Lois Stritt’s husband, Jack, died a few days before she became the new owner of Bradley’s Department Store in 2010.
Heartbroken, Stritt found comfort in meeting shoppers daily and giving them personal attention.
Now the 84-year-old is grief-stricken again.
The building that houses her business has been sold, and she must sell everything.
“I’m having problems because I can’t stop crying about it,” Stritt said. “There is less in the store every day.”
She is not sure when her last day will be.
But one thing is certain.
When the doors close, so will an icon in downtown Delavan that has been one of the oldest continuously operating department stores in the country.
Bradley’s was founded in 1852 and has been a business anchor on East Walworth Avenue since 1887.
“I had some people who were close to tears about it,” Stritt said. “I know they would hug me if they could. But they can’t even give hugs because of COVID.”
In recent weeks, three women from a Chicago suburb brought Stritt a goodbye bottle of wine. One man shared the story of how his grandmother bought a Cub Scout uniform for him at Bradley’s. Other shoppers came in for one last look and maybe a marked-down sweater or dress.
Generations of families have shopped for clothes at the 168-year-old business and have come to expect personal attention.
“We meet our customers at the door,” said Jackie Busch, who has worked at Bradley’s more than 20 years and proudly refers to herself as a “Bradley girl.”
“We tell them what the sales are,” she said. “If customers need help matching clothes or jewelry, we help them.”
Few stores carry Bradley’s contemporary brands, including Brighton, Pendleton and Woolrich, Busch added.
She grew up in Delavan, so Bradley’s has special meaning to her.
“The store is an icon,” Busch said. “My parents shopped there. I shop there.”
She remembers when the former owner, Bill McKoy, celebrated Bradley’s 150th anniversary.
“He wanted to do something spectacular,” Busch said, “so he put together a parade. It was a great community event.”
Busch loved shopping at Bradley’s.
“I left most of my paycheck there,” she said. “I will miss those nice clothes.”
She called the store closing heartbreaking.
“In my mind, the store has been there forever,” Busch said. “I feel sad whenever any kind of icon goes away. Delavan is changing. We have a lot of businesses now owned by younger people who are investing in our downtown.”
Becky Merwin is one of Bradley’s longtime customers.
“My husband would go there and get me a gift certificate,” Merwin said. “Lois would help him pick out things that she thought would be perfect for me.”
She called Stritt “a well-known lady in Delavan” who has taught Sunday school and has been active in the community.
“Lois has a special relationship with her customers,” Merwin said. “She is the youngest 84-year-old woman I have ever known. She likes to work every day.”
Stritt’s career in retail began after her family was grown.
She applied for a part-time job at Bradley’s and loved the work.
In 2010, the previous owners put the store on the market.
“My husband encouraged me to buy it,” Stritt recalled. “I have four sons and no grandchildren—not one. I told my boys that I bought myself a grandbaby.”
She sank her energy into the business.
“We didn’t know what kind of a tradition we needed to carry on when we bought the store,” Stritt said, “but I became aware of it right away.”
She doesn’t hold back when she describes how important Bradley’s has been to her:
“The store has been my life,” Stritt said. “It kept me going every day.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.