A Layoff Prompted This Architect to Seek a New Creative Outlet
Bruce Kopytek’s dream job as chief design architect at Thompson-Phelan Group came to a screeching halt in 2009, courtesy of the Great Recession that claimed more than 2 million U.S. jobs across the architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C) sector.
“It happened just after my father passed away,” says Kopytek, who currently serves as VP of commercial architecture at Fieldstone Architecture & Engineering. “I went to his funeral and came back to find that I had no job.”
Like many, Kopytek took any job available to make ends meet. He initially painted at his parish and installed whiteboards and projectors at its parochial school. When that work dried up, he landed a job at Unity School Bus Parts, a bus parts warehouse. Neither job provided him with any degree of creative satisfaction.
“It was actually very difficult,” he recalls. “My mind was going all over the place creatively. It was almost hard to get up every morning and know that my job was not going to fulfill the part I enjoy.”
Kopytek’s search for creative fulfillment led him to writing. He started a blog, The Department Store Museum. It attracted the attention of The History Press, a British publishing company that asked him to write a book about Jacobson’s, a former department store chain based in Jackson, Mich.
He was initially worried about the prospect of writing 30,000 to 40,000 words on the topic until he discovered the parallels between writing and architecture. “In architecture I might have a basic idea of how something should look, but then every little detail and everything you add has to support that main concept. I think that’s true with writing as well. I’ll get the framework done on paper but then I’ll add to it.”
Kopytek has since authored four books: Jacobson's, I Miss It So!: The Story of a Michigan Fashion Institution (a Michigan Notable Book for 2012); Toledo's Three Ls: Lamson's, Lion Store and Lasalle's; Crowley's: Detroit's Friendly Store; and Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store.
Each book is filled with stories from those who worked in these department stores when they were in their prime. Kopytek particularly enjoys sharing a tale about a harried Jacobson’s customer who needed a Christmas present for his wife.
“The sales lady said, ‘Don’t worry, if you tell me a little bit about her, maybe I can pick something out that she’d really like,’” Kopytek recalls. “He said, ‘She just ran off with my best friend.’ The sales lady replied, ‘Well, we do carry a perfume by Lanvin called My Sin.’”
Another favorite involves a busy sales clerk who didn’t have time to deal with a potential thief.
“A guy came in with a gun,” says Kopytek. “He interrupted a sales person that was showing merchandise and said, ‘This is a holdup!’ And the sales clerk said, ‘I’m busy, I don’t have time for that right now, I’m working with a customer.’ The guy was so taken aback that he walked out.”
While Kopytek’s love of writing came in adulthood, his love of department stores began as a young boy. His parents loved to travel, and his mother especially enjoyed visiting local department stores.
“I have memories in 1964 (when I was five years old) eating at a lunch counter in the basement of Macy’s in New York,” he says. “That experience never really left me. Whenever I travel somewhere, I always check out the department stores—if they have any. Most American cities don’t have different department stores anymore, but at one time they were all different.”
Kopytek is currently exploring the possibility of self-publishing his next book, which will focus on The J.L. Hudson Company and its once-famous store in Detroit.
“Working with a traditional publisher, I felt very much like a number,” says Kopytek. “I pay the royalties for the photographs, I take the time to do the research, I write the book. I also designed the covers and layout myself for most of them. And they take off 35 percent for possible returns and don’t pay that for three years down the line.”
Kopytek is currently discussing a potential deal with a new publishing partner, but nothing is set in stone just yet.
“I think the J.L. Hudson book is going to be popular,” he says. “And with construction activity on the site of the old Hudson’s store, it’s very timely.”
While Kopytek has yet to design a department store project, he was proud to play a part in preserving a bit of history from the former John Wanamaker department store in New York. Founded by the Postmaster General of the same name, the retailer’s storied structure was being invaded by Kmart Corporation—Kopytek’s employer at the time.
“That was kind of sacrilegious after this great, cultured department store, which had this famous man running it,” says Kopytek, who was working as a senior designer at Kmart. “But in the course of that we discovered there was a beautiful plaster fan column up in one area.”
The column was in bad shape, but Kopytek thought it could be restored. Management wasn’t interested…until a new CEO came aboard.
“The next thing I know I get a call that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to restore the column!’” Kopytek recalls. “I was happy with that, and we actually turned it into a drop ceiling area where that column went up above the ceiling and was relit. I was in New York a couple years ago and visited my column. It’s still there even though the store isn’t doing very well. But it’s nice to have preserved a little piece of department store history through my work.”
Since 2013, Kopytek has been working as senior architect with Fieldstone Architecture & Engineering of Auburn Hills and Detroit.
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