By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
When Bruce Wenzel started operating Mercer Wenzel in 1958, he lived in Fort Lauderdale. He drove to his store in Delray Beach along U.S. 1 because there was no interstate. Back then, he had to contend with only one traffic light.
The family-run department store he owned at 401 E. Atlantic Ave. was the only large retailer in the area.
Of course, things changed.
And Wenzel has done well for himself and his staff, including his children who have worked with him full-time since 1988.
Daughter Chris Wenzel recalls wrapping gifts during the Christmas holidays when she was 8 years old. Today, she handles the business side and is the “go-to” person when there are problems.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” she said.
Son Mark Wenzel has memories of stocking shelves and doing maintenance at age 14. Today he’s in men’s wear.
Together, the family has survived seasonal customers, hurricanes and even a firebombing in 1968 that destroyed the shop. No one has ever been arrested for the crime, and the family still doesn’t know why it happened. But they shoveled out the store, threw a fire sale and rebuilt what stands today.
Late this month — probably before Thanksgiving — Mercer Wenzel will close its doors for the last time.
So if you pass the shop windows now, you’ll see vintage red “25 percent storewide clearance” signs. These are the very same signs the family hung for their long-ago fire sale.
“We are at the point where staying open requires major changes. My father is 85, and he has worked hard for 54 and a half years. It’s time for us to do something else, “ Chris said.
It’s clear that tradition and the past mean a lot to this crew, but the future is now.
Founder Bruce hopes to continue breakfasting at the Green Owl Restaurant across the street. He’ll participate in Rotary activities and be an active member of The Ocean Club in Ocean Ridge.
He also hopes to travel. “Any place I go will be new to me because I haven’t been able to get away a lot over the years,” he says.
Mark is thinking of buying houses and refurbishing them. “I want to do something positive that adds to the community,” he said.
And Chris has her future charted as the owner of Truly Tropical, a 5-acre grove in Delray Beach. She raises organic mangoes and other tropical fruits that she plans to market. She’ll also be able to spend more time with her own daughter, Kaeli Stenroos, 14.
At Mercer Wenzel, the merchandise and fixtures as well as the building itself are for sale. The family hopes the property will be refurbished and leased to other businesses.
The closing, however, leaves a hole in many lives.
Store buyer Connie Wichman has worked here for 41 years selecting merchandise and designing the store windows. “This has been a big part of my life,” she said, adding that she will miss her “amazing and wonderful staff.”
Anna Diebold, who works upstairs in children’s, linens and gifts, will put her master’s in education to work. She hopes to become a substitute teacher and then work with children with special needs.
Today, customers stop to catch the sales, chat with their favorite salespeople and wish the family good luck. Many have tears in their eyes.
Mindy Parsons, who works nearby, remembers coming to Mercer Wenzel as a child to buy her Brownie and Girl Scout uniforms.
Pam Dobson of Boca Raton admits to being around one more year than the store. She has often bought her husband’s clothes here because they are the only one to stock sports coats he’ll wear, she says.
Today she is shopping with her aunt, Anita Buckmaster of Delray Beach, who has been frequenting this store for about 20 years.
Together they’ve spent 1½ hours filling seven shopping bags. Perhaps Buckmaster said it best when she spoke of the closing: “It’s sad, very sad. I live nearby, and I will miss them.”
By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley