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Leonards Department Store founders Marvin and Obie Leonard (front) inaugurate the first private subway system in the world, which took customers from a parking lot on the Trinity River to Leonards in downtown Fort Worth. Photos courtesy Leonards Department Store Museum.

The Arts Voyager, 10-28: Department store art
You can find it at Leonards... Department Store Museum

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, TX -- It's hard to imagine that in a mid-America where the shopping mall has wiped out much of the landscape, a museum that celebrates a department store would prove one of the city's most fascinating cultural destinations, but then Leonards, celebrated with a cornucopia of artifacts by the Leonards Department Store Museum on Carroll Street off White Settlement Road, was no ordinary department store. And the community-minded mentality of its founders, Obie and Marvin Leonard, has little in common with today's generic cookie-cutter mall stores, often owned by faceless out-of-town corporations. It took up six city blocks and, when the crowds became so large they created a downtown parking problem, Leonards didn't stop at building a parking lot; in 1963 it introduced its own free subway system to get customers from the lot on the Trinity River to the store, the first of its kind in the nation. Such was Leonards' investment in the local community that when President Roosevelt declared a banking holiday in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, Leonards responded by issuing its own store scrip, cashing paychecks for a combination of money and scrip -- which other area shops decided to honor.

In its heyday, Leonards Department Store took up six city blocks in downtown Fort Worth.

The original guiding principal of Leonards, when Marvin Leonard opened it as a small grocery store in 1918, was to sell salvaged merchandise at great prices. Sometimes the store carried this to extremes; one time, hearing about a bunch of coffins that were for sale, they bought them and offered a special on coffins. Eventually, Leonards became a self-contained retailer and producer. Already the largest single-site purveyor of meat, groceries, baked goods and produce in Texas by 1929, in 1935 it added a state-of-the-art creamery, buying raw milk and cream from local dairymen and producing its own pasteurized milk, butter, cream, and ice cream. It even had its own fudgesickle machine, operated a laundry, made its own candy and pasta and roasted coffee on the premises. One Saturday in 1937 the store's bakery sold 30,000 one-pound loaves of bread at three for a nickel. When prices for national brands went up, Leonards simply created its own store brands to save customers money -- and not just of the typical products but also cigars and bicyles, motor oil, freezers, and more; it's no wonder the store's moto became "You can find it at Leonards." With Christmas it not only became the area's largest toy store but produced an annual show for children. A house newspaper didn't stop at just recognizing the achievements of employees but chronicled those of their children. The Leonards desegregated their 'whites-only' cafeteria, restroom, and water fountains before federal courts ordered stores to do so in 1964.

Leonards desegregated its cafe, water fountains, and bathrrooms before court-ordered national desegregation.

In a word, Leonard's offered what today's malls and chain boutiques don't, a sort of emporium that managed to be massive and personal at the same time, a neighborhood store where you could find everything. Unfortunately, if you voyage to Fort Worth today and try to find Leonards you won't; it was bought out by Tandy in 1967 and finally closed in 1974; the downtown it once made a state-wide destination has now been over-run by, chic, impersonal and expensive boutiques and restaurants. But Leonards legacy isn't completely lost. In recent years, Marty Leonard, Marvin's daughter, who continued to receive letters and articles about and even items from former customers, decided to put out a call for more and open a museum. I stumbled across it this past summer wandering down White Settlement Drive on a 100-degree day in search of BBQ, and was given a warm welcome and tour by another descendent, Lauren Leonard, a gracious host who obviously takes pride in this heritage of her city and her family.

The Leonards Department Store Museum includes a special vitrine dedicated to the store's elaborate Christmas celebrations.

The museum crams a generous trove from more than 50 years of memories into a space not much bigger than a grocery store (which connects to burger restaurant M&O Station Grill, named after Marvin and Obie), including one of the original fudge-sickle machines , a bicycle, popcorn machine, wooden "Leonards banana box," fashionable hats from the '30s, a whole window devoted to Christmas, walls of photographs, letters from former employees and customers explaining what the institution meant to them, tons of photos and letters from customers and employees -- there's even a talking Flip Wilson doll. (One of the most poignant photos portrays an elderly pair selling pencils outside the store, whose story, legend has it, was memorialized by Willie Nelson.)

Lauren Leonard insists visitors to the museum -- which is already free -- take home a couple of large plastic cups with "Leonards Department Store Museum" inscribed on them in classic '30s script.

The Leonards Department Store Museum at 200 Carroll Street in Fort Worth is open Tuesday - Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Monday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. . For more info, visit its web pages. For more background on Leonards, click here.

A back to school window display from Leonards.

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