LIMA — World War II had been over for a year, but Sylvan Holstine was still in a fighting mood.
With the U.S. still in transition to a peacetime economy, an official of the Civilian Production Administration predicted a shortage of new men’s clothing for the 1946 holiday season. Holstine, the president of Lima’s Leader store, disagreed and came out firing in a four-column ad in The Lima News. “All he has to do is call at our men’s clothing department and ask for his size,” Holstine said. “It just happens that we have a very fine brown worsted in a single-breasted style that should fit his figure and conservative personality.” The Washington bureaucrats surrendered. “It wasn’t even a contest.” The Associated Press wrote Sept. 10, 1946. “The CPA took one look — and hollered uncle.”
Holstine and the Leader seldom hollered uncle. He had joined the Leader in 1920, the same year a disastrous fire gutted the store founded in 1905 by his father Gus Holstine at 141 N. Main St. The store was renovated and expanded on the same site and, by the time it was 50 years old in 1955, had grown from that original 25-by-50-foot shop on a “muddy Main Street” into a store with 70,000 square feet of sales space, 165 employees — 350 during the holidays — and fronts on both Main and High streets.
“Truly, I can’t help but feel that not only Lima, but also the Leader, has come a long way and I am sure there is much more to come in the future,” the ever-optimistic Holstine told the News Dec. 31, 1954.
Much of the Leader’s growth occurred after World War II under Sylvan Holstine. He was joined in 1945 by his son, Philip Holstine, and in 1952 by his son-in-law Burt Rubens, who married his daughter, Lois Holstine, in 1950. Philip Holstine served as a fighter pilot during World War II, was shot down toward the end of the war and spent a month in a German POW camp. Gus Holstine, the store’s founder, died in September 1945, following a lengthy illness, shortly after the end of World War II and his grandson’s release from the POW camp.
Despite booming sales during the war years, the four-story Leader, hemmed in by the brick and mortar of surrounding buildings and the paper and ink of wartime construction restrictions, had no way to expand. In 1947, a way was found.
“Plans for the establishment in Lima of one of the largest retail stores in northwestern Ohio were revealed Saturday when the Leader Store submitted the high bid of $125,100 for the purchase of the City Building on West High Street,” the News reported Nov. 2, 1947. City offices housed in the building, which was located just around the corner from the Leader, were moved to a building on East Market Street purchased from Great Lakes Greyhound Lines.
In the spring of 1948 work began on a $500,000 remodeling of the Leader, including conversion of the three-story City Building into “an L-shaped extension” of the store. On a blustery early January day in 1949, special equipment was used to install a two-ton sign on the West High Street addition of the Leader and, on March 2, 1949, “more than 15,000 persons previewed the ground floor of the Leader Store’s new West High Street wing …,” the News noted. The new addition was devoted to the Leader men’s store, touted in ads as a “store within a store.”
The project, completed in October 1949, included new fronts on both the Main and High street entrances and “wall-to-wall remodeling and new fixtures” throughout the store, the News reported.
The Leader thrived. On New Year’s Eve 1952, the store proclaimed its best year ever in a full-page ad in the News, claiming 22,252 visits to its beauty salon, 4,329 new charge accounts, more than 1,800 changes in its 18 show windows and $673,583.78 paid out in salaries to employees.
As the Leader entered 1955, the store boasted 70,000 square feet of sales space as well as 25,000 square feet of warehouse space in Cherry Alley and at 110 N. Central Ave.
What the Leader, and Lima, for that matter, lacked was adequate parking. The Leader moved to ease that problem in July 1955 with the purchase of the old State Theatre at 118 W. Market St. and an adjoining building. The buildings, the News reported July 27, 1955, “will be wrecked to make way for a $125,000 parking garage.” Plans for the garage eventually were expanded to include a third floor.
“Now downtown Lima really has everything,” the Leader boasted in a September 1956 ad announcing the opening of the garage, which could accommodate 200 cars.
Lima had everything, including, according to an urban renewal expert who spoke to Lima businessmen in August 1961, a lot of problems, among them streets inadequate for modern traffic, a shortage of parking, deteriorating neighborhoods and outmoded municipal facilities. “You’re getting old or middle-aged as a city and the signs are beginning to show,” he told the businessmen.
By the early 1960s, too, downtown was losing business to suburban shopping centers like Westgate and Northland with their acres of free parking. Soon the malls would add to the threat.
On Aug. 19, 1960, Philip Holstine told the Kiwanis club the time for urban renewal was now. “Whether we continue as the center of this important area, is now a matter of choice,” he said, “the choice all of us who have a stake, and interest in Lima, and its heart — downtown.”
Writing in the 1976 History of Allen County, Sylvan Holstine noted that Lima had been assured government money “to rebuild and beautify the downtown area and make it ‘the Mall,’” although, he conceded, the malls would have come eventually.
Despite the efforts of Holstines and other civic leaders, Lima voters ultimately rejected federal urban renewal funding in a referendum vote and, in the mid-1960s, the exodus of downtown retail to the malls began.
In late 1965, the Leader joined Sears and J.C. Penney as an anchor store in the Lima Mall. “Sixty years, three generations, and still growing with a growing Limaland,” the News editorialized Nov. 14, 1965. “That’s the happy story of the Leader Store, a retailing enterprise noted for the prominent role it plays in Lima’s business community. This Thursday, with the opening of its new Lima Mall store, the Leader reaches a major milestone as an important contributor to Lima’s ever-mounting reputation as the ‘shopping center of Northwestern Ohio.’”
In 1970, Philip Holstine’s son, Gary, became the family’s fourth generation in the business, joining the Leader as general merchandise manager.
The Leader’s downtown store remained open until early 1972. On March 30, 1972, the News reported, “Plans to close the Leader, a downtown store landmark since 1905, were announced late Wednesday afternoon by Philip M. Holstine, executive vice president.” Holstine told the News the closing “was almost foreordained a number of years ago when the city’s voters turned down the use of federal funds for urban renewal.” The Leader men’s store annex was all that remained of the downtown store.
Two years later, on Feb. 13, 1974, Elder-Beerman stores of Dayton acquired the Leader. Elder-Beerman recently announced it would close the Lima Mall store.
Sylvan, Philip and Gary Holstine opened the now-defunct Holstine’s of Lima, described in a Nov. 23, 1975, article in the News as a “12,000 square-foot men’s and women’s fashion store and gift shop” at 1100 Shawnee Road.”
Sylvan Holstine died at the age of 94 on Aug. 16, 1996, at his home on Shawnee Road. Philip Holstine died Oct. 8, 2004, in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.