Bag & Baggage has been family owned and operated for more than half a century. Learn more about the legacy of our generational business through this article written by Richard L. Gaw for Brandywine Community News in 2007:
The Bag Man Cometh to Greenville
On a frigid cold afternoon in January 1960, a young man stood before thousands of American citizens and millions more watching on television, and boldly declared that the torch had been passed to a new generation. Later that year, 18 year-old Carmen McKenzie walked into Sig and Betty Ettinger's Bag & Baggage on the corner of 9th and Tatnall Streets in Wilmington, and asked if they were looking for help.
The Kid didn't get a torch. He merely got a job.
At the time, there seemed little connection between the tenor and vision of President John F. Kennedy's inagural speech and the nondescript action of a young man walking into a store to fill out an application. The Kid didn't know much about luggage and suitcases and briefcases – how many people his age do? – but over time, Sig and Betty took the business they'd begun in 1956 and handed it over to the Kid, and here it is 45 years later and the Kid has turned the store into a picture-perfect example of how to run a successful business, with steady customers from as far away as Europe and Asia, as well as three generations of families, coming in for the latest in Hartmann luggage or a briefcase from Briggs and Riley.
"Sig and Betty groomed me for the job, and I learned early on from them that if you give something all you've got, you can be successful," McKenzie says. "I don't consider myself smarter than anyone else, but I've always had an unbridled passion for the business."
It has been this passion that recently set into motion the expansion of Bag & Baggage to a second location, as a companion to its long-time store on 9th and Tatnall Streets. The new store, at Two Greenville Crossing in Greenville, officially opened May 6, and features 1,000 square feet of showroom space, carrying the same merchandise that has made the company one of the premiere stores of its kind. While the downtown location continued to thrive, the thought of having a second store outside of Wilmington was a notion McKenzie had been considering for years.
"I always felt that we needed to be in a place where there was a very bright business future," McKenzie says, motioning to the crowded parking lot outside his new store. "Finding the right location was tough, but when I saw this space, I knew it was the ideal place to expand our name."
There is no surefire ingredient for maintaining a successful business for more than half a century – no handy guide to consult or proprietor's commands to follow – but when McKenzie is asked for reasons for the store's popularity, he rattles of two different but very distinctive sets of names. Set One: Briggs & Riles. Hartmann. Mulholland Brothers. Korchmar. French Luggage. Jack Georges. Tumi. Schlesinger. For 50 years, Bag & Baggage has been providing the best quality luggage, briefcases, handbags, leather goods and travel accessories from some of the leading manufacturers in the world.
When the Ettinger's began Bag & Baggage 50 years ago, catering to a post-war America primarily made up of homemakers and men in grey flannel suits, the functionality of an item for outweighed its fashion quotient. Today, with the business world having fully widened its doors to include women, and with increased media attention focused on travel, what we wear and what we carry when we travel, McKenzie says he feels the varying weight of both function and fashion.
"I look at merchandise from the standpoint of three criteria before I place it on my shelves," he says. "'Is it fashionable?' 'Is it functional?' 'Is it saleable?' If I can answer two of the three with 'Yes,' I will put that piece of merchandise in my store."
"It has to be a quality product from a reputable name," he adds. "It also has to back me up the way I back up my customers."
Set Two: Chris. Jim. Kimberly. Carmen, Jr. On the sales desk of the new location in Greenville, there is a framed picture of three generations of McKenzies. Rimmed around Carmen and his wife Colette are their three sons and one daughter, who at one time have all been employees of their father's.
To walk into the Downtown Wilmington Bag & Baggage is to visualize generations of business persons and travels from as near as Alapocas and as far away as China selecting the best from the store's 3,500 square feet of merchandise.
Jim McKenzie, the manager of the downtown location on Ninth and Tatnall, began to know many of his father's customers when he started working at the store at the age of 12, sweeping the warehouses and making ribbons that would eventually be made into bows for packages.
"Being at the store allowed me to spend so much time with my dad," he says. "Even at that young age, I felt like I was accomplishing something that would help him."
Later, while attending the University of Delaware, Jim remained as an employee, but eventually his passion wandered from his classes to the business. "I found myself becoming more and more involved with the business," he says. "I kept thinking 'They need me. I'm not there. I need to be there.'"
At the age of 20, he began working full time.
Like his father in Greenville, the younger McKenzie has family photos hanging in the Wilmington store as well. "There is one particular photograph where the entire family – three generations of McKenzie's – are posing on a beach, where's Jim's 11 year-old twins Jimmy and Ashley squint into the sun.
Could there be a third generation of the family eventually heading up the two Bag & Baggage locations?
"Jimmy has already asked me if he can help me out on Saturdays," McKenzie says.
Although both Carmen and Jim could eventually imagine extending their growing business to the youngest McKenzie members, they both agree that the decision will rest in the hands of their children/grandchildren.
"Although we would love to see it continue in the family, we both know that the children have truly got to want it," Jim says.
There is a third set of names that number in the thousands – they're called Satisfied Customers. Twenty-two years ago, Louis and Harriet Epstein from Greenville came into Bag & Baggage, looking for luggage in preparation for a trip to the Philippines to see their first grand-child. They purchased a set of Hartmann luggage, and they've been coming back ever since.
"Carmen is a marvelous merchant and an old friend," says Harnet. "I prefer supporting individual store owners as opposed to traveling to a mall, and the fact that they're here in Greenville is very convenient for us."
"Bag & Baggage is more than just a store full of sales people," says Nancy Blumberg of North Wilmington, who was visiting the Greenville location prior to a trip to the Mediterranean. "In addition to a terrific selection, you receive personal care from a knowledgeable staff."
Perhaps equating the magnitude of John F. Kennedy's most quotable verse to the simple act of a young man walking into a store to ask for a job is presumptuous, yet, as Sig and Betty Ettinger saw the new generation in a young Carmen McKenzie, so too does Carmen see his son Jim.
"When I watch him working with our customers, I see myself thirty years ago," Carmen says.
The Kid has taken the torch and passed it on.