Shopping in Northern Kentucky before 1980 was a much different experience than today. When my parents told us we were going downtown to shop for clothes or shoes, they meant Covington. Shopping in the suburbs didn’t become much of an option until the opening of Florence Mall in 1976. Even then, my Ludlow-raised dad and Covington-raised mom preferred the Covington experience.

Covington was the retail center of Northern Kentucky for more than a century. Madison Avenue, Pike Street, Seventh Street and Main Street were lined with stores selling everything from clothes to produce to hardware. If by chance it wasn’t available in Covington, you crossed the river to Cincinnati. Cincinnati also had a particular charm at Christmastime to see the decorations and the trains.

Like most in my generation or older, I can still remember the iconic Covington stores that were part of my childhood. The John R. Coppin’s Department Store loomed large in the region—figuratively and physically. Located in Covington’s tallest building at the time at Seventh and Madison, the store opened in 1873 and operated until 1977. The store was located in several buildings in Covington until 1910 when the last structure was built (the current Hotel Covington). Designed by architect James Gilmore, the building presented an elegant interior and exterior. By 1922, the store employed 200 staff and boasted sales of $2 million per year. Many will remember the intricate payment system at the store. The salesperson would ring up your purchase and place the cash and receipt into a cylinder, which was transported by air through overhead tubes to the accounting department. There, change was made and sent back to the desk. Your purchase was placed in a bag or box, you received your change and you were on your way. Children in particular found this system fascinating to watch.

Eilerman and Son’s opened a store in Covington in 1892 (their first store was located on Monmouth Street in Newport). The Covington store was located in a four-story building at the corner of Pike and Madison Avenue and was topped by a distinctive spire. The store was a bit more upscale than Coppin’s and was known for its fine men’s clothing selection and tailor’s shop. Eilerman’s survived until 1973.

Montgomery Ward also operated in Covington for decades. The store was located on the 700 block of Madison Avenue and opened in 1929 right before the stock market crash. Despite hard times, Montgomery Ward flourished to a point that an addition was made in 1940. As shopping patterns changed, the store closed in the 1960s. Woolworth’s, also located on Madison Avenue, conducted a similar business beginning in 1898 at Pike and Washington Streets. In 1942, a new building was constructed at a cost of $240,000. The store had air conditioning and was known for its impressive 100-foot lunch counter that could seat 55 people. Woolworth’s eventually closed in 1990 and became home to the Madison Event Center.

Two of the country’s biggest retailers also operated in Covington. In 1935, Sears and Roebuck opened a store on Seventh Street. Over the years, the store expanded. Like most Sears stores of this era, it sold a little bit of everything, including clothes and hardware. Opening day was such a big event in Covington that the mayor and all the commissioners were present. The location did a brisk business for more than 40 years. It closed the same week as the Sears store at the Florence Mall opened in 1976. J.C. Penney (Covington’s current city hall) arrived in the city in 1941 on Pike Street. Like Sears, J.C. Penney did quite well. Even when a Penney’s opened in the Florence Mall, the Covington location remained open. Eventually, however, the lack of parking and a drop in sales prompted its closure in 1984. This marked an end to the downtown department store business in Covington.

Other smaller, but no less impressive, stores also attracted many to shop in Covington. Countless boys bought their first suit at the Parisian Men’s store at 40 W. Pike St. (now the home to Adams, Stepner, Woltermann & Dusing Law Firm). Other stores included Ideal Shoes, where you could get your feet X-rayed to achieve that perfect fit, Dan Cohen Shoes, with locations on Pike Street in Covington and Monmouth Street in Newport, and Motch Jewelry. Motch Jewelry was established in 1857 by Michael Motch in Covington. The current location at the corner of Madison and Pike was occupied in 1871. Franks Men’s Shop, now Frank’s on Pike, has stood the test of time and remained open for over 90 years. The store has found its niche and continues to thrive, meeting the needs of the community.

Furniture stores were also plentiful, most being located on Madison Avenue. Marx Brother’s (now the home to Gateway Community and Technical College’s TIE Building at 516 Madison Ave.) was owned and operated by Louis Marx and family. The First Marx Furniture was in Newport and opened in 1888. The Covington store opened in 1898 in a converted hotel. This building was destroyed by fire in the 1920s and replaced by the current structure. The business later passed to his son-in-law Nathan Rosenberg. It competed directly with Modern Furniture, which was located across the street and owned by the Greenberg family. Both stores carried a full range of home furnishings and appliances. Marx Brother’s had one of the last old-fashioned open elevators with accordion style doors in the city. Other furniture stores included Tillman’s, owned by Jim O’Connell and Sims, operated by Ralph Mazer. Few homes in Northern Kentucky lacked at least one piece of furniture from these stores.

These are only a few of the historic businesses that once operated in Covington. The interstate highway system and growing suburbs proved a major blow for many urban cities. As a result, many businesses closed or moved. While the large department stores are gone in Covington, many smaller specialty shops have taken their place. A lively restaurant scene has also emerged, making downtown Covington once again a popular place to shop, eat and people watch.

With renewed activity in the MainStrasse neighborhood and the Pike and Madison corridors, Covington is moving forward. The Internal Revenue Service site also provides innumerable opportunities for growth. Covington is smartly using its past to build its future. Not to recreate what once was, but to use the historic buildings and neighborhoods to meet the needs of today’s residents.

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