Vogel’s & Foster’s: Leaving A Mark After 144 Years (Guest Article by Johanna Jackson)
Vogel’s & Foster’s, the Chelsea clothing store owned by Mike Jackson, is going out of business. The store’s closure includes a retirement sale for Jackson, who has owned the business for 27 years. “I really appreciate the opportunity to serve the Chelsea community and outlying areas over all these years,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Selling “good old-fashioned fashion,” as The Chelsea Standard once put it, Vogel’s & Foster’s has been a staple of the downtown district for more than 100 years. According to its website, this business is “grounded in community heritage, proud of its classic lines of clothing and accessories.” Currently, the store sells dress shirts, leather coats, and outdoor wear as well as other clothes. At this time, all clothing is 60% off.
In retiring, Jackson intends to sell “down to the bare walls.” Customers can now buy Christmas decorations, vintage clothing, and office supplies, available at the rear of the store. This new variety in goods harkens back to days past, when, in the late 1800s, the building operated as a general store.
According to the Chelsea Area Historical Society, the building dates back to 1876 and 1877. After Zou-Zou’s and the McKune Library, that makes it one of the oldest buildings in downtown Chelsea.
In the 1870s, while Main Street was unpaved and Chelsea farmers carted wool into town, the site was known as H.S. Holmes Mercantile. The mercantile sold “dry goods, carpets, cloaks, clothing, furnishing goods, boots, shoes, and rubber boots,” according to author Cynthia Furlong Reynolds.
More than 100 years ago, Holmes transported a gigantic metal safe, embossed with gold lettering, into the back room. Workers cut through an external wall in order to install the safe. From the back parking lot, passers-by can still see a rectangular patch on the wall where people carved through the original brick.
Fostering Strong Connections
Like many small businesses, Vogel’s & Foster’s acts as a hub for community connection. “It has been a cornerstone of downtown Chelsea for as long as I can remember,” one customer recalls. “I’ve shopped in the store for years,” another said. “I’m sad to see it go.” Bill Sorenson, a resident of Kalamazoo, purchased his Varsity jacket there in 1957. He wrote to the Chelsea Update in November, sharing his regrets at the closure. For him, Vogel’s & Foster’s carried “great memories of my hometown.”
Mike Jackson – who happens to be my dad – bought Vogel’s & Foster’s when I was five. As a child, I played hide ‘n’ seek inside the clothing fixtures. Though, soon it will transition to a new owner, the building has housed plenty of memories for our family. We still laugh to think about my brother Dan, posing as a mannequin inside the front window. After sitting impossibly still, he would startle onlookers by waving.
Lately, my mother, brother, and I have returned to Vogel’s & Foster’s to help with the Going Out of Business sale. My mom and I recently sold men’s wear, while my dad spiffed up clothing displays nearby.
This form of homecoming – from the view of the front register – helps me to appreciate the warmth and community that grow naturally inside of small, brick-and-mortar stores. Small businesses like Vogel’s & Foster’s can often support brief reunions. Last week, I turned around to see my high school orchestra teacher, Jed Fritzemeier, browsing men’s shirts. He had moved on from teaching, now conducting the Jackson Symphony Orchestra. Later that day, former students Emily and Lucas Kizer stopped into the store. I recognized Emily from 25 years earlier, when we had been Girl Scouts together in Troop 112. We recalled a very cold cabin trip in which something went wrong with the heat.
Not everyone has longtime connections to Chelsea or to the store. However, many people do. The ancient building seems to encourage nostalgia and an old-time pace. One afternoon, customer Jeff Rohrer and my dad relaxed together, raving about the Chelsea football game. “They got a field goal with zero seconds left!” Rohrer exclaimed. That field goal won Chelsea the state title.
When it comes to Vogel’s & Foster’s, one thing is clear: clicking through Amazon Prime doesn’t prime the pump for conversations like these.
Encouraging Stories and Memory
Today, some of the best memories can be hidden from sight. Below the sales floor, in the basement, one wall sports a list of signatures dating back 100 years. The dozens of names include “R.K’ in 1909 and Leo Martin in 1911.
Helen Vogel, who owned the Vogel’s side from 1933-1973, did not write her name on the wall. However, long after she died, she left a legacy of her very strong personality. Solid and unshakeable, Vogel is described as “firm” and “curt” by one former employee. “If you were from outside of Chelsea,” people told me, “then she didn’t have your size.” One resident recalled: “If you came into the store, then Miss Vogel would tell you, ‘This is what you want.’” She housed most of the merchandise in individual storage boxes. When customers showed interest in the wrong item, Vogel would say: “No, you can’t have that, it’s too short, it won’t work.”
Vogel’s assertiveness gave way to a new style, when Jack and Friedelle Winans bought the Vogel’s side in 1973. Friedelle is remembered as being warm and friendly. “There was a sparkle in her eye,” one customer recalls. “She had a warmth that radiated. She invited you in.” In 1977, the couple purchased the Foster’s side and reunited the two stores.
Bob Foster, for his part, is remembered for his kindness and generosity. “Oh, everybody loved Bob,” one resident recalls. Foster refused to charge sales tax to his customers. He was also incredibly trusting. His grandson, Troy Schiller, heard stories from people “who visited from out of town, who were looking for a hat to give it as a gift. They didn’t know which one to buy. He told them to take both hats, pay for one, and come back with other one later.”
“I don’t know how that would work, nowadays,” Schiller admits. “He would struggle in today’s mentality, I can say that.”
Though their management styles were quite different, Bob Foster and Helen Vogel clearly trusted one another. According to Vogel’s niece, who returned to the store 15 years ago, a cash carrier system once ran between the two businesses. The cash carrier operated with a small basket, hanging from a wire overhead. When a clerk at one end pulled the handle, the basket whizzed along the wire to the other side, where it landed with a thump. Staff members working the registers would use this system to share petty cash with one another – even though they were employed by different companies. If the clerks at one register needed spare change, they would borrow from the store next door.
Cash carrier days have passed: most folks pay with credit cards now. However, the legacy of Vogel’s & Foster’s remains strong in many people’s minds. Following the merchants before him, Mike Jackson has maintained a gentle, trusting environment for staff and customers alike. “He worked hard to be a good citizen,” a family member recalls. Jackson donated his time to custom-fit suits for residents of the St. Louis Center, a home for people with intellectual disabilities. He also sustained the business through the Dot Com bubble, two recessions and a pandemic.
Thanks to Jackson’s efforts, one more generation has experienced the gifts of a small-town clothing store: community, hospitality, stability, and warmth.