Celebrating A Century of Selling Furs to fashionable Detroiters: Bricker-Tunis Furs

By Charlene Michell

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When Jacob (Jack) Bricker arrived in America, he knew that life would not be easy. But he had a plan. He had escaped the dangers of being Jewish in Russia by walking, along with a neighbor, some 2,000 miles from his Russian hometown to Rotterdam, then boarding a ship to America. He was sixteen and the passage fee was forty dollars, a huge sum at the time. After his arrival at Ellis Island, Jack and his neighbor joined Jack's cousins as rabbit dealers in a fur business. Young Jack Bricker fit right in, having learned about fur skins from his father back home. He eventually headed west to Detroit, where his brothers had already settled, and in 1916 he opened a fur store. During Detroit's founding years, fur trading was conducted along the shores of the Detroit River. Jack Bricker and his brother Willie would walk to Trapper's Alley, a complex of buildings located in Detroit on Monroe Street. Originally built in 1872, the complex was home to a massive tannery operation. It was in Trapper's Alley that Jack, and later his son Arthur, learned the differences among the various kinds of skins, and it was where Bricker Furs got its start.

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THE EARLY YEARS

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At the suggestion of his sister-in-law, Jack Bricker traveled to New York to find a bride. He was introduced to Yetta, and the two hit it off. After a long- distance courtship, the couple married in 1935 and settled in Detroit, in a multi- family flat near Waverly and LaSalle streets. They raised their only son, Arthur(b. 1939), in a warm home filled with love, hope, determination, and a strong belief that hard work would pay off. Arthur Bricker's childhood was not typical of the times for Jewish children. He attended Longfellow Elementary School, where he was one of only three white children in his class. His best friend, Mel Bircoll, lived only a few blocks away, but on the "other" side of the invisible boundary line that separated Bricker's school area from They are pictured here with their son, Arthur. Bircoll's, which was mostly Jewish. Living between the two communities taught Bricker to appreciate racial diversity at an early age. At fourteen, Bricker was delivering newspapers, and he also worked at the family fur store on Farmer Street, taking two buses and a streetcar to get there. "At first I was the janitor. I cleaned the windows, floors, took out the trash, everything," recalled Bricker, now seventy-seven. He attributes his strong work ethic to his father.

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"My dad used to say it could always be better, but should never be worse." The family held firm to their Jewish faith, attending the Tyler Street shul on Saturday mornings and high holidays. "We kept kosher, and I remember that my mother had two sets of dishes."


Business was thriving when the store was located downtown from 1916 to 1960. "My dad had a small inventory, so we would go back and forth to the Merchants Building nearby where the fur wholesalers had shops. If a customer wanted a garment that we didn't have, we could get it in a hurry," recalled Bricker. In the 1950s, U.S. economic prosperity led to a luxury tax on furs. By then, the auto industry had blanketed Detroit with highly paid auto executives, and their wives were among Bricker's main clientele. Despite a four-percent Michigan sales tax, and a luxury tax of $2,000 on a $10,000 mink-cape jacket, those with means were undeterred.


Arthur Bricker had dreamed of becoming an attorney, but after his uncle Willie passed away, and Jack Bricker's health began to fail, Arthur stepped in to help his father run the business. In 1960, he dropped out of college and made the business his priority. Thanks to his father's tutelage, he was well prepared. Recognizing a shift in demographics and opportunity, in 1960 Bricker packed up the furs and moved the store to "The Avenue of Fashion"— Livernois near Seven Mile Road in northwest Detroit. It was a bold and emotional move, but Bricker felt it would propel Bricker Furs to a new level. It was the beginning of new era, a new location that would attract a different clientele, and it was a great decision.


THE MOTOWN ERA

The 1960s were a pivotal time in American culture: an era of activism in politics, civil rights, equality, and social change. It was also an era of music in Detroit, and Arthur Bricker and his store were right in the mix. Business at the new location couldn't have been better. For nearly a decade Bricker grew his customer base, in large part because Bricker Furs had become furrier #1 for the recording artists of Motown Records.

