A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Reminiscing about Raymond’s and Retro Boston with the Legendary James Schaye

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!

Today’s update is very special. I was approached this past summer with the golden opportunity to interview James Schaye of the Schaye family that ran Raymond’s Department Stores in Boston and numerous suburban spots from the start of the 1940’s until their closure in the autumn of 1972. Paul Schaye, James’ son, wrote to me and asked me if I would enjoy a chance to reminisce with his 93 year-old dad about the unforgettable Raymond’s and what Boston was like back in those busy days when choice was the name of the game when it came to shopping in downtown Boston. I jumped at the opportunity and phoned “Jim” one Saturday morning and we had a lovely chat.

What emerged from that delightful call, plus a few thoughts tossed in by Paul Schaye and my own research are the proverbial “meat and potatoes” of today’s update.

This entire update is dedicated with respect and deep admiration to dear Mr. James Schaye, who turns 94 this October. I wish him a very happy, healthy and as Unkle Eph would say, “Goshawfulest” birthday!!! Thanks, Jim...you’re one in a million!!!

Our call began with Jim asking me all about myself...our mutual Brookline heritage being a huge bond between us and Brookline High School at the very core. I soon learned that Jim back in his days at Brookline High, the 1930’s, created the title of our beloved yearbook...The Murivian. Wow...I told you he was a legend! We both felt Brookline High was a great school and it offered us each a chance to spread our wings and find out just who we were as young people.

The conversation moved on to Raymond’s. I asked Jim about his joining the company and he said after college it became his life for the next 30 years or so. His father (named Paul) joined the store in 1940 and soon became the president. Jim and his brother Robert soon came into the retail picture and took on the role of vice presidents.

Jim was in charge of merchandising and advertising and Robert was more of an overall general manager that saw to the day to day operation of the business. In later years, with their dad taking on a chairman of the board role...Robert moved into the president’s seat and Jim’s role expanded as the only vice president.

The 1940’s saw the family fully in charge of the store and business was booming. Jim recalled writing the advertising that appeared in all the Boston papers and I asked about how that was done. Jim recalled the great fun of carrying on the tradition of using “Unkle Eph speak” that was featured in most of the all print ads. I asked about the well-known cartoon art and graphics and Jim said he only did the text; the art department folks did the rest. I asked if there was an Unkle Eph guide book of phrases and fractured spellings and Jim told me that half the fun was doing it himself based on the long and hilarious history of Unkle Eph in the Boston press which dated back to around 1919 when Reverend Harvey Eastman first began his renowned letter writing to Frank Dorr and Unkle Eph became part of the rich and very distinctive fabric of Raymond’s.

Jim also spoke of the great fun of buying merchandise for Raymond’s and being in a room full of other buyers from all the big Boston stores of the 1940’s including Filene’s, Jordan’s and Gilchrist’s. Filene’s only wanted certain items for their basement, soft goods and clothing. Jordan’s being so very large and powerful took all sorts of items and Gilchrist’s mopped up what the others didn’t get. Raymond’s was not picky and often got the most bizarre items and put them up for sale with very successful results. Ultimately, Raymond’s became known for great bargains and a range of goods that went from A – Z...but sporting goods and rugs reigned supreme! Raymond’s often won at these merchandise auction wars, mostly because they were not afraid to take a chance and see what would sell. This strategy paid off and with that profit strength, the Schaye’s began a very successful suburban branch project that spanned the 1950’s and well into the 1960’s. 1952 saw the start of a new branch store in Quincy and by the early 1960’s, an exciting and very modern store in Dedham. Many more branches would open and Raymond’s found itself keeping pace with the suburban expansion projects of competitors like Filene’s and Jordan Marsh.

I asked Jim what memories really stuck out for him from his days with Raymond’s. Jim recalled the thrill of looking around at the competition. Raymond’s, the “no frills” store on the corner of Franklin and Washington Streets remained very much an aging antique as the other “big” stores began aggressive modernization projects. The old bird-cage style manually operated elevators, simple wooden sales counters and numerous old staircases interconnecting an array of slightly unlevel, squeaky floors were hallmarks of the old Raymond’s building that Jim and thousands of loyal Bostonians found truly unique and part of the experience of shopping in the flagship location. Jim recalled with pleasure one cute slogan he created for an in-store sign as customers complained about the slow speed of the ancient elevators, “Try Our Slimming Staircases”.

Paul Schaye, Jim’s son, recalled going in when the store was closed and riding the elevators up and down plus having the toy department all to himself...what bliss!!!! As a young child....who could ask for more?

The 1960’s BRA downtown area revitalization& modernization plan was not something Jim vividly recalled. He only could recall one big fact that was very true; Raymond’s went into the (city forced) temporary move in 1966 financially very sound and profitable. The huge move up the street to the former Citymart& RH White’s building was the worst thing in the world for the store. The transition from the old, centralized location to being now just on the edge of the former “Combat Zone” was too much for even dear old Unkle Eph and sales plummeted. Sadly, the money was just not there in the late 1960’s to return to the brand new building being completed that was to serve as the new flagship on the site of their former older buildings. Woolworth’s took on the project and brought it to completion. Raymond’s hung on in the doomed location until the later part of 1972 and then Jim found himself moving on to a new job with Schottenstein Stores, the company that oversaw the Raymond’s liquidation.

Today I present Jim’s precious memories and a host of classic images, articles and advertisements that celebrate the Schaye family and their highly successful span of running Raymond’s. The 1940’s until the late 1960’s marked a very exciting time for Raymond’s as this collection rightly proves. The Boston retail scene was a whirlwind of activity and considerable growth in those days when Jim worked in his small office tucked away in the upper floors of the classic, old Raymond’s building...days worth reminiscing about!

Thanks, again Jim...Shopping Days in Retro Boston salutes you!!!





PS... Another great opportunity to learn about Boston’s Retro Past:

From their humble beginnings in the middle of the 19th century, department stores quickly became defining cultural institutions for cities and towns across America. They delivered stylish, affordable merchandise with panache and provided entry-level employment for millions. Now, just 150 years later, all of Boston’s unique flagship stores are gone. Come take a walk down memory lane with Carol Harper and Steve Pinkerton as they review Boston’s rich retail clothing history and share stories about its fine department stores while visiting the graves of some of the most notable owners.


PPS... The Jordan Marsh memory project is always looking for more memories and nostalgia items to be added to the materials being gathered. Please contact me soon; I’d love to add yours!!!