Friday, August 8, 2008

Twilight of the Grand Union



















The two photographs above show The Grand Union Company’s office tower and flagship store on the very last day of the store’s operation in March 2001. These photos come to us courtesy of John, an Elmwood Park native, who worked at the store during the last 14 years of its existence. The tower and flagship store were featured prominently in a series of posts on Grand Union’s early and mid-period history that appeared on this site late last year.

Opened as part of Elmwood Park (known as East Paterson until 1973) , New Jersey’s Elmwood Shopping Center in 1951, the structure was unique in that it combined a corporate headquarters with a full-blown retail supermarket on the first floor. The store served as a proving ground for the innovative chain and was a source of immense pride for Grand Union. The facility received a number of accolades and awards from the architectural community and soon came to be regarded as a local landmark.

In 1987, Grand Union moved its headquarters to nearby Wayne, New Jersey, while the store was left in place. As the photos sadly attest, the building deteriorated from that point on, hence the many boarded up windows. In 2001, after a seeming multitude of ownership changes, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other traumatic events, the chain finally threw in the towel. The Grand Union name lives on in a handful of stores that aren’t formally connected with the original organization.

The Elmwood Park Grand Union, along with its famous tower, was torn down later that year. A Walgreens now sits on the site, and the rest of the shopping center now has uniform storefronts.

John’s reflections appear below.

“I've lived in Elmwood Park my whole life so the Elmwood Shopping Center was a huge part of my life growing up. My mother used to walk up there with my sisters and I when we were little so I have great memories of all the stores with those great neon signs. The signs today are so boring compared to them. Another thing is that years ago all the store fronts looked different from each other, which had a lot of charm, and that's changed within recent years. The town wanted all the store fronts to look the same. I remember all these great stores like Kress which later changed to McCrory's, Channel which was a hardware store, Loft's (a candy/ice cream store), Molk Brothers (a greeting card/jewelry store), a men's store called Mr. L, a womens store called Lobell's, the Walgreens of course, and I vaguely remember the Neisner's and another store called Shirlaine's or Shirlene's, and of course the Grand Way which you know is now a Big Kmart”.

“I never thought they would actually tear down the Grand Union tower and when I was working there we were always told that they couldn't because it was a landmark. So much for that. The sad thing is that when G.U. moved their headquarters from Elmwood Park to Wayne, the tower remained empty and fell into serious disrepair. There were broken windows all over it. The other really sad thing is that while years ago that was their flagship store, when they moved no one cared about that store anymore. What was once their flagship store went downhill fast. Hours were cut, employees disgruntled, and customers very unhappy. Still I look back at my time there as the best years of my life”.
Note: Please click here then scroll down for earlier photos of the Grand Union Elmwood Park location.

25 comments:

  1. It's so sad to see modern era highrises like that with boarded up windows and the stench of neglect. It sort of reminds me of an old, abadoned Howard Johnson's in Cleveland that I see everytime I visit and go through the expressway. http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.collisionbend.com/images/hojo1.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.collisionbend.com/2008/ho-ho-hojo/&h=315&w=420&sz=34&hl=en&start=1&um=1&tbnid=YmM5BL5za5GPhM:&tbnh=94&tbnw=125&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dabandoned%2Bhoward%2Bjohnson%2527s%2Bcleveland%2Bohio%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN

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  2. Didi - It's a shame in this case since the building was sort of a landmark. Afer 14 years of neglect though, it must have been in horrible shape, and I would think it was almost a hazard to the operating store below.

    Re the HoJo's, I've seen some very large early 60's era hotels undergo a complete gutting and come out looking very nice. It all depends on the economics of the specific area.

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  3. I have some sentiment for Grand Union,mainly from its ownership of the Southern chain Colonial/Big Star, despite little first hand experience with a true Grand Union.
    The were a leader in architectural design right up until their death in 2001, something many thriving retailers can't pull off.

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  4. From what I read in the link I provided it seems that rodent infestation run amok really made th building into a hazard coupled with neglect. Sad.

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  5. Ken - I lived in Conyers, an east Atlanta suburb for a brief period in the late 80's and really liked to shop at the Big Star there. I remember their logo as being similar to the Grand Union logo shown here. I remember seeing some Grand Union shopping carts there, when I was just becoming interested in such connections. They later (around 1992 or so) built a huge, very nice looking store there.

    Didi- Yeesh!

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  6. This site is a real find! It's a funny thing to say that supermarkets can bring a lump to the throat, but childhood memories are so potent! Makes me wish I had thought to take pictures of the stores I remember best when they were there. Hope somebody turns up 1960's photos of: Grand Way, Paramus NJ/ Grand Union, Ridgewood NJ/ Modell's, Lodi NJ. And if there are any more out there of Paramus' Garden State Plaza when it was open air, that would be great! Wish I had 'em myself, I'd post 'em!

