Downtown Jacksonville’s streets used to be lined with department stores and boutique shops, but none were as mighty as May Cohens, “The Big Store” located on the edge of James Weldon Johnson Park.
The store’s origins dated back to the 1860s when brothers Samuel and Morris Cohen moved from New York to Jacksonville and set up a small dry goods shop along the eastern stretch of Bay Street. A third brother, Jacob, soon joined the management team and became its leader as the store shifted to larger storefronts along Bay Street.
Cohens Brothers Department Store, as it was known, occupied space on the ground floor of a Bay Street building which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901. The brothers regrouped with a temporary structure, also on Bay, but set their sights on a larger property.
Jacob Cohen, by this point the sole manager of Cohen Brothers, hired architect Henry J. Klutho to design a grand department store building on the former St. James Hotel property next to James Weldon Johnson Park. When the new Cohen Brothers store opened in 1912, “grand” didn’t begin to describe it.
Cohens, as it came to be known, featured three stories worth of merchandise, with sections for clothing, accessories, furniture, sportswear, kids’ toys, and more. Its center court was illuminated by an octagonal dome skylight that was later removed as part of an expansion project. On the ground floor, a candy counter and bakery greeted shoppers alongside a collection of other small shops.
The store was massively successful and became the centerpiece of downtown Jacksonville’s active shopping scene, known for its extensive selection of merchandise and its elaborate holiday window displays. It became home to Jacksonville’s first commercial escalator in the late 1940s, and over the years renovations to its building expanded the retail floor space ever further.
The store’s success culminated in it being acquired by May Department Stores in 1958, marking the first time the store was owned by anyone outside the Cohen family. May was known for buying and merging regional department store chains; it renamed the store May Cohens and soon set its eyes on suburban expansion.
May Cohens maintained its predecessor’s success for a couple more decades, but a variety of factors soon conspired to bring it to a halt. One was its suburban expansion; focus shifted toward developing anchor stores within the various shopping malls that popped up throughout the Jacksonville area during the 1960s. Another was the quick collapse of downtown Jax, prompted by factors ranging from “white flight,” to hotel and theater closures, to the city’s own poor decision-making.
The reconfiguration of James Weldon Johnson Park was particularly damaging to May Cohens, as construction efforts often rendered the store nearly inaccessible.
May Cohens closed its doors downtown permanently in 1987, dealt a death blow by the opening of the since-demolished downtown shopping plaza, The Jacksonville Landing. The remaining May Cohens stores were rebranded as May Florida; years later, the entire May company was acquired by Macy’s.
Today, the grand building that housed May Cohens serves as Jacksonville’s city hall, allowing longtime Jax residents to relive the glory days of The Big Store.