By Tim Norris
As customers come through the door of Mercer Wenzel off Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, owner Bruce Wenzel and his son, Mark, can size them up.
The department store’s whole staff can.
This man’s a 42 regular, long in the shoulders, short in the arms. That woman’s a 12 dress, a little wide in the waist. The young girl there is a size 8.
That much they know. The mystery is how, and whether, and on what (or not) the newcomers are focused, like the man just coming in on this Monday morning, casting glances, looking baffled. Or the two women behind him a few minutes later, bright-eyed, laughing, searching.
“You need any help, sir?” Mark Wenzel says, and the man says, “Yeah, a little bit. I need trousers, and maybe a jacket.” Right over here, Mark says, leading him.
For customers, quickly sized-up, sizing up the store isn’t as easy. They see a wide racked and stacked and fanned out, and they note that the staff appears more veteran than the mall-outlet youth corps. They have little idea that most have worked in New York’s garment district, or that Mercer Wenzel still maintains a crucial connection there.
Many customers also experience a feeling, one they often share with staff, that they have seen this place before, seen it in childhood, now in memory.
“People tell us this reminds them of the (department) stores they knew when they were young,” Mark Wenzel says.
Nostalgia might deepen with Perry Como singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town from the store’s speakers, followed by Bing Crosby and I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
The holidays bring a retailer’s season of promise, too, and Mercer Wenzel has seen many.
What most newcomers miss are larger lessons to be found, in retailing and in living, and about an America swung toward chain stores and malls and catalogs and online sales.
They might also overlook the owner, just coming in from his daily brunch at the Green Owl across the street and crisply dressed in dark blue trousers, a sherbet-green Enro shirt and a silk tie showing sea horses and starfish.
One road to retail: Bruce Wenzel could tell them what it’s like to sell swimsuits and women’s sportswear to retailers from a suitcase in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, in dead of winter and in summer heat, black soot from the steel mills blowing onto his sample cases and tables.
Wenzel was Army, Korean conflict, sergeant, supply. From growing up on the near south side of Milwaukee and through the history and speech programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he found a knack for persuasion but wasn’t sure where to aim it.
In school, he worked for an upscale Milwaukee-Madison clothier, McNeil and Moore. In Seoul, he helped fit and dispense uniforms, and after his homecoming a help-wanted ad led him to Catalina swimsuits and women’s wear. Mercifully, Catalina pulled him from wintry Pittsburgh to the sunny shores of South Florida, where traveling sales led to a partnership and a new life in retail.
The senior Wenzel can weave a story of multiple stores and holding onto an enterprise amid the shifting patterns of fashion, if his balking memory will let him. At age 83, he says, “I have a bad memory, getting worse, taking medication for it.” He has watched a quiet town accelerate. He says, “Ever been here at night? You can’t believe how busy.” Amid the flashes of traffic and neon, among the brightly lit eateries and sidewalk sashaying, the Mercer Wenzel corner store is a calm, traditional presence.
Hard work behind the displays: At first glance, Mercer took top billing and then got off easy. Retail is nobody’s play place, unless you’re hiring it done, and when a road-weary Bruce Wenzel met him, S.L. Mercer had put in nearly 20 years in the business. Losing a son to cancer, he cashed out, leaving Wenzel to man the helm, and the hems, for another half-century. And counting.
“This was a beautiful town, still is,” Wenzel says. “People in other places say they wish they had a downtown like ours. Here, we’ve worked along, don’t owe anybody, don’t have a mortgage on the place. We’re fortunate with the help we’ve had from the people here.”
Clothing, jewelry, housewares, toys, notions, between the store’s two floors, the staff hopes, something will catch nearly anyone’s fancy. What might elude view is the hard work behind the displays and the secret to keeping a family clothing store in business on a main street when nearly all such stores, across America, have long since vanished.
Most Delray residents have never known another local department store. Mercer’s, soon-to-be Mercer Wenzel, opened for business 53 years ago, and before that the Zuckerman family sold goods there. The building itself dates from the 1930s. But no family business comes with a guarantee, any more than the lives of those working in it. In life, in work, the staff says, sometimes you find the fit. Sometimes the fit finds you.
An experienced team: That was Mark Wenzel’s experience in the ’70s, not long out of Palm Beach Junior College and Florida State with a business degree. “You can talk about what you want to do, but you go through things, and a lot of times what it boils down to is what’s needed out of you,” he says. “I was needed here.”
For the male customer who came in looking, the lost has been found, and he leaves with a dark blue jacket and coal gray slacks. The next man wanders in, gazes around, wanders out. In this business, the sales staff says, nobody can be taken at first blush. These sales people do not pounce. They approach, ask questions, listen, offer suggestions, even walk someone to a dressing room and lift away what’s cast off.
In the Men’s Department, Cy Baren helps a man picking up a pair of slacks. Not long ago, Baren sold clothes in Manhattan’s Saks Fifth Avenue, but the life circumstances were grim. “My son got very sick,” he says. “I went back to Manhattan, he passed away. I came back here.”
Connie Wickman stepped in off the street one day 39 years ago, just out of school, looking for work. “I loved the atmosphere, and Mr. Wenzel’s a wonderful person to work for,” she says.
Now, she serves in a crucial role; ladies’ wear buyer and merchandise manager, traveling to New York twice a year and to Las Vegas and Atlanta and West Palm to survey what’s new and also tried-and-true and to pick out what might fit her customers best.
“We’re extremely fortunate; we have our agent up in New York by the name of Joe Shultz, Richard Rosenbloom Associates,” she says. “He’s in the market every day, just an amazing man.”
She can run through the list of her more local help now, as she arranges sometimes-painstaking schedules for the part-time workers: Frances Reichenbach and Helene Reeder upstairs in the children’s and housewares departments, and the ladies specialists, Ann Gray, Jeanne Michaels, Anna Caruana, Roz Capp, Bea Schiff, Liz Kirby, Joyce Gassar, Gloria Fucillo. A long-time and well-loved saleswoman, Mary Lehtinen, just retired.
“The girls do a much better job of selling than I ever would,” Connie Wickman says. She can do windows; the decorative displays in front windows, changed every week or so, are hers.
Bruce Wenzel can still sell and serve, too, and he is still there, at work, six days a week. He knows, and his children know, that his run will end, sooner rather than later. His daughter, Chris Wenzel, manages the office and buys for the upstairs and will step into the store’s leadership, with her father’s blessing. He’s glad to think that Mark, with his laid-back manner, will stay with it, too. He has not, happily, outlived the enterprise itself. That would hurt.
“My worst day at my house is Sunday afternoon,” he says, “when I don’t have anything to do. I work six days a week here, and I enjoy it. One of my doctors says, ‘Bruce, that’s what’s keeping you alive.’ ”
Connie Wickman says this: “Here, w-o-r-k not a dirty four-letter word.”
It shouldn’t, they add, be drudgery, either. As Wickman says, “This is a very rewarding job, good people, always something new. We give you the personal attention.”
They can see the result, they say, every day, watching their customers walk back onto the avenue, carrying Mercer Wenzel bags with clothes they’ll wear into the rest of their lives.
In Coasting Along, our writers occasionally stop to reflect on life along the shore.