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  7. Scott - Thanks very much! I couldn't agree more on how childhood memories of such simple things as shopping experiences can be so moving. That's a big part of what this site is all about.

    If I turn up any Garden State stuff, I'll be glad to post it.

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  8. Great site.
    I lived in East Paterson/Elmwood Park in the 60’s through the late 70’s. I lived in the apartments right behind the Elmwood shopping center so this was my neighborhood. I can still remember the sound of the automatic doors on the Blvd side of the GU. There was a meat packaging machine out in the open and a lobster tank; They even had a florist at one time.
    I attended the nearby 16th ave school and in those days you would walk home for lunch. My mom would send me to Niesners for cold cuts. They had a large pickle barrel in the front where the deli was located. In the rear was a shoe repair shop complete with little stalls where you could wait while having your shoes resoled.
    Kress had the Whirly-Q luncheonette where we had many an egg cream. There were two shoe stores, Kenny and Thom-McCann. Lofts the candy store, Shrilanes and Canadians for ladies clothes. Canadians had a large U shaped foyer. If you stood right up against the corner the reflection gave fun-house effects
    Lobells is where we all got our scouts uniforms. At the end of the row was R&S the auto store. It always had a peculiar but unforgettable aroma about the place.
    They sold everything there from chemistry sets to second hand rifles (this was early 60’s)
    There was a Laundromat in the strip in the early days. Molk Brothers had three stores at one time including a book store.
    I can remember before Grand Way was built. There was an open field there with a billboard at the far end. I used to walk through that field on the way to St. Anne’s the local Catholic Church ( in Fair Lawn)
    A Pizzeria called Steves was adjacent the Rectory. They used jeeps for delivery with small ovens in the back to keep the pizza hot. They sold soda in coated cardboard containers.
    Man I could go on forever. You never forget your home town.

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    1. Wow that bought back a ton of memories

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  9. Tom - Thanks so much for sharing that wonderful, detailed set of memories! Through this site, I've heard from a number of folks who grew up in the East Paterson/Elmwood Park area, and no doubt they will love it!

    And I completely agree, you never forget your hometown!

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  10. Have lived here my whole life. Thank you for the photo link. That whole shopping center brings back warm memories of Christmas shopping, my mom and Aunt Grace, Canadian's and Shirlanes, Neisner's, Molk Bros, R&S, wow, could go on forever. Even my children remember it. Thank you. I posted this link on the EP Alumni website. http://epcrusaders.org

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  11. A real shame. I wonder who made the decision to move the headquarters? I bet that was one of many boneheaded mistakes. Divorcing the corporate center from the day to day operations was not wise.

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  12. I have lived in EP all of my 52 years. Does anybody remember the smell of the 1st rotisserie chicken I ever had that they made in Neisner's? Mingled with the pickle smell? How about Phil's sweet shop on Boulevard and Market and those paper cones in metal holders they used to make all there sodas. When we were sick Mom would buy Coke syrup in one of those paper cardboard rpund containers there. Phil's wife's name was Rose, she was nice, he was crabby to kids! Before that it was called LoBue's and he also owned the town taxi stand. He had really blotchy piebald skin - 1/2 brown and 1/2 white, it looked. Do you remember Mr. DeMerritt the dog catcher that was always riding around and how bout Steve the peddler who lived on River Road in the white on house the corner He drive an open truck and sold fruit and candy and rang some bell contraction and you climbed aboard to buy. The old Hillman home is there at least on River Rd even though the golf course is gone.
    Barb

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  13. I worked in that building from 84-87 in the Advertising department (then in Wayne until 2001). It's a shame to see what happened, I have many great memories.

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  14. East Paterson memories:

    The shopping center had a promotion for something: they were going to drop money out of a passing helicopter. I don't remember much except the family drove up and Dad took one look at the crowd and got out of there.

    I also remember the Terra V from Space Patrol was at the Grand Union. That was cool!

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  15. (R&S Auto was in the Elmwood Shopping Center too.)
    At the Grand Union, there was a man who gathered the shopping carts for years. I don't know why I remember that his name was Robert Gerard! Someone said that he was a shell-shocked war veteran. He obviously wasn't mentally right. As cruel as we kids could be, we'd call him "Gaylord"- and he didn't care for that! He'd curse us, and we'd run away.
    Canadians had a fashion show downstairs one time, & I remember all the girls dancing to "Cherry Cherry" by Neil Diamond.
    When Grand Union had a fire-and was closed for a while, they set up tents in the front parking lot, and had some promotions. "Johnny Seven" was there, & I remember getting autographs from 2 players from the N.Y. Titans football team. I guess it was around 1960 or '61.

