Gazette Article by: Glenn Kohlmeyer
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1995
(Edited by Mary Trieschmann, August 2020)
Taking Good Care of the Customer for Over 80 Years
The Fell Company was a Winnetka fixture for 80 years. The company was founded by Sam Fell, who immigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1908. Fell first settled on the northwest side of Chicago, where he began his career in the menswear business with a promise to “outfit any man for less than ten dollars.”
He did even better. In a 1996 article in the Highland Park News, Sam Fell described one satisfied customer who came into the Chicago store where he worked one Saturday night, clad only in underwear and socks. Fell completely outfitted the man, the victim of a robbery, for less than nine dollars, “paid for from two $5 bills the robber overlooked because they were tucked in his socks.”
In 1913, when doctors said that city air was bad for his wife’s health, Fell moved to the country—Highland Park—where he opened the first Fell Company store.
In 1927 the Fell Company came to Winnetka when Abe Fell, Sam’s oldest son, entered the business. Abe’s brother Fred recalls, “He couldn’t get a job at a major Chicago bank, so he decided to open a men’s store in Winnetka.”
To provide the fixtures for the new store, Sam and Abe attended a going-out-of-business auction at a Winnetka men’s store. The bidding must have been spirited, because when the store’s awning came up, “Sam and Abe got their signals crossed,” remembers Fred, “and too late realized they were bidding against each other.” The hard-won awning provided the finishing touch for the first store at 811 Elm Street.
Fred Fell said, “The business in Winnetka did well until the Depression hit in 1931. Business was getting tough, and it wasn’t easy meeting the monthly rent.” The struggling store was given a life when landlord Ed Weissenberg let Abe Fell set his own rent. Fred notes, “Abe said $40, and that’s what the rent was until business improved.”
The company weathered the Depression and the war, and in 1952 a second store in Winnetka was opened on Green Bay Road. In 1969 both locations were consolidated into a brand new facility at 511 Lincoln Street, where the store stood until it closed in 2007.
The Fell Company had a long tradition of community involvement in Winnetka. Abe Fell’s love of sports turned the store into “Abe Fell’s Zoo,” full of young Lions, Tigers and Bears outfitted by and representing the store in local football and basketball leagues. Because of Abe’s lifelong love of track and field, for many years the store sponsored the Fell Run, a 10,000-meter charity run which attracted as many as 1,200 participants. In 1980 the Fell Run became the Winnetka Community House-sponsored Winnetka Fall Run.
While the Fell Company’s credo, “Take good care of the customer,” has been the same from the day the company was founded, other things have changed. Joe Fell, Controller, notes that 20 years ago parents would bring their college-bound children to the store to be outfitted for everything from topcoat to penny loafers. “If they did that today, I’d carry the kid to college.”