July 20, 2018
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Living in the toy department: Freese’s residents remember former store’s booming past as a holiday destination

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — In a cozy apartment overlooking the pre-Christmas bustle of Main Street, Waneta Booker says a part of her wishes her home — the building that held Freese’s department store until its doors closed 30 years ago — was still the gargantuan anchor of the city’s shopping district.

Now 86 years old, Booker remembers shopping here herself, you see. Back when the lights shone bright, and the Christmas music played loudly, beckoning folks to step in out of the snow and browse their way through seven floors of holiday — and everyday — delights.

Her husband, Reginald, worked as a hairdresser in a five-chair shop on the sixth floor before opening a shop of his own on Park Street. Her children always wanted to head to Freese’s each Christmas. Once? No, more than that.

“My kids all knew that Freese’s [Santa] was Santa Claus,” Booker said. “All the other ones in the town, on the street, were his helpers. But the real one was right here.”

Booker is short and quite spry — she sometimes makes use of a cane, which she calls her “pogo stick” — and as you quickly learn, she loves to talk.

And as she walks down memory lane, telling tales from her fifth-floor apartment in what’s now called Freese’s Assisted Living, she lets you in on a little secret.

“This floor was where Santa Claus was,” Booker says, gesturing toward the door that leads into the main hallway. “When my son and his wife came from Oklahoma to see me about three months after I moved in, and when we got off the elevator, my son said, ‘Hey! This used to be the toy department! My mother used to bring me here to see Santa Claus!”

Santa is long-gone, she says, as is the department store that had the most to do with Bangor’s Main Street being dubbed “The Fifth Avenue of Maine.”

But she remembers those days. And she remembers when those days ended, as downtown shriveled in the 1980s and the store eventually shut down amid various economic and societal pressures, including an exodus by other downtown businesses to newly built malls.

There’s no underestimating the role Freese’s played in the family life of mid-1900s Bangorians.

When the store closed?

“We cried,” Booker said, softly.

During its heyday, Freese’s was monstrous, a 140,000-square-foot store, where you could buy everything from wedding dresses to appliances and furniture. You could also purchase popcorn or peanuts on the ground floor or have a full meal at a lunch counter.

According to BDN archives, in 1957 Freese’s installed escalators, a rarity at the time, and the area’s children took turns riding — repeatedly — the newfangled moving staircases.

After major retailers began moving to malls, and downtowns all over began to struggle in the late 1970s, Freese’s became one more victim of that trend, closing in 1985. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, a transformation began: The Maine Discovery Museum, which opened in 2001, fills several of the lower levels, while 39 apartments, including the Freese’s Assisted Living units, occupy the top floors. The Fork and Spoon, an eatery that serves smoothies, salads and more, occupies space in the building. A bakery, Cake Concoctions, opened recently as well.

Several residents admit it’s a bit odd to live in a place in which they spent so much time shopping years ago.

“I have special feelings for this building,” 92-year-old Priscilla Hunter, another fifth-floor resident, said. “It’s a nice place to live.”

Hunter grew up in Bradford but went to Bangor schools. She said that after she returned from Washington, D.C., where she worked as a teletype operator during World War II, her children looked forward to yearly trips to see Santa.

“This was the place to go, to take children, once a year,” Hunter said.

Santa was here, and that was a big draw. So, too, were the peanuts and popcorn.

“But the escalator, that would attract kids, too,” she said.

Hunter said Freese’s was the top store in the area and said the staff at Freese’s Assisted Living are top-notch, too.

A visit to her apartment turns into an impromptu tour of the facility, and Hunter proudly points out the impressive features of her home: the handsome atrium space, where many of the community events take place; the well-appointed dining room; the piano; a holiday tree in the atrium that stays in place year-round, its decorations changing for each special occasion.

And while she, too, lives in the former toy department, she says she’d have no list to hand to Santa, should she see him walking the halls in front of his former chair.

“I tell people, ‘I don’t need anything,’” she said. “Everything I’ve got is old, but I like it.”

Gladys Neptune, 76, another resident of the former toy department, grew up in Old Town and said the scene at Freese’s was always festive for shoppers.

“You’d walk outside in the wintertime, around Christmastime, and it was all lit up,” Neptune said. “You’d hear the Christmas music playing. It was real pretty.”

Neptune worked at Freese’s for a time, as did her husband.

“I worked downstairs where they used to come in with their luggage and bags and stuff,” she explained. “I’d put them in storage until they came back out [after shopping].”

Allan Neptune sold toasters and other appliances, she said.

Gladys Neptune admits she really didn’t want to move into Freese’s seven years ago, but has enjoyed her time here.

“I just didn’t want to move into town,” she said. “I’m used to living in the country. But I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a nice place.”

So nice, in fact, that 75-year-old Irving Cunningham has lived here for 11 years. Cunningham spent a short stint working at Freese’s back in the 1950s while he was waiting for another job to open up, and said the store was always bustling. At Christmas, it became downright hectic.

“[At this time of year] it would have been wild,” he said. “There would have been so many people in here shopping, you couldn’t turn around.”

Cunningham lives on the sixth floor: a storage floor, he says, when Freese’s was open.

“I’ve contributed to [the things that are stored],” he said with a laugh, gesturing to a couch full of dozens of stuffed animals.

Cunningham was a frequent shopper at Freese’s and looked forward to spending time in the store on Fridays and Saturdays, when he could earn double Gold Bond Trading Stamps. Cash in a book of stamps, and you got $4.50, he said, which you could redeem toward the purchase of anything in the store.

Though he happily calls the former store home now, he still mourns its demise.

“It was known as the Fifth Avenue of [Maine],” Cunningham said. “That’s what they lost [when the store closed]. They lost the primary shopping place. This is where everybody went.”

But in the loss, there was also, eventually, a gain.

Residents such as Waneta Booker can tell you all about that.

Freese’s was a grand store, she’ll say. No doubt about that.

Now, it’s something even more important.

“It feels like home,” Booker said.

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