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Keeping up with the Coopers

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By Matt Schepeler
When leafing through the bound editions of old Exponents from the 1970’s, advertisements from the Cooper’s Department Store tend to stand out. They always had a little flair.
Coopers was a mainstay in Brooklyn for years, and the Cooper family was, naturally, well-known.
In late June, we contacted Scott Cooper and asked if we could do a short feature on the family to let our readers know how they are faring. It turned out that the children of Fred and Margaret Cooper – Gary, Kevin, Scott, Cheryl, and Todd – were having a reunion in early August, and they were happy to supply a photo and stop by the Exponent to visit.
Scott and Kevin came into the office to talk in July. Cheryl stopped in later, and the memories of working in the store and growing up in Brooklyn were easy to coax out.
Coopers was a family business from the beginning. It was started around 1936 as The Economy Store by Jack Cooper, who came to Brooklyn from Detroit. Jack McCabe, Margaret’s brother, also worked at the store, as did other relatives.
The store was later sold to Fred and Margaret by Jack.
Growing up, all of the Cooper children worked at the store.
“It was our summer job, for all of us, once we came of age, so to speak,” said Kevin, noting that they would do everything from sweep the floors to whisk the suits to wait on customers.
“I remember working for nothing,” said Kevin. “When I got 50 cents an hour, I thought that was big time. I was making big money. Not that I am complaining. It was how you learned.”
Kevin and Scott recalled that their father, Fred, was quietly generous and would help people who needed a suit for a funeral or were otherwise experiencing troubled times. He would also extend credit to local farmers until their crops came in. It was all a part of surviving in agricultural economy of Brooklyn in the early 70’s.
Kevin said that one thing Coopers offered was one-on-one contact with customers. “We would greet people when they came in and know them by name,” said Kevin.
Growing up in Brooklyn left lasting memories on the family.
“Those are times when everybody’s house was your back yard, because we played in everyone’s back yard, up and down the street,” said Kevin.
Cheryl said she remembered working for the Exponent at one time, going door-to-door to get news items. She would get paid 15 cents per story. “The news items would be ‘who came for dinner that day,’ or ‘who was over for the weekend,’” she said with a laugh.
She also remembers the store as a friendly place that was always busy. “Everybody knew everybody.”
She recalled when a customer was trying on clothes in the dressing room. “She had the dressing room full of stuff, then it dawned on her that it was 3:30. She said
‘Oh my gosh, I have got to go let my son in the house. I am late.’ And she had one of our outfits on. I said ‘Alice, go, go open up your house and let your boy in and come back.’”
“She ran home, opened the door for her son, then came back and finished her business. Where else can you do that?”

The newly built Cooper’s Department Store Inc. in Brooklyn

On Jan. 15, 1971 the store burned to the ground, along with Greene’s Hardware. “They found the safe and it was so hot they had to wait to open it, and when they opened it, everything inside was combusted,” said Kevin.
The fire left Fred, who was in his 50’s, with a major decision. Should he shut down the store, or rebuild? He opted to rebuild.
“For dad to start over was an incredible financial burden,” said Scott.
“He had to take every spare dime to put into it. And the unfortunate aspect is that we were having down times with the automotive industry, along with everything else.
“Trying to rebuild that business, he got everything locked up into merchandise. Then the malls opened, first Briarwood (in Ann Arbor) then Westwood Mall (in Jackson) and that became the new entertainment,” said Scott. “It just became a nightmare.”
The store had some good years, but ultimately struggled in the changing economy. Not only were the shopping malls competitive, another department store (Big Wheel) moved to town, competing for a market not large enough to support two clothiers.
“We had a note with the bank for the building,” said Scott. “We had a fire sale on all the suits, and that basically paid off all the bills for what we owed on the stock for what we bought.
“We basically gave the building back to the bank. I think we all walked away with $1.75.”

The children of Fred and Margaret Cooper. They are, left to right, Gary, Kevin, Scott, Cheryl and Todd

But the story does not have a sad ending. In fact, it was just the beginning. As one might expect from a family who grew up in retail, the Cooper children have fared well:
  • Cheryl was successful in real estate and now lives in the North Carolina;
  • Todd lives in Grand Rapids, working as a territory sales manager;
  • Gary is in sales and lives in Jackson;
  • Kevin taught in the Columbia School District before moving to Florida, where he sold cruises for a company in Orlando and tended bar. “I wanted to do something completely different,” he said. He recently retired.
  • Scott lives in the Chelsea area and is also in real estate.
Each looks back on Brooklyn fondly.
“I miss my little town,” said Cheryl with a smile. It was a great place to grow up.

5 Comments

  1. Tina Ronders

    August 24, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I have to say that I remember shopping at Cooper’s Department Store like it was yesterday. School shopping for some special clothes was quite a privilege for me. I remember saving my allowance to buy some blue suede “earth shoes” when they were popular. I bought a tri-colored bathing suit for the Miss Teen Heart of the Lakes Beauty Pageant; contestants were given a discount if they purchased their bathing suits at Cooper’s. In addition to family, I believe Mary D. and Alice P. worked there with excellent customer service? If my memory serves me correct, I believe I did babysitting for Cheryl’s kids a time or two….

  2. Jeanette Elrod

    August 24, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Great family, great memories, with a great legacy! Continued blessings to all the Coopers!

  3. Marcia Ksiazkiewicz Sullivan

    August 24, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    I remember a very respectable family to all…..didn’t matter where you ran into them they made the time to have a kind word…..I remember them most as a part of the church family and every Sunday as a family they were there

  4. Vicki ( Hartsuff) O'Barsky

    August 25, 2017 at 2:41 am

    Great memories Matt. Loved it….sometimes I just miss Brooklyn, but mostly the people I grew up with there.

  5. judie moore

    August 27, 2017 at 7:42 am

    I loved this store, went there with my Gramma all the time. Men’s clothing in one part, women’s in the other part. Very nice selections and good quality

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