Ask any of the former Brett’s employees what it was like to work at the landmark department store, and the answer is the same.

“It was like family.”

More than 60 former employees got together Tuesday evening for a reunion gathering, 13 years after the downtown Brett’s store closed after nearly 125 years in business.

At 101, Florence Sperra was the easily the oldest in attendance, but it was Doris Sutherland who had worked at the store the longest ago. She started in 1944, working part-time while in college.

“I worked in silk stockings and gloves. Nylons were just coming in, but it was the war and you couldn’t get a lot of those things,” Sutherland said.

Many of the former employees had logged 30 or more years with Brett’s and had hoped for more.

“I’d still be there if it was open,” said Eileen Roozen, who started in 1961 and stayed until the store closed in 1992.

Roozen worked in cosmetics, cards and stationary, and in jewelry and was a buyer for 20 years, traveling to New York and other cities to purchase the latest gifts.

“It was a great place to work. Brett (Taylor) Sr. was so family oriented. You felt like he was your dad. But he was strict. If you had a box in the aisle he’d be there and have you put it away,” Roozen recalled of the late store president.

Donna Strand was another who was there until the end of Brett’s, where she was vice president of marketing. She was hired in 1960 by Larry Fowler to work in advertising, even though her degree was in accounting.

“He said, ‘I’ll teach you.’ Every night I thought I’d made the wrong decision. I quit every day for six months and then ended up staying for 32 years,” Strand said.

She said the heyday of Brett’s was a wonder for employees and customers, who could enjoy a top-notch, full-service department store in southern Minnesota.

“The customers and employees were super. You didn’t work for the Taylors, you worked with them. Everyone took ownership.”

The reunion, organized by Betty Mitchell and Mary Cassem, was held at Mavericks bar, located in the old Brett’s building. The gathering was on the balcony level, which had been the main business office, with a glass wall looking out over the main floor of the four-story building.

Scott Taylor was amused by the fact his great-grandfather Wilbur Taylor’s former office was now a bar.

“He was a teetotaling, Calvinist Presbyterian. He’d roll in his grave knowing his desk sat right there where the bar is,” Scott Taylor said.

George E. Brett opened his Empire store in 1868 with the help of $3,000 he borrowed from his father-in-law, who was then mayor of St. Paul. In 1910 he relocated to the corner of Front and Jackson streets and named it Brett’s.

His daughter married Wilbur Taylor and he later took over operations. Their son Brett Taylor Sr. (named Brett to keep the Brett’s name alive) was followed by his son Brett Taylor Jr. and his children, and a host of relatives who worked at the store.

The department store was dealt a final blow when the River Hills Mall opened in 1992. Soon, the Brett’s store and 17 affiliated stores in Mankato, New Ulm, Hutchinson, Fairmont, Faribault and Owatonna closed.

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