For years, a nondescript wooden box sat forgotten in a vault at Gottschalks' corporate headquarters, its contents hidden behind a padlock. In the aftermath of the retail chain's bankruptcy and closure last year, longtime Gottschalks CEO Joe Levy — whose great-aunt was the wife of company founder Emil Gottschalk — found the box as he...

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FRESNO, Calif. — For years, a nondescript wooden box sat forgotten in a vault at Gottschalks’ corporate headquarters, its contents hidden behind a padlock.

In the aftermath of the retail chain’s bankruptcy and closure last year, longtime Gottschalks CEO Joe Levy — whose great-aunt was the wife of company founder Emil Gottschalk — found the box as he sifted through archives for a book and documentary film about the rise and demise of the prominent Fresno, Calif., business.

The box, it turns out, was something of a historical treasure chest. When the lock was busted off and the lid opened, Levy and others discovered bundles of old, uncirculated certificates — about the size of Monopoly game money — used in the early part of the 20th century as a premium for customers.

“I guess nobody went through it” when things were transferred years ago from Gottschalks’ old flagship store in downtown Fresno to the company’s erstwhile corporate offices in northeast Fresno, Levy said.

Levy, 78, said he believes cashiers at the original Gottschalks store would give customers a certificate when they paid for goods. Customers could collect the slips and eventually exchange them for merchandise in a special redemption center at the store.

“It was like when people used to collect S&H Green Stamps,” he said.

The certificates bear the name “E. Gottschalk & Co.” and a stated value of 25 cents. As best as Levy can determine — “this was before I was born, you know,” he said — the certificates in the chest date to the late 1910s or 1920s.

Levy said printing experts have told him the individually numbered certificates appear to have been printed from plates painstakingly engraved by hand. Intricate scrollwork and logos, fine shading and a reproduction of Emil Gottschalk’s signature show the level of detail that went into the front and back of the certificates.

Levy said the certificates were likely used into the late 1920s — a time when getting one certificate for every 25 cents spent at Gottschalks made them worth saving.

“The Great Depression hit here before it hit other parts of the country because of all the farming around here,” Levy said. “Twenty-five cents went a lot farther then than it does now.”

If they had ever been circulated to customers, the certificates packed inside the box — about 45,000 of them — would have represented rewards for as much as $11,250 in customer spending at the store.

WORKING ON A BOOK

The discovery came as filmmakers from Sacramento worked on interviews with Levy for a TV documentary, “Built on a House of Cards,” to be based on a book Levy is putting together about the company’s history. The Pop Laval Gallery, whose archive includes many photos of Gottschalks in its early days, is also involved in the history project.

Levy said the title comes from his memories of childhood visits with his great-uncle, the company founder, who entertained the boy by using playing cards to build six-story houses of cards before letting Levy delight in knocking them down.

“There is no written history of Emil Gottschalk or of Gottschalks,” Levy said, adding that he began working on the project before launching his effort to revive the retail brand as “Gottschalk by Joe Levy.”

Earlier this year, Levy announced plans to open several department stores under the new brand, with the former Gottschalks store at Clovis, Calif.’s Sierra Vista Mall as his flagship.

Joel Morales, vice president of marketing for Levy’s new enterprise, said there are hopes to release the book and documentary about the same time as the first “new” Gottschalks stores open Nov. 1. Morales said he anticipates interest from public television stations in the markets across the western U.S. where Gottschalks was a popular retail brand.

Levy said lease negotiations are nearly complete for the Clovis site and two other locations . — sites that he expects to be the first three stores in a new chain that may eventually grow to 20 to 25 stores in communities where “old” Gottschalks stores were profitable.