When bankrupt Jacobson's closed its stores at two Michigan malls, Midwest department store chain Von Maur took over. And after Wichita, Kan.-based Henry's vacated a 40,000-square-foot space at Wichita's Towne East Center, Von Maur came to the rescue, more than tripling the size.

The Davenport, Iowa-based chain is expanding even as other, bigger chains contract. When possible, it's happy to fill the graves created when other retailers die. “As these other stores are vacating buildings in very good malls, we're able to strike a deal with the landlords,” says James von Maur, the 34-year-old president of his family's group of upscale stores.

But the chain is not just looking for abandoned stores. Right now, says von Maur, it's scouting a variety of sites in Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri. The chain has 22 stores, including four that opened this year: at Oxmoor Center in Louisville, Ky., The Glen Town Center in Glenview, Ill. (See Mall Walk on page 2.); Laurel Park Place in Livonia, Mich., and Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Von Maur, who worked briefly for Marshall Field's and Nordstrom before joining the family business, promises that the 130-year-old chain — founded by his great grandfather and chaired by his father and uncle — will keep expanding in the Midwest “until we have the majority of markets here covered.”

Landlords contacted for this story welcome Von Maur as a tenant. Cindy Ciura, marketing vice president of Laurel Park manager Schostak Brothers & Co., says curiosity about the newcomer is drawing traffic from greater distances. And John Bacon, spokesman for Red Development Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., says Von Maur stores in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Lincoln, Neb., attracted other upscale tenants.

So what is the chain doing right? Von Maur attributes the growth in part to the luxe design of the stores and also picking the right locations, though he couldn't provide insight on how site selection decisions are made. He also offers credit accounts with no interest, annual fees or delinquency charges.

Won't that encourage slow bill paying? Sometimes, von Maur avers, but “we value customer loyalty,” and unlike stores that derive profits from credit use, “we make our money off our merchandise.”

Besides, he says, being family owned, the company is free from Wall Street's quarterly pressures on results. “There's a huge benefit in being private,” he says.