Shlepping armloads of trousers to an empty rack, his face set with determination and a hint of joy, Steve Felix was working till the bittersweet end of Felix’s, his 101-year-old clothing store in this town of 4,500.
On a recent Thursday, men’s and women’s fine clothing was selling at prices not seen since Steve’s grandfather, Max, and father, Rollie, owned the place.
“We lasted more than 100 years,” said Steve, 63, as he paused to watch a dozen customers search for bargains. “We beat the odds. My goal… was to get the business to the century mark.”
Stores go out of business every day, but the demise of Felix’s stands out like a flashing neon sign. Felix’s was among the last of the Jewish-owned shops that prospered in some 200 small towns across Wisconsin, and thousands across America, from the 1850s to the 1970s.
“The closing of Jewish businesses in small towns does seem to be the case nationally,” said University of Louisville historian Lee Shai Weissbach, author of “Jewish Life in Small-Town America” (Yale University Press, 2005). “This is something that has been going on throughout the second half of the 20th century. The arrival of chain stores is one explanation; the departure of grown children of small-town business owners is another.”
Viroqua-area chain stores attracted a different kind of customer than Felix’s, but Weissbach’s other theory holds true. Steve and wife Betty Claire have two adult children who are pursuing careers outside of Wisconsin.
When Max Felix arrived here from Milwaukee in 1905, he was part of a wave of hundreds of Wisconsin Jews recently arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. They left larger Wisconsin cities that have active Jewish communities for a chance at financial success as small-town merchants, though at the risk of Jewish isolation.
By the 1920s, Jews were living in every corner of the state. In small towns, Jews generally owned stores that sold staple items — clothing and dry goods, groceries, furniture and hardware — or they owned scrap yards. Most of those towns were home to only one or two Jewish families, who generally traveled to nearby cities for the High Holy Days but otherwise didn’t attend synagogue. Some kept kosher, relying on meat deliveries by train or on a visit from a shochet (ritual slaughterer).
Rollie Felix lived all but one of his 83 years in Viroqua. Steve, Betty Claire and their children moved to La Crosse, Wis., about 30 miles away, in 1979, when they found themselves driving the kids to religious school there several times a week. Steve estimates that he served on the board of Congregation Sons of Abraham there six or seven times, and he still runs the La Crosse Jewish cemetery.
“I don’t have what I call a Jewish education, but I have a strong Jewish ethic: my mindset,” he said. He attended religious school and became a bar mitzvah — mostly at the behest of his mother, Helen. Rollie had attended a Viroqua congregational church as a child. His father, Max, always said that “some religion is better than none.”
Max ran Felix’s until his death in 1939, when Rollie and his brother Emanuel took over. Emanuel left in the 1940s, while Rollie continued in the store and, with Helen, raised three children.
Steve joined the business in 1972. He and Betty Claire had been living in Los Angeles, where Steve was managing a clothing store. “I found myself looking down the barrel of a .38,” he recalled. “I called Dad and said, ‘You want to sell the store?’”
Rollie sold to Steve and “was able to work and be in the store whenever he wanted to be here,” Steve explained. “We were in business together from 1972 to 1994 and never had an argument. Our personalities are both pretty easygoing. Anything I wanted to try or do, it was done.”
That included the conversion of Felix’s in 1980 from a general department store to a clothing store. But the staff never seemed to change. The bookkeeper was with the company for 37 years. Women’s clothing manager Siri Halverson worked for Felix’s for 20 years. “The nice thing about working here is we were all family,” Halverson said.
Trever Skrede, a former Felix’s employee and now pastor at Believers Fellowship church here, stopped in to help at the going-out-of-business sale. “Felix’s is an icon in this town. Everybody is going to miss this place,” he said. “I loved working here. I learned a lot from the store and the Felixes. They’ll be missed throughout the county because of their honesty, integrity and family ties, and this is the only place in a 100-mile radius where you can find a suit to fit everybody.”
In Viroqua, Steve continues the family tradition of civic activity. He is vice chairman of Viroqua Main Street, a local chamber of commerce, and serves on the board of the State Bank of Viroqua. Rollie was on the board of First National Bank across the street, and a leader in the Kiwanis club and the chamber of commerce. Same with Max.
Rollie even was the impetus for Viroqua’s Christmas parade. “He was Mr. Viroqua,” Steve said.
Rollie maintained that status even after his wife plunged into a local controversy in 1946. Helen petitioned Viroqua businesses to oppose the appearance of nationally known antisemite Gerald L.K. Smith at Viroqua’s centennial. Smith had attended high school in Viroqua.
“I can remember we were the only store open during the ceremony,” Steve said. “We boycotted it.”
Six decades later, the men’s clothing side of the business had slowed, as had Steve, who injured his neck five years ago while body surfing. He accepted a recent offer to sell the business, calling it “the hardest decision I ever made in my life.”
Helen, who still lives in the house that she and Rollie built in 1940, isn’t sure what she’ll do without the store, though she is planning to provide a new college scholarship in the spring. Steve will devote more time to fishing as he continues his involvement in Viroqua civic life.
“When you come to a small town,” he said, “you have to be involved.” The Felixes have lived that ideal as much as any small-town Wisconsin Jewish family.
Andrew Muchin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and director of the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project, a program of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.