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History Center Finds Treasures Inside Merra-Lee

Hidden treasures behind the scenes at the Merra-Lee Shops will be preserved at the Geneva History Center.

Last week Michael Simon, owner of the Merra-Lee Shops and vice president of the Geneva History Center Board of Directors, invited me to walk around the closing stores and see if there is anything that we would like to have in our archives.  Jessica McTague, curator of exhibitions and collections, Dan Maier, volunteer extraordinaire and I spent a few hours last Monday and found some treasures. It was a fun experience to walk around the shops, backrooms and basement of these wonderful historic buildings.

Walking to the second floor of the Meeting Place I experienced a deja vu moment.  I asked if the space ever operated as a shop and was told that it was a swimsuit shop back in the 1970s which was accessible by a spiral staircase. The staircase was removed years ago, and the space is now used for storage, but I quickly had visions of waiting for my mother in the dressing room.

The never-ending basement had stacks and boxes of documents with original printing blocks for advertisements and clip art fashion books from the 1950s and '60s. It appeared that at some point the Merra-Lee folks did their own ad design possibly in that very spot. Today's generation could hardly imagine choosing fonts and sizes from a book, ordering it from a typesetter and then waxing it in place by hand.

We had the most fun when we spotted animated figures that were at one time used as window displays. Seven toy and doll makers sit atop electric motors to make the characters knit, sew, carve and hammer. We are not sure of their age or origin at this time, but each of the figures has a label that we hope will send us in the right direction. The figures are in need of cleaning and some repair but the first three we plugged in still work! They could make a great window display for us next Christmas.

My own personal favorite was a bag from "Britches, Etc."  One of the Merra-Lee Shops in the 1970s, it was the only place in town to buy the latest in teen fashions when I was in high school (other than Teen Shop at 316 W. State St.—but I worked there, so I had first dibs on stock). I bought my first pair of gauchos at Britches—rainbow-striped with criss-cross tie at the front—in hindsight not such a great trend!

It will take quite some time to go through all the papers to find out all that we have. If anyone is interested in volunteering to help sort, research or clean the figures, please contact me at exec_dir@genevahistorycenter.org or 630-232-4951.

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Beth Bales January 22, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Terry is younger than I am by a number of years, but I, too, remember Britches. I grew up in Aurora but would occasionally make the excursion (seemed so far back then) to Geneva and Third Street to check out Britches. Sounds like you have some wonderful finds!

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