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Leon Bibb reflects: The nostalgia of Christmastime in downtown Cleveland

Stores like Higbee's and Halle's may be long gone, but the memories remain.

CLEVELAND — In today’s word we wait for Amazon, FedEx or UPS packages to arrive at our doorstep. We’ve designated a Saturday on the calendar devoted to shopping local.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic about how many of us remember the special occasion that the holidays brought to downtown Cleveland.

I remember it well. I recently took a stroll down Euclid Avenue, recalling the bright festive lights and downtown hustle and bustle of a time not so long ago.

My family was not portrayed in many paintings of Christmas shoppers, but during my childhood, it could have been my gift-carrying family. My boyhood Christmas shopping days meant downtown Cleveland where the big department stores were located.

So, I look back, remembering, my family’s long-ago holiday shopping. If you are old enough, maybe you remember.

"We’d come down and go to Higbee’s and Halle’s," Rich Grospitch, now General Manager of Cleveland’s Public Square events, said.

Grospitch recalls the square, which was a key destination for his Christmas shopping family. He and I relish today’s square as the city glistens in its holiday coat, as December’s collar pulses with light. What has remained constant are festive lights adorning Public Square.

Once, downtown beckoned Christmas shoppers who now mostly "sleigh-bell it" to suburban malls. But downtown gives a nod to the big holiday windows of a former department store. Photos from that era transport us to a by-gone time when Greater Clevelanders were elbow-to-elbow in the streets and stores anchoring Public Square.

The Christmas shopping days of my childhood were mostly in Public Square. Holding on to my mother’s and dad’s hands, we would scurry along the department stores—the big ones, because the big department stores were in downtown Cleveland in those days. 

"We always made a trip to the Twigbee Shop so we could get something for Mom and Dad from ourselves," Grospitch recalled. "That was in the Higbee building."

The Jack Casino, in the old Higbee’s department store building, dresses its windows reminiscent of years back when downtown department stores bulged with business. 

"May Company is being converted," historian John Brabowski explained. "Higbee’s has become a casino, Taylor’s is no longer there. Halle’s is something other than what it was."

Grabowski was a Cleveland kid of the 1950s and 60s. He holiday shopped, and holiday hopped with his parents, and said where a shopper did business often depended on an amount of jingle.

Not so much the jingle of Christmas bells; more than jingle of coins in a shopper’s pocket. 

"If you had the money you would go to Halle’s or Sterling Lindner and shop there," Grawbowski recalled. "Then there was the May Company, which was kind of the in-between for everybody."

Unashamedly, I am nostalgic. Christmastime drives my nostalgia. Holiday lights and festivities spur my spirit. In all these lights, there is a Christmas thread of memory.

Cleveland's lights warm me, pulsing into my present and glittering my memories of long ago. Welling in me are thoughts of Christmas past and Christmas present, both neatly packaged in Cleveland tinsel and light, illuminating the ribbon of my memory.  

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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