The downtown’s Maas Bros. department store had a glorious run in the city’s retail district. It set the standard in shopping for more than a century -- until suburban flight in the 1960s and ‘70s and corporate mergers in the 1980s and ‘90s led to its demise.
The downtown store and many of its satellite stores, including one at WestShore Plaza, closed in 1991 when Maas Bros. consolidated with the Burdine’s chain, which later became Macy’s.
The coup de gr?ce on Franklin Street came in 2006 when the massive brick building was demolished, an undertaking which took nearly four weeks. Developers planned to build a condominium tower but tough economic times quashed that plan. The site now is a parking lot.
“There was a lot of history lost when that building went away,” said Lisa Lichtenberg, who spent nearly a decade in the store’s central office, from 1980 to 1989. She was assistant director and then director of the marketing information office. She and her staff kept track of inventory for all the Maas Bros. stores.
When Burdine’s took over, most employees in the central office lost their jobs.
“We were merged, we were purged and we were scattered,” Lichtenberg said.
Now, more than 20 years later, Lichtenberg, Ruthie Rorebeck and Carol Gaynor have organized the first “Maas Bros. Central Office Reunion.” There have been reunions of employees who worked at individual stores but none of the front office employees, Lichtenberg said.
The group started with nearly 30 email addresses and now has more than 300, said Gaynor. “That alone is exciting,” said Gaynor who worked more than 18 years as executive assistant to the vice president of home fashions and special events.
More than 220 people are expected to attend a reception Saturday at the Tampa Bay History Center, where the Maas Bros. sign from the Franklin Street building is enshrined. Many former employees live in or near Tampa; others will come from Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Tickets for the event, catered by The Columbia Restaurant, have sold out.
Employees have been asked to donate memorabilia to the history center. Lichtenberg said photographs, employee badges, Maas Bros. credit cards, newspaper articles, pens and advertisements are among the mementoes so far.
Gaynor has a red blazer she bought at Maas more than 30 years ago. “That jacket is perfect. It has the Maas Bros. label in it so I’m going to show it off,” she said.
From humble beginnings in 1886 as a dry-goods store founded by two German immigrants, Maas Bros. grew into a legend – the premier department store in West Central Florida. In its heyday Maas Bros. had nearly 40 stores throughout Florida.
Brothers Abe and Isaac Maas opened their landmark building at 612 N. Franklin St. in the 1920s, later adding two floors and expanding into two adjoining buildings including the Strand Theater.
Prom dresses and wedding gifts were purchased there. People dined in the Neptune Room, had family portraits taken in the photo studio, bought their first radios and television sets there, and made annual treks downtown to see the Christmas window displays.
“As far as downtown, it was the place to shop. Even when the store got old, and it got older, people who came downtown, that’s where they shopped,” said Rorebeck. Her family moved to Tampa when she was age 12.
As an adult, Rorebeck worked for Maas Bros. for seven years, starting as an executive trainee in 1984. She worked at the New Port Richey and WestShore stores before getting her “dream job” as a store buyer. She handled purchases of lamps, rugs and furniture accessories.
Rorebeck remembers morning breaks when a restaurant employee, nicknamed “Gussie,” would wheel a cart through the office loaded with pastries and coffee. The woman had a habit of saying, “Oh, dear Gussie,” Rorebeck recalled, and the name stuck. “It’s one of the shared memories we all have in common,” she said.