The idea of going to a single store to shop for many different types of products came around in the 1750s in England. Omaha’s first department stores opened downtown in the 1870s and 1880s, with the biggest ones staying around for a century. However, in a city as segregated as Omaha it was important that the Black community and Jewish community needed their own shopping opportunities. Also, each suburb needed their own small department stores. This is a history of department stores in North Omaha.
While downtown Omaha was always the place for the main businesses, North Omaha had a lot of shopping over the decades. As far back as the 1850s, shopping for clothes, furniture, home appliances, toys, cosmetics, houseware, gardening, toiletries, and sporting goods happened along North 24th Street, with a few other places to shop on North 16th, North 30th, North 42nd, Cuming, Lake, Ames, and Military Avenue. There were tiny shops and large stores, usually owned by one person and often short on supplies. Food, books, jewelry, stationery, photographic equipment, musical instruments, baby products, and pet stores were scattered throughout the community.
In the early 20th century, businesspeople started seeing opportunities emerge for new types of stores in the suburban neighborhoods of North Omaha, especially Benson, the Near North Side, and Florence. Each of these neighborhoods were regarded as suburbs into the 1930s. Particularly starting in 1919 with the US Army’s redlining of the area, African American entrepreneurs as well as Jewish business owners saw the distinct need for department stores to serve North Omaha.
The big box department stores came to North Omaha, too. They included Hested’s, K-Mart, Walmart, Target, and Shopko.
Shopping in the Near North Side
Within a year of redlining starting in North Omaha, there were at least three department stores along North 24th Street. Seeking to funnel all customers into a single place for all their purchases, these stores wanted to make one-stop shopping a reality for the residents of North Omaha.
The stores in the Near North Side included Zucker’s Department Store, Bernstein’s Department Store, the Star Store, and the Co-operative Workers of America Department Store.
Zucker’s Department Store
Zucker’s Department Store opened in 1919. Located at 1615-1619 North 24th Street, it was on the northwest corner of 24th and Seward with a pharmacy and cafe on either side. The building was described as a “double building” made of brick, meaning that it was two lots wide, and included a third storefront to the south.. It was originally home to a gospel hall, then a grocery store / confectionary / pharmacy combination. When J. Zucker opened his store, it had several departments, including women’s and men’s clothing, shoes, furniture, and more. One of their ads bragged,
“The success of this store has been achieved only by giving greater values than could be had elsewhere. Our reputation for honesty is well established and has made us thousands of friends… We are going to keep the new store new. Our determination not to carry over one dollar’s worth of winter merchandise means the saving of thousands of dollars to those who grasp this saving opportunity. Our policy at all times is to give you the very utmost that your dollar will buy – and if for any reason your purchase should prove unsatisfactory we will gladly exchange the same or refund your money.”The Monitor, February 17, 1921
The store stayed open until 1927, and was closed with a large auction for all of its products.
In the 1940s and 50s, the building was used as a Goodwill store; in the 1960s it was the Army Surplus Store. The building was condemned by the City of Omaha in 1969 and demolished in May of that year. There is nothing on that lot still today, more than 50 years later.
Co-operative Workers of America
Announcing its launch in March 1920, a group of African American businesspeople formed a new corporation to open a department store in the Near North Side called Cooperative Workers of America. They bought the entire building on North 24th between Charles and Seward, and opened their store in June 1920.
A Black-owned business opened explicitly to serve North Omaha’s African American community, the Cooperative Workers of America (CWA) Department Store had big ambitions. In an article about its opening, the store said it planned to “give employment to from thirty to forty young women and young men.” “Colored people must enter the higher forms of modern business, just as other races have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and they must take the best features of business organization…”
It also announced, “In a short time branch stores will be established in other parts of the city, and in other states, and then will come a bank of our own and other enterprises which follow success in the business world.”
However, something wasn’t right in the business almost from the get-go. I haven’t found enough information yet, but it took almost six months to get the grocery and meat department of the store going, and by July 1921, the store was “under new management.” From that point onwards, its ads said plainly, “This is YOUR store and solicits your patronage.”
By November 1921, the Cooperative Workers of America Department Store in North Omaha was closed permanently. Home to grocery stores, a dress shop, and other businesses afterwards, the building burned down in 1968.
Open for decades, the Star Store declared itself, “North Omaha’s big department store with the big shoe department.” After opening in 1904, the Star Store was successful for several decades. Located at 1831-33-35 North 24th Street, it was across from Parker Street on the southeast corner of Grace Street.
Featuring dry goods, men’s clothing, furniture, hardware, china, “shoes for the whole family,” toys, women’s clothes and more throughout the decades, in 1914 the store claimed to “permit their customers to purchase almost anything needed for the family at prices much less than obtained elsewhere.” It was during this era that the store claimed to be “the finest and the largest little department store in the city.” Charles Levinson (1880-1960) owned the store.
Claiming in ads to be “a few minutes ride from down-town,” he said “We are out of the high-rent district, that’s why such values are possible.” For a while in the 1920s, their ads also proclaimed “Their growth is an assurance of their ability to offer decidedly better values than are obtainable in high-rent stores. Here a pleasing store service greets you; it’s a home-like store that you will like.”
