Jennifer Fickley-Baker grew up in Baldwin in a close-knit family. She remembers oddball phrases older family members used that evoked a different era, particularly a grandfather who would go on about whippersnappers, fuddy-duddys, and doohickeys.
“My grandfather talked like that all the time,” says Fickley-Baker, the author (under the pen name Jennifer Joy) of 26 Ways to Come Home for the Holidays. “That was how he talked all the time: ‘Oh, run to the garage and get me one of those doohickeys,’ like, you had to know exactly what he was talking about.
26 Ways to Come Home for the Holidays — released in October by Foxburg & Stern Books — serves as both an homage to Fickley-Baker’s family and a remembrance of Pittsburgh Christmases past. Set during Thanksgiving 1942, the book follows lead character Stella West, an employee at the Hanover Department Store in Downtown Pittsburgh. Stella faces a crisis when the store’s lead window designer suddenly departs, leaving 26 holiday window displays unfinished.
What ensues is a madcap comedy as Stella assembles an ad hoc team of Hanover employees, including a “picky luxury stylist, two flirtatious personal shoppers, a handful of delivery boys, and Stella’s best pal, Hector,” to make sure the displays are finished in time.
While the novel has the tenor of 1940s screwball comedy films (think Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn trading lines in The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby), Fickley-Baker, who now lives in Florida, said her intent was to write a love letter to Pittsburgh.
“Living in Florida, it’s nice, but I missed the Pittsburgh skyline, I missed the Inclines, I missed so many of the traditions,” Fickley-Baker says. “So, the book was a love letter to all the great things about Downtown and what makes our city so special and so beautiful and unique.”
She adds that Kaufmann’s and Horne’s Downtown played a big part in her life. “My great-grandmother worked at Kaufmann’s Downtown location in the baby department. I think a lot of those memories that we all have kind of funneled into a story and a setting that I wanted to bring to life in book form.”
To create the sense of verisimilitude that inhabits 26 Ways To Come Home for Holidays, Fickley-Baker, who spent nearly two decades working as a writer and editor for Disney Parks, pored through Pittsburgh newspapers from the 1940s. Among the tidbits she found was that Kaufmann's did a renovation to keep pace with retailers on Madison Avenue in New York.
“But what (Kaufmann's) did that was really smart was offer something for every family,” Fickley-Baker says. “They offered things that were really cheap or even free, like, ‘Come down and see our wooden escalators’ when they were really new. Or they would have nickel bags of peanuts. They sold mink coats for the first time, so, even if you couldn’t afford a mink coat or these great fashions from Paris, it was, ‘Let’s go see what they’re wearing in Paris.’ It was an interesting process doing the research for this book.”