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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Otto: Maas Brothers reunion conjures happy downtown memories

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No, Maas Brothers is not coming back. That would be too much to hope for. Imagine a store where you could buy anything you needed; a place where the store clerks knew where everything was and how much it cost; a department store that guaranteed everything and made no bones about exchanging it if you weren’t happy.

No, it’s unlikely something like that could exist today. Where would you find people like that to run your store?

Saturday night a few hundred of them from the old central office will be gathering at the Tampa Bay History Center for a reunion. I’ll be there with the Frau, who long before she was a school teacher, worked at that almost mythical retail store that once dominated Florida – Maas Brothers.

In fact, she was working in the bakery and going to the University of South Florida when we first crossed paths. How could you go wrong with that combo?

If you have been around these parts any length of time, you know that Maas Brothers was much more than just the store founded by Isaac and Abe Maas in downtown Tampa back in 1886. It was where you went. It was a ritual. Before eBay and before the malls, there was Maas Brothers.

Too many Saturday mornings began with my mom and grandmother in the front and me in the back of the Studebaker, going first to the beauty parlor and then downtown to Maas Brothers. By the way, until you have ridden in the back of a Studebaker with no air conditioning behind two women fresh from the beauty parlor with whatever that stuff was they put on their hair, your life is incomplete.

But when you got to the downtown store, with its creaking escalator or its elevators with the uniformed woman running it, you were in a shopping wonderland, not to mention the restaurant with those great cinnamon buns.

And of course there was Christmas, with the window displays outside and the trip up to the fifth floor where there was an entire room devoted to toys.

Time marches on. There were ultimately 29 stores across the state and creeping into Georgia, so Maas Brothers was no longer local but just another stepchild in one chain after another. Even the Frau, who had left the bakery and was a big whoopee executive, could see the end coming as the store reduced inventories to more specialty items and customers drifted over to big box wholesale stores, sacrificing quality and service for cut-rate prices.

Eventually, in 1991, after more greed and profit taking, the last Maas Brothers stores became Burdines and the stores slipped into history.

Now most of them have changed names several times over. The original downtown store was leveled for condos, but today remains a parking lot. You can still see the old Maas Brothers sign on a wall inside the same history center the former employees will be gathering in Saturday evening.

Someone posted a song called the “Maas Brothers Blues’’ on the Internet. The Frau has been humming it all week. On the other hand, she also bought some stuff off one of those home shopping channels, so I think she’s over the downtown shopping thing.

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