Gilmore Brothers Department Store
A Central Feature of Kalamazoo’s Urban Landscape
It seems like just about every resident of Kalamazoo has a fond memory or good story about the Gilmore Brothers Department Store. Perhaps this isn’t surprising considering that Gilmore’s was a central feature of Kalamazoo’s urban landscape for more then 100 years.
It all began on 20 August 1881 when John M. Gilmore opened his dry goods store on the west side of Burdick Street. In 1883 the industrious Irish immigrant was joined by his brother James, the business moved to a larger location across the street, and the Gilmore Brothers Department Store was born.
The Early Years
In its early years, the Gilmore store and the Gilmore family both grew quickly. Excellent service, quality products, and good company could all be found at Gilmore’s. The brothers were both trained in the dry goods business and used their knowledge to expand the business. Turn of the century fashions were still mostly handmade, so the Gilmore brothers dedicated more of their store to raw materials like quality fabrics than to finished goods. As more capital became available, the brothers expanded the physical size of the store and the variety of goods and services that they offered.
The growth of the Gilmore family kept pace with the growth of the store. The two brothers were both married and had plenty of enthusiastic children who would help run the business through the twentieth century. John Gilmore was married to Mary Downey of Portage, and they had four children, daughters Ada, Jennifer, and Marjorie, and a son Robert. James Gilmore married Carrie Sherwood of Galesburg and had three sons, James, Irving, and Donald. John passed away in 1895 at the age of 43, and James followed him in death 13 years later in 1908 at the age of 51. The passing of the founding brothers of Gilmore’s marked the end of an era, but not the end of the family or of the business that they loved.
In 1909 Carrie Gilmore, James’s widow, secured property to expand Gilmore’s into the large six-story structure that would dominate Burdick Street for the rest of the twentieth century. Despite some trouble raising money and skepticism about a woman handling such a large business, the structure was eventually built in 1910 and 1911.
Two years later, in 1913, Carrie Gilmore married her neighbor Dr. W. E. Upjohn, and her sons began to move to the forefront in running the department store. Under the leadership of a new generation of Gilmores, the store continued to grow and prosper. Annual sales exceeded one million dollars for the first time in 1918. Along with the rest of the country, Gilmore’s roared in the twenties and suffered under the depression in the thirties. However, strong leadership and a willingness to make changes like adding a parking lot for automobiles, and shifting emphasis from fabrics to ready-to-wear clothing, kept the store afloat through the tough times.
The second World War brought economic revival to Gilmore’s, and the following decades were a period of growth. In 1955 the first escalator in the city was installed at Gilmore’s (much to the delight of the children of Kalamazoo); in 1956 the first multi-level parking lot was added behind Farmer’s Alley; and in 1959 Burdick Street was turned into the first pedestrian mall in the nation. The holiday season of 1962 saw the beginning of another beloved Kalamazoo tradition, the annual Gilmore’s Christmas Parade. The seventies were a period of expansion for the department store; branches were opened in both the Maple Hill Mall and the Southland Mall in Portage.
On a day no Kalamazoo resident will forget, 13 May 1980, a tornado devastated areas of the city including reducing much of the back wall of Gilmore’s to a pile of rubble in the alley and killing an employee and a customer. Recovering from that disaster, Gilmore’s celebrated 100 years of business in Kalamazoo in 1981, but, sadly, the firm was nearing its last years.
The Gilmore Brothers Department Store closed its doors in 1999 after 118 years of serving the Kalamazoo community. Since the store closed, the building has been extensively remodeled and is now known as the Kalamazoo City Centre. It houses a number of residences and businesses including Irving’s Market, named in honor of Irving Gilmore. Gilmore’s was more than just a store; it was the heart of downtown Kalamazoo. When asked about it, residents tend to smile, reminiscing about the good old days at Gilmore’s.
Written by Alex Forist, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, May 2005. Last updated 3 February 2010.