- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

GARY, Ind. (AP) - People used to dress up in heels or starched button-down shirts before heading to downtown Gary in 1955, when Albert Cohen opened his furniture store, Union United Corp.

Broadway bustled with shoppers headed to Woolworth’s, J.C. Penney, Green’s Furs, Sportsworld Sporting Goods, Sax Fine Footwear and Goldblatt’s Department Store.

Fedora-clad visitors dined at restaurants like the Fountain Room or Skylight Room, saw movies at the Palace Theater, and took lessons at the Rina Rosa Accordion Studio. They flocked to a hotel restaurant by his furniture store for the roast duck.

Union United, on 761 Washington St., thrived for many years in those days.

“It was very profitable in the beginning,” said Cohen, who at age 89 has finally decided to close down his store, one of the few retailers remaining in downtown Gary.

“It was a very viable community when you go back into the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was booming downtown. Broadway was like Chicago, a mini-State Street. There were stores all the way up and down Washington Street. It wasn’t like Broadway, but they were all viable,” he told The Times of Munster (https://bit.ly/1lHk6Yu).

But the steel mills that motored Gary’s economy started to lose ground and lay off workers. Racial tensions mounted. Residents moved south or east, and shopping malls started sprouting in corn fields. Unemployment rose, crime soared and the city’s population started to plummet - it’s fallen by 55 percent since its peak in 1960.

One by one, the shops that made downtown Gary a destination for residents of Hammond, Chesterton and the rest of the region skipped town or went under.

But not Union United.

Cohen never gave up on Gary, a city the native Chicagoan moved to after falling in love with a Gary girl - the place where they made a life together and reared their children.

It wasn’t always easy. He’s been robbed at gunpoint. He’s watched a neighboring building burn down. He’s shrunk his business from six employees to one and had days where not a single customer walked through the door.

“You become attached to a community and the friends you make there,” he said. “Gary’s been very good to me. I could have left and moved back to Chicago, but my heart has always been here. I have a lot of fond memories here. I like Gary. I’m eternally optimistic and always hoped it would come back.”

All the other stores on that stretch of Washington Street vanished long ago. Trees and ivy devour the abandoned brick three-story parking garage just north of Union United. The Gothic ruins of the City Methodist Church, one of the nation’s most iconic symbols of urban decay, are two blocks away.

Still, Cohen has driven down from his home on Chicago’s Gold Coast six days a week, sailing past the river of commuters flowing into the city while Frank Sinatra crooned or Ella Fitzgerald purred on his car stereo. His daughter only recently persuaded him it was time to retire, after years of trying.

“He is a nice guy who always played things straight,” said friend William Choslovsky, a Chicago attorney who has known him for decades.

He has helped generations of Gary residents furnish their homes, sometimes after they could not get credit anywhere else. He’s sold mattresses to the grandchildren of customers who shopped there in the 1950s or 1960s. A police officer who heard the store was closing dropped by to reminisce that he bought his first bedroom set there 30 years ago.

Willa Thomas, a Gary native who moved from Alabama to Hobart for a missionary trip, bought a couch and a love seat at Union United last week. She just arrived back in Northwest Indiana on a bus with nothing more than her bags, and made a beeline to Cohen’s store so she could make her new place a home.

Thomas said she enjoyed shopping there over the years partly because Cohen had always been understanding with late payments. He’s always pleasant. And then there’s the furniture.

“I love his furniture,” she said. “Everything is nice, good quality.”

Gary has a few other furniture stores, but Union United had the widest selection, Kim Winters said. She bought her living room set there and fears homes in Gary will start looking the same after the store closes for good this fall.

“If you go to Value Furniture or Harlem Furniture, they don’t have French Provincial like that,” Winters said while pointing to chairs. “They have a more unique selection. You can find things you don’t see in other stores or homes.”

Union United is in the middle of a going-out-of-business sale, and will shut down in September. A liquidation firm has drawn in hundreds of customers with giveaways, including for an iTunes gift card and a 60-inch color television.

It’s the busiest the place has been since the 1970s.

The store is decidedly old-school. Cohen has kept it afloat during the Great Recession by trading stocks on his iPad and MacBook Pro, but he still uses an adding machine to tally up purchases. A “rate schedule” reads that answers are $1, answers that require thought are $2, and correct answers are $4, but dumb looks are still free.

Cohen could have retired years ago. But he burrowed into his work after his beloved wife, Shirley Alterwitz, whom he proposed to two weeks after their first date, died.

“I think I owe my longevity to the store being my mistress,” he said. “I’ve been a widower since 1963. Having something to do and a place to hang your head is important. I’m nervous about being retired. I don’t have any special hobbies. Retiring is not going to be simple. I’m going to have to try to make a plan for myself on a daily basis, so I’m not just sitting at home watching baseball.”

He could have left Gary. He looked into rents in Merrillville, and deemed it too expensive, especially since he owned the former garage where he sells Ashley furniture and Frigidaire appliances. He didn’t want to work for a landlord.

Cohen bought the building in 1962, and expanded by buying the building next door in 1974.

“I didn’t like anything about the building,” he said. “The roof leaked. It looked terrible. It was pretty decrepit. It still looks bad, but it was my building.”

His focus was never on making money. Cohen used to extend credit to about 90 percent of his customers, and estimates he was never repaid about $4 million to $5 million over the six decades he ran the store. He decided not to let it keep him up at night.

He tried another line of work once, setting up a brokerage office at 504 Broadway in the late 1960s. But a secretary embezzled his money and the firm ended up being undercapitalized. He notified the Securities and Exchange Commission, which shut it down.

“We closed the office in an orderly way,” he said. “No one lost money except me.”

Union United has lost money for the last three years. Heating bills in the old, drafty building rose to $4,000 a month when the polar vortex froze Northwest Indiana, and Cohen said the store can’t survive another winter that bad. He’s conserved money as best he could over the years, but said it’s tough to operate a retail store when so much of the city is abandoned.

He’s not sure how he’s going to stay occupied during retirement, though he enjoys walking along Lake Michigan. But an autumn romance might be blooming.

“I’m going to rob the cradle,” he said. “There’s a young lass in California - she’s 80 - who I met in 1969 at a cousin’s wedding. She lives in L.A., but is coming here later this month to attend a wedding. She called me last night and we talked for two hours, until the phone ran out of battery.”


Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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