The neighborhood has changed more than the clothing
In his sixty-three years at Fiegel's Men's and Boys' Wear, as an employee and then as owner, Herbert Sager has seen almost no change in the merchandise. When pressed, he can come up with only one discontinued item: spats, worn to protect shoes during the winter. But while the stock has remained the same, the downtown area around Fiegel's has changed dramatically since Sager first began working there in 1926. Of the other stores in the immediate area, only one, Wilkinson's luggage shop, survives. Fiegel's original neighbors, the Orpheum and Wuerth theaters, have long gone, casualties of the television era.
The store now known as Fiegel's was started by J. Fred Wuerth in 1900, in a building he erected at 322 South Main, one store south of the present Fiegel's. In 1914 Wuerth built the Orpheum theater next door at 326 South Main (now Gratzi). In 1918 he added a second theater, the Wuerth, perpendicular to the Orpheum, running behind the clothing store.
After the theaters were built, Wuerth became more interested in his real estate than in the day-to-day operations of his clothing store. In the early 1920's he approached Albert Fiegel, who had been a partner in another clothing store, to buy his business.
Fiegel had begun his career in men's clothing in 1891, when he was only eighteen. His family had wanted him to be a minister, but when his father, John Fiegel, was killed in a tragic horse accident that horrified the whole town, the owners of Wadham, Ryan and Reule, a clothing store on the corner of Main and Washington (where Kiddie Land is now), asked him if he would like to come work for them.
Fiegel did well in the business, eventually earning enough money to buy in as a partner; the store was renamed Reule, Conlin and Fiegel. Unfortunately, Fiegel's success came at the expense of his health. According to his daughter, Gertrude Fiegel, he sold his interest after doctors advised him that he would live longer if he stopped working in such an old building. After returning to the family farm to work and recuperate, he reentered the clothing business and was working in the men's department at Mack's Department Store when he was approached by Wuerth.
After working in the store to see if it suited him, Fiegel bought Wuerth's business in 1927. He renamed it Fiegel's and added to the logo "since 1891" - the year he had entered the clothing business.
Herb Sager began working at Wuerth's the year before Fiegel bought it. He had been a regular customer, and one Saturday evening he walked in and asked then-manager Edwin Staeb for a job. Only twenty-six, Sager had already worked at a variety of jobs, including bottling milk at the Ann Arbor Dairy, working the machinery at American Broach, and selling Maytag washing machines door to door. He applied at the men's store, he recalls, looking to "get in something definite and stay."
Fiegel and Sager had a lot in common. Both were raised on farms, Sage four miles south of Chelsea (Sager Road is named after his family), Fiegel in Pittsfield Township. Both ended their formal education with graduation from the local one-room school. Both were good dressers. According to Gertrude Fiegel, "Dad always liked clothes. When he was a young man he was pretty dapper."
Sager admits to the same taste. "I used to have clothes made to measure. I always had nice clothes--at least I thought they were." And like Fiegel, Sager was hard-working; starting as a lowly sales clerk, he, too, was eventually able to buy into the business.
When Sager started work at Fiegel's, many of the customers still came to town by horse and buggy and hitched their vehicles outside the store. The store stayed open to 9 p.m. Saturday to accommodate farmers who could not come to town until they had finished working in the fields.
During the Depression, Sager and Fiegel ran the store by themselves: there wasn't enough business to pay any other salaries. Fiegel did the bookkeeping (he had taken night school courses to learn accounting), while Sager waited on customers and did the janitorial chores. With hard work, they survived the Depression, a time when many stores, including the fabulous Mack Department Store, went under.
Sager began buying shares in the store in 1936. Albert Fiegel was then sixty-three, and he announced that as soon as he had sold more than 50 percent of the shares, he would sell out completely. This occurred in 1941 when Sager and two other Fiegel employees, John Andress and Paul Jedele, became the new owners. They renamed the store Sager, Andress and Jedele, but when they put up their new sign, business dropped significantly. After a few months, they changed the name back to Fiegel's, which it has remained ever since. Jedele left after World War II to run a store by himself in Niles, Michigan, while Andress retired in the early 1970's. Today, two of Sager's sons, Dave and Doug, have joined him in the business.
Fiegel's thrived in the late 1940's and into the 1950's. Business at the two theaters helped draw crowds. Dave Sager remembers that when movies like "The Red Shoes" were showing, students would stand in line all the way down the block to Liberty; every one, of course, would spend some time standing in front of Fiegel's display windows.
In the late 1950's business dropped. The two theaters closed in 1956, and newly opened shopping malls lured customers away. But business picked up again in the 1960's as Fiegel's got new neighbors and moved next door to a more convenient and commodious space that was formerly the Wuerth theater arcade. The new store also had the great advantage of a back entrance; in the old location all deliveries had to be made through the front door.
All three buildings are still owned by Wuerth heirs. When Faber's Fabric (which took over the Orpheum theater space), and later Fiegel's and Apollo Music (which took Fiegel's old spot), were remodeled inside, their outsides were covered by the metal grillwork popular in the 1960's. Faber's grillwork has been removed, revealing the original Orpheum exterior.
At age eighty-nine, Herb Sager comes in to work every day. He's still keenly interested in everything that goes on at the store. Although Ann Arbor has grown exponentially since he began in the business, he even now knows a large number of his customers by name. Looking around his store, Sager sums it up in his matter-of-fact way: "It hasn't changed too much."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Top) By the time this photo was taken in the 1960's, Faber's Fabrics had taken over and modernized the adjacent Orpheum Theater. (Above) Fiegel's itself has since moved north, into what was once the Wuerth Theater arcade.