On July 4, 1917, “a few fireworks” were thrown into the doorway at the Star Department Store and a little fire started. However, the fire department extinguished the fire before any real damage could happen.
The store was sold by Levinson in 1939, and renamed Cooper’s Store shortly afterwards.
Bernstein’s Department Store
Although mostly just a department store by name, Bernstein’s was a mover and shaker at 1804 North 24th Street for at least a few years. Men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, ready-to-wear clothing, and more were sold by Bernstein’s.
In 1924, the Omaha Monitor ran a column entitled, “Bernsteins New Department Store.” Its simple introduction was “A newcomer among the North Twenty-fourth Street merchants and a wide-awake man who is after the trade of the colored folk of the North end is Nathan N. Bernstein of the Bernstein Department Store… This store is located near Decatur Street and carries a large line of ready-to-wear clothing for women and children.”
However, within a year there were no other ads for Berstein’s Department Store. Instead, he was running a grocery store at 24th and Lake for several years afterwards. Apparently he wasn’t made for the big leagues!
There were a lot of transitions in the first 40 years of department stores in North Omaha. Zucker’s was around for eight years from 1919-1927; Cooperative Workers of America for two years from 1920-1921; Bernstein’s from 1924-1925; and Star Store from 1904-1939.
However, after that the department store scene in the community fell flat for several years. There were similar concepts were tried, including several 5 and dime stores and others.
Modern Department Stores
So the first department store north of Dodge Street and east of North 72nd Street might have been the Star Store on North 24th Street in 1904, and the Walmart at North 50th and Ames Avenue might be the last.
Its not that others haven’t tried to open department stores in North Omaha, or that they haven’t succeeded. In 1971, there were plans made for a shopping mall including several department stores to be built at North 50th and Ames Avenue. However, those didn’t come to fruition.
The Kresge Department Store was a longtime national chain located in downtown Omaha. In the 1960s, they innovated a discount department store called the K-Mart. One was opened at North 72nd and Ames Avenue in 1967, closed in , and demolished in 2000. A 20-acre site, there was parking for 860 cars. The store featured all the regular departments, as well as an automotive department and shop. The building cost $1.5million to construct, and 150 people were employed there.
Hested’s Department Store
The original Hested’s store opened in 1916 as a five-and-dime in Fairbury, Nebraska, and their North Omaha location was at 30th and Ames. In 1961, Hested’s opened its eighth store overall and its first-ever department store in a 21,000 square foot space at the Ames Plaza on Ames Avenue. and the Ames Plaza location was meant to represent the next phase of a company with $17 million in annual sales at that point.
After a lot of store consolidation and closures in the 1960s and 1970s though, the parent holding company behind Hested’s suffered major losses. Corporate turnovers led to major store closures for Hested’s, and the Ames Plaza location was one of the last. It closed permanently in 1982. The building still stands and has been repurposed.
A Brandeis store opened at Ames Plaza in 1964. It was the smallest in the chain, and primarily sold men’s and women’s ready-to-wear clothes. The store was a full-service outlet through its closure in 1973. There was also a Brandeis store at 7310 North 30th Street (where Baker’s is now). Opened in 1969, it was converted into a “budget store” in early 1977 and stayed open through 1982.
A 1987 report on shopping in North Omaha found that North Omaha consumers were interested in the development a few major intersections in the community with department stores and other large retail shopping destinations. Specifically, the reported mentioned 24th and Cuming and 30th and Ames.
By this point, North Omahans shopped at in the Brandeis and Sears stores at Crossroads; K-Mart at 72nd and Ames, and; JC Penney’s at Westroads. The Younkers at Center Mall and Westroads were popular, as well as the Target store on Saddle Creek and Shopko on North 30th Street.
Today, the Walmart at North 50th and Ames is the only department store left north of Dodge Street and east of North 72nd Street.
North Omaha Department Store Tour
Here are the locations of department stores of North Omaha.
- Bernstein Department Store (1924-1925), 1804 N. 24th St.
- Brandeis Department North Store (1969-1982), 7310 N. 30th St.
- Brandeis Department Store (1964-1973), 5612 Ames Ave.
- Cooperative Workers of America Department Store (1920-1921), 1518 N. 24th St.
- Hested’s Department Store (1961-1982), Ames Plaza, N. 56th and Ames Ave.
- K-Mart (1967-1998), 7100 Ames Ave.
- Shopko (c1987-c2002), 7402 N. 30th St.
- Star Department Store (1904-1939), 1831-33-35 N. 24th St.
- Target (1990-2006), 360 N. Saddle Creek Rd.
- Walmart (2014-present), 5018 Ames Ave.
- Zucker’s Department Store (1919-1927), 1619 N. 24th St.
Do you remember the department stores in North Omaha? Did you work or shop there? Please share your memories in the comments section!
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- History of Department Stores in Benson
- History of North 24th Street
- History of Ames Plaza
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- History of Black-Owned Businesses in North Omaha
- History of Dinners and Restaurants in North Omaha