Michael Overall: Did the iconic Vandevers department store in downtown Tulsa make “a horrible mistake?” | Local News

Gary Vandever, semi-retired in the 70s, took a trip to Europe in the late 1950s and left his son in charge of the oldest department store in downtown Tulsa. But as soon as the eldest Vandever got on the plane, the youngest called a construction company to talk about plans for a new location in Utica Square.

“We’re going to make some changes,” announced William “Bill” Vandever.

Vandevers, whose history dates back to a dry goods store that opened near First and Main streets in 1904, initially resisted the temptations of the suburbs. And when the company finally decided to expand beyond the city center, a friendly competitor tried to talk Vandever out of it.

“We checked with our analysts,” John Duncan, who owned a department store chain in Oklahoma, told Vandever. “I studied this area. You are making a horrible mistake.

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Rather than cancel the Utica Square project, the elder Vandever scaled back plans to be just a small store. But when his father left Tulsa on vacation, William Vandever reversed his decision and tripled the size of the new store. By the time her father got home, it was too late to back down, according to a 2009 interview with the Voices of Oklahoma.

Known as “the store with everything,” Vandevers’ flagship location was at 16 E. Fifth St., where he sold mink coats and imported jewelry alongside blue jeans and Mickey Mouse watches.

Its six-story building seemed gargantuan when it opened in 1924, but the store has outgrown it and expanded to the first two floors of the adjacent Thompson Building. Another expansion spanned parts of a third building, then a fourth, with the store eventually doubling its square footage, according to Tulsa World records.

But buyers were faced with a maze of interconnected spaces spread over half a city block. Suburban locations, first at Utica Square and later at Southroads Mall, offered more elbow room and easier navigation.

Sales plummeted at the downtown store and it closed in 1970. The suburban locations survived until 1991 and 1992, when Vandevers could no longer compete with the giant national chain stores.

Today, ironically, size no longer seems to give suburban department stores that much advantage as they battle Amazon and other online retailers who have all outgrown physical walls.

Downtown retail, meanwhile, appears to be making a national resurgence. In recent years, shopping in “walkable urban places” has grown as a percentage of the total retail market in 21 of the nation’s 30 major metropolitan areas, according to a recent study by George Washington University.

If shoppers want convenience, they go online. If they want “an experience,” people prefer smaller, personalized stores that can easily fit into historic storefronts, according to the study.

Tulsa’s downtown shopping scene remains a fraction of what it was during Vandevers’ heyday, but it has grown in recent years, with the opening of Fleet Feet in 2010, Ida Red in 2013 and the Boxyard in 2016, among other shopping venues.

Duncan’s advice might have been right after all. He was only seven decades ahead of his time.

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