Hidden box yields bits of Gottschalks history

FRESNO — For years, a nondescript wooden box sat forgotten in a vault at Gottschalks' corporate headquarters in Fresno, its contents hidden behind a padlock.

In the aftermath of the retail chain's bankruptcy and closure last year, Joe Levy, longtime Gottschalks chief executive officer, found the box as he sifted through archives for a book and documentary film about the rise and demise of the prominent Fresno business.

The retail chain had 58 stores, the last of which closed a year ago. Two of them were in Modesto, at the Vintage Faire Mall and at Century Center in east Modesto.

The box was something of a historical treasure chest. When the lock was busted off and the lid opened, Levy and others discovered bundles of old, uncirculated certificates, about the size of Monopoly game money, that were used in the early part of the 20th century as a premium for patrons.

"I guess nobody went through it" when things were transferred years ago from Gottschalks' old flagship store in downtown Fresno to the erstwhile corporate offices in northeast Fresno, Levy said.

He said he believes cashiers at the original Gottschalks store would give customers a certificate when they paid for goods. Customers could collect the slips and exchange them for merchandise in a special redemption center at the store.

"It was like when people used to collect S&H Green Stamps," the 78-year-old Levy said.

The certificates bear the name "E. Gottschalk & Co." and a stated value of 25 cents. The store's founder was Emil Gottschalk. Levy believes the certificates date to the late 1910s or 1920s.

He said printing experts have told him the individually numbered certificates appear to have been printed from plates engraved by hand, with intricate scrollwork and logos, fine shading and a reproduction of Emil Gottschalk's signature.

If they had circulated, the 45,000 certificates would have represented as much as $11,250 in potential customer spending at the store.

The discovery came as filmmakers from Sacramento worked on interviews with Levy for a TV documentary, "Built on a House of Cards," to be based on a book Levy is putting together about the company's history. The Pop Laval Gallery, whose archive includes many photos of Gottschalks in its early days, is also involved in the project.

Levy said the title comes from his memories of childhood visits with Emil Gottschalk, his great-uncle, who entertained the boy by using playing cards to build six-story houses before letting Levy delight in knocking them down.

"There is no written history of Emil Gottschalk or of Gottschalks," Levy said, adding that he began working on the project before launching his effort to revive the retail brand as Gottschalk by Joe Levy. Negotiating for three store locations earlier this year, Levy announced plans to open several department stores under the new brand, with the former Gottschalks store at Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis as his flagship.

Joel Morales, vice president of marketing for Levy's new enterprise, said the hope is to release the book and documentary about the same time as the first "new" Gottschalks stores open Nov. 1.

Morales said he anticipates interest from public television stations in the markets across the western United States, where Gottschalks was a popular retail brand.

Levy said lease negotiations are nearly complete for the Clovis site and locations in Auburn and Carson City.