Although the first Zayre department store didn’t open until 1956, the chain’s beginnings date back to 1919, with the formation of The New England Trading Company, an underwear and hosiery wholesaler. Founded in the Boston area by brothers Max and Morris Feldberg, the company began as a supplier to full-line department stores and specialty shops. Ten years later, the brothers launched their first retail operation, Bell Hosiery Shops (later shortened to “Bell Shops”). Within a few years, the Bell Shops product line began to expand beyond underwear and hosiery to include other clothing lines. By the mid-30’s, the Bell Shops were full-blown women’s’ specialty stores, competing against such chains as Lerner Shops and Three Sisters. There were nearly 30 Bell Shops in the New England area by the end of World War II.
In 1946, the company doubled its store count with its buyout of New York City-based Nugents, another women’s’ specialty store chain with a great deal of similarity in approach to Bell Shops. The Nugents chain (whose name would be retained), with its store base in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, DC provided a natural extension of the company’s market area with virtually no overlap.
By the early 1950’s, the company’s sales had reached a plateau, and it became clear to the Feldbergs that fairly drastic changes would need to be undertaken in order for their business to remain viable. Despite classy remodelings, and in some cases the opening of larger stores, the Bell Shops/Nugents stores were losing ground due to two important trends, among others – the decline of downtown business districts (with notable exceptions, such as the Quincy and Malden, Massachusetts locations, where the city fathers had the foresight to provide large downtown free parking areas) and the rise of the “mill” discount store operations, a trend that literally rose up in the company’s backyard.
With the family’s second generation, Stanley H. Feldberg (son of Max) and Sumner A. Feldberg (son of Morris) now in positions of high responsibility, the company began to explore its options. A considerable effort was put into studying the wildly successful mill stores, particularly Cumberland, Rhode Island-based Ann and Hope. The mill stores – Ann and Hope, Mammoth Mart, J.M. Fields and others, shared a common formula for success. With a host of closed, empty textile mills available at dirt-cheap rents, these companies began operation selling mainly clothing, linens and other softlines. Eventually space was leased out to other firms offering such items as shoes, jewelry, tools or appliances, starting the tradition of leased departments in discount stores. As these companies became more prosperous, they began to build their own new stores, either free-standing and/or in shopping centers, allowing much greater visibility along with the many other benefits of custom-built facilities. In a sense, these firms eventually assumed the characteristics of a traditional “chain store” corporate structure.
Having settled on discounting as the logical new direction in which to take their company, the Feldbergs decided to forgo the “mill building” route, preferring to launch with a newly constructed store when the opportunity presented itself. In late 1955, that opportunity came when Stop & Shop, Inc. approached with an offer to build them a store alongside a new Stop & Shop supermarket to be constructed in Hyannis, Massachusetts. In June 1956, the Hyannis Zayre store opened, a whopping 5,000 square feet in size. The store was soon expanded to 7,500 and then 10,000 square feet, and was replaced in 1962 with a 45,000 square foot unit directly behind it. The second Zayre opened in September 1956 in the Roslindale section of Boston, with a much larger footprint of 39,000 square feet. Within a few years, Zayre stores would typically average 70,000 to 90,000 square feet.
Longtime New York Times retail writer Isadore Barmash explained the origin of the chain’s name in a 1985 article – “One day, the Feldbergs and Bert Stern, an advertising consultant, were casting around for possible names for the new operation when Max broke off to take a call. He ended his phone conversation with a typical Jewish phrase: ‘Zehr gut’ or ‘very good.’ Mr. Stern repeated ‘Zehr, where, we need a nice-sounding name.’ The men stared at one another. ‘Zehr – let’s spell it Zayre’ – for very good, they decided.” And thus, Zayre became part of the discounting pantheon.
By 1961, there were fifteen Zayre stores in operation, racking up $50 million in annual sales. Much faster growth would come in the early 1960’s. Zayre was off to a “very good” start, to be sure.
Pictured above is a circa 1962 Zayre store in the standard configuration that so many of us grew up with. Below are exterior and interior shots of the first Zayre store (tiny by comparison) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, shortly after its opening.