Page A4 / The Joan
De Arc Crusader / Sunday, June 18, 2017
Editorials A2 /
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In search of Totem Department Store
By J. Bueker
Say, remember the Totem Department Stores? Anybody?
Curiously, very few locals nowadays seem to even recall the old place. Oh,
but what very pleasant childhood shopping memories.
Googling it. You will receive but a tiny smattering of obscure results, one
of which references an old story in this very publication. A few local blogs
make passing mention of the place, and that’s about it. This seems a little
odd for a major shopping destination that graced the Valley of the Sun for
two full decades.
I find it difficult to imagine
that a major mid-century Phoenix department store chain could have vanished
down the popular memory rat hole with nary a trace. On the other hand, of
course, this is Phoenix. Nothing endures here save the interminable heat.
Fortunately, the Crusader exists to rescue just such memories from mindful
The Totem Department Store chain in
Phoenix was an offshoot of Wigwam Stores Inc., a Seattle-based business
started in 1946 by a man named Homer Powell. Originally an army surplus
store operated from a makeshift tent, the Wigwam Store soon expanded their
selection of merchandise and experienced steady success, expanding into
Hawaii in 1957 and ultimately to locations in Oregon, California, and
Arizona. The first Phoenix store opened in 1960 at 32nd Street and Thomas
Upon arriving in Phoenix, Powell and his
partners quickly discovered that a store called Wigwam already existed in
the Phoenix area and wasn’t planning to go anywhere. The store’s owners
graciously offered the rights to the Wigwam name in exchange for $15,000 in
compensation, which seemed a little exorbitant to the Seattle businessmen.
And so it was that the Wigwam Store chain in Arizona was rebranded as Totem
The rapidly growing Phoenix
area was a shrewd choice for the burgeoning department store chain and
Totem did well here, with a second location added in 1961 at the Westdale
Shopping Center at 35th Avenue and Van Buren. Four years later, in the
spring of 1965, a third store was opened on the north side of town alongside
a Fry’s supermarket at 19th Avenue and Dunlap. It would be this location
that would henceforth and forevermore become our family’s Totem store.
We went there quite a bit. Totem offered an excellent variety of
merchandise, everything from tools and toys to small appliances, cosmetics,
books and records. However, my distinct recollection is that we primarily
shopped at Totem for one specific category of goods: clothing and footwear.
At least that was my mother’s usual intention.
What great stuff we found in that store. I can recall quite a few specific
purchases over the years: toy dinosaurs, Aurora model kits, water wiggles,
plastic army men, pop music LPs. I once found a pair of Oxfords at Totem
that were very similar to the shoes worn by one of my sports idols of the
day, John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics. The shoes were two sizes too small
and Barbara was understandably reluctant to purchase them, but of course I
managed to talk her into it. The things really hurt my feet and were very
difficult to run in, but damn they looked cool.
A legendary Bueker family Totem story from the mid-60s involves my sister
Barbie and a narrowly-avoided shoplifting charge for stuffing Ken doll
clothing up her shirt, supposedly to conceal the merchandise from her sister
Sue’s gaze. See, Barbie was planning to buy the doll outfit as a Christmas
gift for Sue, and didn’t want her sister to see what she was doing as she
walked to the check-out line. Uh yeah Barbie, I’m totally sure that’s how it
really went down, wink wink.
history of Totem is notable and was very much a product of its time. The
1960s of course was a relatively incorrect era politically speaking, and one
need look no further than the Totem store’s Big Chief Totem character to
confirm this lamentable fact.
stereotypical Native American garb, Chief Totem appeared in newspaper and TV
ads in addition to doing numerous in-store appearances to promote his
favorite local department store. A typical ad of the day featured the good
Chief saying things like “Honest injun, we got ’um real Saturday smashers!!”
Chief Totem probably disappeared into history around the same time Pillsbury
was changing “Injun Orange” to “Jolly Olly Orange.”
Another Totem location opened in 1966 at one of our favorite Phoenix
shopping centers, the elegant Palm Glen at 35th Ave. and Glendale. We
occasionally patronized this location but tended to prefer the Dunlap store,
which was closer, somewhat larger, and contained a greater variety of
merchandise. We continued shopping at that Totem location well into the
‘70s, but by the end of the decade the company had been sold and the Totem
Department Stores of Phoenix were closed forever and faded into local
Being such a significant and
affectionate memory from my Phoenix childhood, Totem Department Store
clearly merits representation in my collection of local historical artifacts
and memorabilia. However, this ambition has proved to be surprisingly
After years of zero results on my daily
ebay searches, I began to suspect that the once-beloved local department
store had disappeared into a memorabilia black hole of some sort. It’s
almost like I dreamed the whole Totem Department Store thing and it never
actually existed at all. Yet the Totem ads in my old copies of the Arizona
Republic and Phoenix Gazette were pretty good evidence that the place really
did exist at one time.
My wistful search ended
suddenly and quite unexpectedly, as these searches often do. I was, in of
all places, Cottonwood, Arizona, passing through town a few years ago on one
of our occasional pilgrimages to Jerome. I wandered into a pleasant little
collectibles boutique on Main St. called A Checkered Past, and while
browsing in one of those mechanized cascading display cases, I abruptly
spotted an item sporting the familiar Totem Department Store logo. Eureka!
The object turned out to be an employee nametag for someone by the name of
Verna who had worked in the shoe department at some unspecified Totem
location. The proprietor of the antique store shared with me that the tag
was contained in a box of effects belonging to a woman who had lived in
Phoenix for many years and then retired to Cottonwood before passing on to
her eternal reward a few years later. She must have looked back very fondly
on her days at Totem Department Store to have kept that nametag for all
those years. Just as I do.
Thanks to you, Verna,
Totem Department Store is now at long last represented in the Crusader
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