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"It was a great time in Detroit," said Bricker. "I got to know so many of the Motown artists personally. I made furs for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, and others. I even let many of the stars borrow furs when they went on tour. They would always come back to buy something when they started making money." During Bricker's association with Motown, he met young Tammi Terrell, who was performing at Detroit's famous 20 Grand nightclub, which was owned by Bill Kabush and Marty Eisner, both friends of Bricker. "Tammi was a rising star who didn't have an agent yet. I invested in purchasing her wardrobe and the three of us were working on a management contract with her." It was during that time that she began singing with Marvin Gaye. Tragically, Terrell died of a brain tumor before reaching her full potential as a recording artist. Bricker spent eight years in northwest Detroit, making lifelong friendships with Motown artists and area residents. He gained the trust of his neighbors and friends, and it was that trust that paved the way for the continued success of Bricker Furs.

TEAMING WITH BUSINESS PARTNER GEORGE TUNIS

In the early 1960s, an extraordinary fur designer named George Tunis moved from New York to Detroit to become a partner in what would eventually become Bricker-Tunis Furs. The two men met during one of Bricker's many trips to New York's fur district. They became friends and then business partners who quickly raised the retail fur business to new heights.

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Tunis, a hard-nosed Greek with a New York attitude, was a man of superb talent. He could design, fit, cut, and sew. The two were a great match: Tunis ran the back end of the business while Bricker would light up the showroom with his outgoing personality and megawatt smile. Tunis remained in the business until his 2005 retirement, by which time the store had moved to its current location at the Orchard Mall in West Bloomfield. Tunis's son, John, also worked in the store as a sales consultant who quickly raised the retail fur business to new heights. Tunis, a hard-nosed Greek with a New York attitude, was a man of superb talent. He could design, fit, cut, and sew. The two were a great match: Tunis ran the back end of the business while Bricker would light up the showroom with his outgoing personality and megawatt smile. Tunis remained in the business until his 2005 retirement, by which time the store had moved to its current location at the Orchard Mall in West Bloomfield. Tunis's son, John, also worked in the store as a sales consultant.

THE RIOTS - THE AFTERMATH

As a Jewish man who grew up in the city, and whose father had escaped Czarist Russia with only the clothes on his back, Bricker understood Detroit's precarious racial imbalance. It was, he said, "an underlying powder keg." Like many Detroit-based businesses, Bricker-Tunis Furs was affected by the 1967 riots. The fires, the looting, and the aftermath of the riots that crisscrossed the city were devastating to many businesses, especially those owned by whites. Bricker was lucky. Several of his close friends and customers who were black warned him of the im- pending trouble. They offered to go to his store and safely remove the furs, delivering the goods to Bricker's home before the riots spread to the Livernois shopping district. Bricker is certain that without their help, he would have lost everything. "I will always be very grateful for the kindness and love these men showed me. When you treat people right, you get respect back." Bricker also reflected on his reputation. "My father always told me that when good work goes out the door, good comes back. When bad walks out the door, God help you!" Bricker says that he truly believes in that mantra.

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It has worked for me and helped to solidify my relationships with the thousands of customers that have walked through the door of my store over the years." With much of Detroit in shambles, Bricker opened a new fur salon in a strip mall in the mostly Jewish suburb of Oak Park. The store was easy to get to from all parts of town. "I was afraid of perhaps losing some of my long-time Detroit customers, but they followed me, and I picked up a lot of new customers from the suburbs," said Bricker. In fact, the new space could not accommodate the influx of business. Needing additional space, Bricker tried to capture the vacant dry-cleaning store adjacent to his business, but the landlord would not agree to the expansion unless Bricker purchased all of the dry-cleaning equipment. Bricker refused the deal. After twelve years in Oak Park, he put a deposit on a piece of land on Northwestern Highway in Southfield. That deal fell through when he learned that interest rates were at eighteen percent. Instead, he took a gamble on a partially built shopping mall in West Bloomfield. At just four dollars per square foot, unfinished and with a dirt floor and no windows, the space was per- fect. Bricker signed a twenty-year lease at Orchard Mall in 1971.

