A little more than seven decades have passed since Glenda Radkovic made her maiden voyage to L.S. Ayres, but she remembers it well. When she was eight years old, Radkovic boarded a city bus, carrying with her an envelope of money and an L.S. Ayres ad her mother had snipped from the newspaper.
After doing the family’s banking in downtown Indianapolis, she walked to L.S. Ayres, rode the escalator to the basement and handed the ad to a clerk, who retrieved whatever her mother fancied—a dress, a sweater or something for one of Radkovic’s three younger siblings.
Such was the level of freedom and responsibility a child could have in the early 1940s. It’s unimaginable by today’s standards, but then so is the shopping experience that awaited anyone who stepped foot inside L.S. Ayres, the beloved Indianapolis department store that closed in 1991.
“It was an elegant experience,” says Radkovic. “Everything you thought it could be or should be.” By the time she became an adult, L.S. Ayres was much more than a place to shop; it was a destination and a source of hope.
L.S. Ayres was known for luxury and customer service, but it also offered high quality at affordable prices, reinforcing the American Dream for people like Radkovic. She was young and poor, but an afternoon spent at Ayres made anything seem possible. “You had models walking through the Tea Room in beautiful clothes,” she says. “You saw those things and you wanted them, too.” Radkovic’s experience exemplifies how department stores from a bygone era left an indelible mark on the communities where they did business.
In the 1950s, L.S. Ayres was one of the few places in Indianapolis where a woman could dine alone or with female friends, which Radkovic did frequently with co-workers—always in a hat and gloves. “On Saturdays, we met under the clock and had lunch at the Tea Room,” she says. “We would stay down there all the live-long day and then everyone would get on the bus and go home.”
That was part of the company’s genius, according to Nancy Fernandes, who worked as an L.S. Ayres model from 1961 to 1969. “The whole concept was to bring customers into the store and have them stay,” Fernandes says. “We were showing people what was fashionable and what was new for the season.”
Fernandes was hired as a model at her first interview, joining a small cadre of women who formed lifetime bonds while working together three to four days a week, doing fashion shows and live modeling in the Tea Room. “We always showed up for work nicely dressed and in our makeup,” she says. “Once you were an Ayres model, you needed to look the part, wherever you were.”
Along with the requisite poise and physical attributes, Ayres models needed something else: diplomacy, face-reading skills and the ability to deliver a soft sell. After dressing in clothes they had been fitted for the week before, models took the escalator to the 8th floor, entered the Tea Room and began circulating around the room. “If you saw people engaged in a conversation, you didn’t stop,” she says. “If people were interested, they would look up and you would tell them about the outfit.” For the sake of subtlety, pricing information always came last.
Women like Radkovic weren’t the only regulars at the Tea Room. Fernandes also remembers a loyal following of men from the business community who bought gifts for their wives based on live modeling.
Fernandes says the store offered everything—from cradle to grave. As a place for engagement parties, bridal showers and baby showers, the L.S. Ayres Tea Room played a significant role in generations of family life, which explains why the Indiana State Museum preserved it as a piece of Indiana history that can still be enjoyed today.
Starting March 14, Hoosiers can celebrate the Ayres legacy at a new exhibit, That Ayres Look, at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. The exhibit is full of artifacts, including the cherub that once sat atop the clock at the downtown store, on loan from Downtown Indy.
Visitors will hear stories from people connected with Ayres and interact with technology, photos, documents and artifacts that show the company’s innovative business practices, family roots and reputation as fashion leader. While you’re there, be sure to visit the bookstore and get a copy of L.S. Ayres & Company: The Store at the Crossroads of America, by Kenneth L. Turchi, a retrospective of the company since its start in 1874.