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  16. Someone on here referenced the money dropping from choppers..it was a promotion for the reopening after the big fire...this followed the months of using tents across the street in the western parking lot. How about the vending machines all along the front of the store where you could buy milk...bread..orange juice..canned goods 24 hours a day.

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  17. Djstevet - I’m due to revisit Grand Union in a new post one of these days, there seems to be a high level of interest. I have pictures of both the tent and the vending machines. It was definitely an interesting store, in that GU used it to try all manner of innovations. Stay tuned!

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  18. i bring back some of my best memories of east paterson like being home from military academy and marching in the memorial day parade down the blvd. also hanging out in phil's going to the dance on friday at St. Ann's and on sunday at the jewish center also collecting all the triple s blue stamps when the grand union caught fire, the old hi-way movies in fairlawn on saturday mornings. also crazy things like picketing the police station for a place to hangout i attended 16th ave school then on to gilbert ave school and finally the first class in the new high school (7th grade) i've had so many more great memories from East Paterson if any body reads this and has any closeup photos of elmwood shopping center please put them on. Mark

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    1. Who are you? I too was in the first class as a 7th grader...

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  19. Those Grand Union pictures brought back so many great memories! I grew up in Elmwood Park and lived in the apartments on 16th avenue in 1984-2011. My mom and I would walk to Grand Union every day when I was a child to shop around. While walking to Grand Union on Boulevard, I could always smell fried chicken on the side of the store where the bus stop was. I remember the ceiling at check out that said Grand Union in Coca-Cola style lettering. I also remember they would yell "carry out" for customers with several bags and an employee would come to the check out area and put all of your shopping bags in a cart and he would bring them to your car. The pet food isle had a huge picture of a grey cats face hanging from the ceiling over the isle. One of the isles in the middle of the store I believe it might have been the cleaning supply isle, it had an area that lead to the basement that had a belt with rollers on it and I used to always try and roll down to see what was down there. LOL. The Grand Union tower definetly was a landmark! I always knew we were close to home when I would see that tower when we would get off of route 46 and get onto Boulevard. I was also able to see that tower and the light up Grand Union sign outside of my bedroom window. I always wanted to go up to the top of the tower and overlook the town but never got my chance to :( I would love to see as many pictures of Grand Union as possible so if anyone has some please share and send to my email!

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    1. Hi everyone, just like everyone here, I have so many fond memories and I would love to see more pictures also! As a child my grandmother and aunt would take me there on the weekends to buy shoes, go to mccrory, go grocery shopping at grand union, and sometimes we would go to the chinese food buffet across the street. I grew up in Fair Lawn and now live in the Philly area, and have children of my own. I dont think there is a place around here as magical as the Elmwood shopping center. If anyone has pictures of any of the stores from the 87-97 era can you please please send them to me :} DNGeiger@yahoo.com

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  20. I remember when it was permissable to take the shopping carts, and that every so often, someone in a van from Grand Union would retrieve them. I also remember that sometimes the person doing the retrieving was not nice. One time he yanked the cart from my mother when she was still walking home and dumped the groceries. He picked the wrong person to mess with because my mother marched right back to Grand Union and spoke with the management. Not only did Grand Union reimbursed my mother, they gave her a shopping cart loaded with food and they publicly rebuked the young man in the presence of everyone.

    I do remember "Gaylord," and I also remember another young man many of us called "Dougie." I wish now I had not been such a cruel teen, but one of the nasty things we would do is swipe Dougie's hat off his head and toss it around.

    Another memory of mine was going to Walgreens and picking up cigarettes for my parents. In those days (1963/1964), a pack cost 25 cents.

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    1. Thanks for sharing those memories with us! I definitely remember kids being able to buy cigarettes for their parents. In my observation, that was still an accepted practice as late as the mid-70's (when smokes were typically 50-70 cents), as long as the kid brought a note from the parent. Very different times!

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  21. I remember when the Gu got tired of retrieving the carts and started carry out service around 76 or so. I was born there at those apartments and move in 78 when I was 12.
    I remember when the grand Union sign was neon.
    I also remember Boulevard would flood right there at broadway(route4) and we could catch a few bucks pushing cars out who dared to drive through it.
    When I visited in 92 it was sad to see the building vacant and falling apart all the windows broken out. My friends and I snuck into the tower once in the 70s we got to the top floor and were escorted down. We said we were lost.
    I can still remember the sound of the meat packing machine and if you went to the back alley they bakery ladies would give us free doughnuts. We used to ride our bikes and skateboards there with that little asphalt hill that ran all the way along the shopping centre to Grand Way. Which is now Kmart. I remember when Neisners closed and became channel lumber. Was sad cause Neisners was the best place to buy Pez. Oh and remember Genos? Just down in fair lawn. Was Kfc everywhere but New Jersey.

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