A fitting legacy

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

For 86 years, Hecht's Store has been Cape Girardeau's grand lady of fashion. Now, she's ready for a well-deserved rest.

The upscale clothing store, at 107 N. Main, will close after the first of the year, said owner Martin Hecht, whose father Louis Hecht opened the store in 1917.

"We thought it was just time to retire," said Hecht, 78, who has guided the store for nearly six decades. "It wasn't much of a choice because we're getting up there. I've had some medical problems, but I'm doing OK now. It's just time."

Many consider Hecht's an anchor for the downtown. It's the second-oldest business there, with Lang's Jewelers having opened a year before Hecht's.

"It's going to be a major loss," said Roger Lang, who owns Lang's. "That store has been a major mainstay downtown for, let's face it, close to all of those 80 years."

Hecht's -- which is owned by Martin, his wife, Tootie, and manager Dan Elkins -- is not closing because of financial problems. The store saw record sales last year.

"It's amazing, I know," said Elkins, who started working in the store's warehouse 28 years ago and worked his way up to manager. Elkins said they see the store's final weeks as a celebration of what the store and its owners have meant to Cape Girardeau.

Most family-owned, upscale women's clothing stores haven't made it. Hecht believes his is one of the last operating in the country, if not the last, continuously owned by one family.

Elkins could have taken over the store, and the Hechts wanted him to, but he chose instead to use the store's many connections across the country to sell furs nationally.

"Besides, it wouldn't be Hecht's without Marty and Tootie," Elkins said.

Longtime customers are lamenting the loss and wondering where they will get their St. John's suits and the most current fine dresses, sweaters, coats and shoes that primarily were picked out by Tootie Hecht, who was a buyer for the store.She bought many of the clothes in New York, Dallas and California.

"I bought practically everything I wear at Hecht's," said Martha Lou McGinty, 78, who notes her mother was a Hecht's customer. "Dan told me last week they were closing and I was in a state of shock. It was like hearing that a favorite friend was moving away. I am really saddened."

Beginning and end

The timing of the closure struck some as curious, and one downtown store owner pointed out that the area is preparing for a renaissance, with the coming of the new $100 million Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, the renovated Marquette Hotel, the new federal courthouse and other projects.

"I'm particularly sorry to see them pull out at this moment and time with all the stuff coming downtown," said Chuck McGinty, who owns CP McGinty's Jewelers and who also is Martha Lou McGinty's son. "But they've very much been an anchor of the downtown business district. Pick any 10 people who have driven through downtown and ask them to mention one store and they'd probably mention Hecht's."

That the downtown is doing so well made the decision easier on them, Elkins said.

"It would have been an even harder decision to close the store when downtown was struggling," Elkins said. "Today, there is such optimism. This building will be available for another thriving business and downtown will be stronger than ever."

The Hecht family has long been associated with the clothing trade. Louis Hecht's parents -- Jacob and Celia Cohen Hecht -- opened a small store in St. Louis. Later, they moved to Poplar Bluff in 1900, where they opened a Hecht's Store.

Louis Hecht arrived in Cape Girardeau, looked at the downtown area, and decided to open a store here. He told his father that he wanted to move to Cape Girardeau.

"My grandfather liked that idea," Martin Hecht said. "He said, 'There is a college in Cape Girardeau. You can open a store, get married and eventually you'll want to have children. Then your children can go to college and work in the store after school.'"

The opening of Hecht's in 1917 was heralded by newspaper advertisements of women's coats at $4.95. The community was receptive to the store. But not long after the store opened, Louis Hecht volunteered to serve in World War I.

"I am called to the Colors," screamed a full-page advertisement announcing his going-out-of-business sale in the Southeast Missourian on May 2, 1918.

"He could have sold all his merchandise to a distributor," Elkins said. "But he wanted it to go to his customers."

When Louis Hecht returned to Cape Girardeau following the war, he opened a new store at 127 N. Main on June 10, 1919.

He then purchased property and commissioned famed artist-architect Tom P. Barnett of St. Louis to design the building at 107 N. Main. It was the same architect who designed the Southeast Missourian's building on Broadway. Hecht's new building cost $60,000.

Passing out cigars

Then in 1927, Martin Hecht was given his first job with the company, passing out cigars to the customers when he was 2 years old. Hecht's sister, Cecelia, passed out flowers to the ladies.

Martin Hecht graduated from Southeast Missouri State University and is a veteran of World War II. Cecelia Hecht, who later married a clothing store owner, also graduated from Southeast Missouri State University.

Louis Hecht sold the business to his son, Martin, in 1946. Louis Hecht then opened a store in Las Vegas before it became the tourist mecca it is today.

"He looked at California and said he didn't like it," Hecht said. "He said Las Vegas reminded him of Cape Girardeau."

Louis Hecht kept abreast of the store's operations in Cape Girardeau until he died in 1988 at the age of 99. Martin Hecht's brother, Jacob "Chic" Hecht, followed his father to Las Vegas and opened a clothing store next to his father's store. He ran that store until he became a U.S. senator.

Over the years, the store expanded to seven stores, including those in Paducah, Ky., Carbondale, Ill., and at one time there were five in downtown Cape Girardeau. Since then, those stores closed for a variety of reasons except for the original downtown store.

The Hechts resisted the urge to move to Westfield Shoppingtown's West Park Mall when it opened in 1981 and continued to focus on what Elkins and the Hechts say kept it successful all those years -- the employees and the customers.

"Young people are not as used to getting great customer service at other stores," Elkins said. "We pride ourselves in customer service. We have the best staff in the world. Our customers who have shopped with us for years appreciate that great personal service."

Elkins said he hopes that will be the store's legacy.

"I hope they think about the wonderful merchandise they've purchased over the years and the wonderful service they've received in the store," Elkins said. "That's what I hope they remember."

But the Hechts have also made many civic contributions.

Elkins said that Martin Hecht is modest, so he wanted to point out how much the Hechts have meant to the community. Louis Hecht helped get a synagogue built in the downtown area in time for Martin Hecht's bar mitzvah, Elkins said. Martin Hecht helped start the Jaycee's Golf Course as well as making numerous contributions to Southeast Missouri State University. He also served on many boards.

"I couldn't name off all of the things he's done," Elkins said.

Now, though, the Hechts want to take it easy, travel and spend time with their 18 grandchildren.

"That should keep us busy," Martin Hecht said.

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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