about 22,000 variety stores in America. And now, we’re down to about 350. Every town used to have a store like Nina’s, and those of us that have survived are few and far between. It was depressing watching Walmart become the only game in town. My family’s business first opened in 1893, and I was willing to fight to keep it going. I think maybe that is the underpinning of Nina’s. This wasn’t just about a business venture—it was a battle to preserve a way of life.
Judy: Nina’s is an integral part of the community. We are a very service-oriented business. We make sure everybody is greeted who comes in the store and we provide a high level of service.
Judy: Our regular customers, in a way, become friends. In recent years most of our employees are retired teachers.
Joel: Our staff knows the community. They’ve worked with what are now the young adults who grew up as their students. So there is that sense of connection.
Judy: We have a lot of people in town who are very loyal customers. Many of our older customers, who have been shopping at Nina’s for more than fifty years, sadly, are starting to die. But there is a younger generation who totally gets it, who doesn’t want to shop at a big-box store and shops with us. I have a knitting group that meets once a week, that draws people from around 20 miles in any direction of Spring Green.
Joel: Things were going great for Nina’s and for the Spring Green community. We have the American Players Theatre, all kinds of cultural attractions, music venues were popping up and bringing people to Spring Green. We have this vibrant and growing arts scene, and along comes Covid. It’s like somebody pulled the emergency brake on a train—everything came to a dead stop. Covid hit our business hard.
Judy: We keep telling ourselves, the Marcus family business survived the 1918 flu epidemic, two world wars, survived the Depression, and damn it, we’re going to get through Covid.
Joel: Our store was shut down for two months from mid-March till Mid-May. My initial thought was we provided an essential service and could remain open but with masks and distancing. I studied the proclamation, and I thought, “Okay, we’re an essential service. We can continue.” Judy was very nervous about my interpretation and had me fi le an application with the Wisconsin Department of Economic Development to get an exemption. But our application was denied, and we had to close down. Judy and I tried to do mail order, but we were not set up to do it. We took phone calls and emails and tried to mail things out, but not too successfully. At that point our sales went down 90%. We did get a Sauk County grant, which was great, but a drop in the bucket compared to what we lost. Once we were able to do curbside pick-up, things got a little bit better, but our sales were still down 80%. And not to mention the fact that everything was very difficult. Since we couldn’t do virtual carts, Judy and I were pushing real shopping carts. We ran up and down the aisles with our cell phones pulling orders. Since we offer a personal service, we had people … Instead of saying, “I want a box of envelopes,” and we would throw in the first box of envelopes, it was, “Now, tell me every envelope you have,” and we had to describe it all. We were exhausted at the end of the day and had hardly anything to show for it. We were very relieved when we were able to reopen to public traffic in mid-May.
Judy: This summer we still saw plenty of tourists, especially people who travel in motorhomes. Their attitude was, “We love our Spring Green getaways and even though the theater’s closed, we’re still coming to town and we’re going to our favorite art galleries, shops and restaurants.” We were still down about 30% this summer, but that’s a big improvement.
Joel: By December, sales had bounced back to near normal levels. What we had lost in sales due to lack of out-of-town visitors we made up in increased sales to local customers. We were heartened by the overwhelming support we received from many new and younger shoppers. There seemed to be a renewed awareness in the value of supporting local businesses.
We are optimistic that when the pandemic is over we will be in a stronger position than when it started. Four generations after it all began with an immigrant peddler, Nina’s still continues to reimagine and reinvent itself to be relevant to a new generation of shoppers. After 105 years, we still provide our community with all the essentials of life, but throw in a lot of style, personality and fun in the process.
Photos contributed by Joel and Judy Marcus