You can hear the pride in Kenneth Turchi’s voice when talks about working for the L. S. Ayres branch store in Lafayette, Indiana, when he was in college in the 1970s.
“It was a big deal to work at L. S. Ayres,” says Turchi, assistant dean of communications and marketing at IU’s Maurer School of Law.
“Even if you were just summer help, you were told from the very beginning that this was serious business. And that we weren’t here just to ring things up. We were here to help and to maintain the reputation of the store.”
Turchi’s book, L.S. Ayres and Company: The Store at the Crossroads of America, shows why Ayres was such a well-loved Hoosier tradition. The copiously illustrated coffee table book is published by the Indiana Historical Society Press.
At the Crossroads of America
Ayres’ flagship store was located in Indianapolis at One West Washington Street, corner of Meridian—what residents called “the crossroads of America.”
The Ayres building was enormous—about ten times that of the former L. S. Ayres store at Bloomington’s College Mall (now Macy’s). Inside was a staggering array of products and services—everything from the latest New York City fashions to musical instruments.
“The full-line department stores were all set up that way,” says Turchi. “If I talk to anybody under 40 they had no idea that department stores used to carry things like books, sheet music, sporting goods. That you could cash a check if you had an Ayres account. They would come out to your house and measure for draperies and offer a complete complimentary home decorating service.
For several generations of Hoosiers, a trip downtown to spend a day at L.S. Ayres was a special event. The store continually staged promotions to lure customers: celebrity book signings, fashion shows, live animals in the auditorium for Easter, street-level animated windows for Christmas and a train giving rides through Christmas Village.
‘Meet Me at the Tea Room’
The Ayres style was exemplified by the Tea Room, where customers would take a break from shopping to eat lunch in style.
“The Tea Room is what people unanimously mention to me about Ayres,” Turchi says. “The restaurant was huge, taking up half of the eighth floor. You were expected to get dressed up, and if you were a kid you were expected to sit quietly in your chair.”
The women diners routinely wore hats and white gloves. Models circulated around the tables and changed outfits three times during peak lunch hours.
Turchi interviewed several “really charming” former Ayres models who told him that they had regular customers who were always glad to see them, and with whom they became friends.
A Spool of Red Thread
Ayres customers nearly always arranged for their purchases to be delivered. Delivery made sense before the 1960s, when most households were one-car families, and the car was used for office commutes.
“The women who shopped at Ayres would be in the store for most of the day, and didn’t want to drag around packages with them,” Turchi explains. Later that day or the next, a step van would arrive at their home to deliver their purchases, free of charge.
“It was a different era in customer service. But Ayres embodied that better than anybody in Indianapolis.”
At one of the 25 talks that Turchi has given about his book, an audience member told him about an experience with Ayres service. She was sewing one day and ran out of thread. She had no way to get downtown, so she called Ayres and they cheerfully delivered a spool of red thread.
‘That Ayres Look’
After World War I, Ayres saw that women’s fashion was moving away from custom made to ready made.
“Ayres realized they needed to help their customers make the transition to Seventh Avenue fashions. They did that through the hook of women’s fashion and a slogan, ‘That Ayres Look.’”
“That Ayres Look” was used in national advertisements for fifty years, making it the longest-running slogan in U.S. advertising history.
“The slogan helped establish Ayres not only in Indianapolis as a fashion-forward store, but also gave them cachet on Seventh Avenue. And it differentiated the store from other stores around the Midwest.”
The last L. S. Ayres stores disappeared years ago, but according to Turchi, the corporation left a legacy in the community.
“A legacy in training a lot of really good people who went on to become successful in other businesses. And a legacy also of the memory of a gentler time when service mattered and style mattered and people lived a little more slowly then they did now.”
Still in existence is the Ayres Foundation, which gave financial support for Turchi’s book. So, too, is the flagship store’s Tea Room: It’s been recreated with at the Indiana State Museum, where diners can partake of dishes from the original menu and High Tea on Sundays.