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THE DYNASTY DAYS: BRICKER-TUNIS FURS GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

The West Bloomfield location served well as a bridge between the city and the suburbs. Bricker planned a series of open-house events, largely targeted to the customers whose furs he still had in storage. Many customers objected to the long drive, but Bricker's reputation prevailed. The business prospered and Bricker set his sights on a new type of clientele. He began hosting fur fashion shows that were produced by Productions Plus co-founder Harriett Fuller and featured professional models. When ABC's new television drama, Dynasty, needed fabulous furs for their actresses, all roads led to West Bloomfield, Michigan. Dynasty, which debuted in 1981, was the story of a wealthy Denver family whose bickering and back- stabbing over money, love, and power became a national obsession. When Dicker and Dicker Furriers of Beverly Hills could not accommodate Dynasty's request for costumes, they recommended Bricker-Tunis. It was a Hollywood moment, a golden opportunity. "This was very exciting for us. We provided furs for Joan Collins, Diahann Carroll, Linda Evans, and John Forsythe. These were the most well-dressed women and men on television, and it seemed unbelievable that we were a part of this very big hit show," said Bricker. In 2015, Hollywood called again. Twelve of the Dynasty furs had been in cold storage in California for more than twenty-five years, and they were in perfect condition. The furs came home to Bricker-Tunis and were auctioned off in a benefit for the Ronald McDonald House of Detroit.

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CHANGING TRENDS: RE-INVENTING THE ROLE OF FURRIER

Arthur Bricker knows the ups and downs of the fur business. Furs are, without question, a luxury item, and the economy can easily dictate the ebb and flow of the business. In the early 1980s, when interest rates soared and the re- cession affected purchases of luxury items, Bricker had to be creative to remain profitable in the business. He offered financing; he promoted trading used furs for new ones. He used aggressive marketing techniques and built strong and lasting personal relationships with customers who never abandoned him, even as their spending decreased. He prevailed. "I have been very fortunate for a long time," said Bricker, with a humbleness that defines his soft-spoken demeanor. "I understand that when the market changes, I have to change with it in order to stay in business. It is not an easy business and I've watched a lot of furriers go under."

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Arthur Bricker also knows that in fashion, nothing stays the same. Gone are the days when grandma's beautiful, ankle-length mink coat was passed down to a daughter or granddaughter. "They don't want it, even if it cost $15,000." So what's to become of grandma's mink coat? Remodeling—taking a fur that is in good condition and updating the style—is one of the innovations on which Bricker's team of expert designers, tailors, and cutters focus their talents. Consignment and pre-owned furs also have new lives at Bricker-Tunis Furs. "We have a saying here: Everything old is new again."

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ONE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

The year 2016 marks a century of service for Bricker-Tunis Furs. The company celebrated the milestone with a series of television commercials that feature jazz recording artist Kimmie Horne, the grandniece of the legendary Lena Horne. The commercials were recorded at the Jazz Café at Detroit's famous Music Hall. More than fifty Bricker-Tunis customers appeared in the series, each wearing one of the company's fabulous furs. Arthur Bricker laughs at the question of retirement. "What would I do?" He has worked in the business since he was fourteen, and the notion of playing golf or taking up a hobby doesn't excite him the way his work does. "My life has revolved around the fur industry. That's what I do. It's not just for the money. It's what I love. Plus, to quote my father again, 'Remember, Arthur, you're going to be dead a lot longer than you're alive, so live like hell while you're here. You never saw a Brink's truck following a hearse to the cemetery.'" Bricker-Tunis Furs has been at the cutting edge of fur fashion since Jack Bricker purchased his first rabbit fur and opened his first store in Detroit in 1916. Since then, the company has cloaked the rich and famous and has given back to the community by hosting numerous charity fundraisers. One hundred years after its beginnings, the Bricker name and the traditions of old-fashioned customer service are still going strong.

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Charlene Mitchell-Rodgers is an Emmy Award-winning television news broadcaster and president of Media Consultants, a full-service public-relations, marketing, and advertising agency.