Exhibit remembers department store heyday

INDIANAPOLIS — If you’re over the age of 30 and have lived most of your life in central Indiana, you probably, at one time or another, made a visit to the downtown Indianapolis Ayres store, once located at the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets. The Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., seeks to recreate that time period from 1905 to 1992 when the Ayres flagship store was in its heyday with the exhibit, “You are There: That Ayres Look.”

The tour begins with visitors stepping through a curtain of light and fog which simulates stepping back into the past.

As visitors wander through the exhibit, they learn that “that Ayres look” was originally created by an in-house fashion department with four dressmaker shops and more than 40 dressmakers. It’s possible that Lyman Ayres himself might make an appearance and will be happy to answer any questions about the golden age of department stores.

Museum-goers learn about the many innovations of the Ayres corporation.

A few fun facts:

The company introduced a little idea called the charga-plate, which was the forebear of today’s credit card.

Ayres was the first department store in Indianapolis to have air conditioning.

Ayres pioneered the idea of the Economy Basement later known as the Downstairs Store or the Budget Store.

A memory from Ayres that lives on today is that of the decorated store-front windows during the holiday season, which are recreated each year at the Indiana State Museum. At the history center, there are photos of Santa’s arrival and of what eventually became known as Santaland on the eighth floor of store.

Ayres worked hard to make the Christmas shopping season special for its costumers, offering free gift-wrapping and delivery. Beginning in 1922, Ayres employees would carol throughout the store to spread Christmas cheer. This practice continued through 1976.

Ayres also offered a service through which customers could fill out a form with basic information about the people on their shopping lists. Employees then transferred the information to a punch card, which was then fed into an early IBM computer that generated gift ideas, prices and locations of gifts found within the store. All of this gave meaning to the longest-running slogan in advertising: “A gift from Ayres means more.”

But the demise of many downtown areas during the ’60s and ’70s also meant the demise of the urban department store. The exhibit leaves one with a sense of nostalgia and of the passage of time to think that something as solidly present as Ayres, or any of the ubiquitous urban department stores, could become no longer there.

Nevertheless, if your Indiana roots run deep, then it’s likely that Ayres played a part in your past, and that makes “You are There: That Ayres Look” worth the visit. There’s plenty of time to see the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 6, 2016. For more information about this and other IHS programs, call 317-232-1882 or visit indianahistory.org.

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Christine Schaefer is arts editor and editorial assistant at the Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3222 or cschaefer@greenfieldreporter.com.