Sunday, September 7, 2008

You Couldn't Do Better Than Zayre

The main things that stand out in my memories of Zayre were the stores’ signs, with their absolutely gigantic lettering. We shopped a lot at Zayre (the Des Plaines Market Place location, at the corner of Elmhurst and Golf Roads) through my early childhood, but pretty much switched over to Kmart for our discount store fix from about age 8 on.

Ironically, I still possess an item bought for me there, which is more than I can say about a lot of the chains I’ve waxed nostalgic about here on this site. It’s the September 1970 issue of the Flintstones comic book. I was recovering from the chicken pox at the time, and my folks bought it for me along with a pair of slippers with a rocketship on them. A few years ago, on a trip back to Chicago for Christmas, my Dad wrapped up two boxes of my old comic books and “regave” them to me as a gift. My kids read ‘em now, and they’re still actually in fairly good shape!


  1. I'm 23 and I remember my mom taking me to Zayre in Southington, CT. Though I've never seen one in person with those grandiose neon letters, I remember the red asterisk logo they used from 1975 until their late 80s demise. I'm constantly reminded of the chain whenever I visit my grandmother's house -- she has a ton of Zayre marked products laying around.

    My age range remembers Zayre a little better as its green (often red-clad) successor, Ames. Many former Zayre stores as Ames actually kept the 60's "wing" looking store look, though boarding off the large frontal window panes like Kmart did as they moved into the 1990s.

    Towards the end, reports claim Zayre was distressed, falling behind and drastically outdated. No surprise, it helped eventually cripple successor Ames in the very end.

    One of the last ones in my area was in Agawam, Mass. was just reformatted into a couple stores this year after being vacant for many years after Ames closed. Below is a picture of it when it was vacant -- complete with the "zebra" stripes on the brick walls. There's more of a story here -- I actually "acquired" myself the Ames receiving sign here back in 2006.

  2. For me, Zayre turned into Ames sometime in the 80s before they went belly up (I think this was the Wheaton, IL location)

    This is the first time I've come across this blog -- what a great site -- but no mention of Venture Stores in the Chicagoland area?

  3. On the darkest of nights, those glaring pink ZAYRE letters stood out on 111th St. in Oak Lawn (IL). Mom swore by Zayre because she said they always had the Christmas toys they advertised in stock - and when you're buying for 4 kids, I guess that means something! That particular store was always messy, though, so we didn't buy much more than toys there. For everything else, we went down 111th St. to Cicero Ave. and shopped at the Treasury instead, the JCPenney-owned hypermarket. Hopefully you'll be able to dig up some stuff about the Treasury stores, Dave!

  4. Zayre got up as far north as the Milwaukee area. My aunt used to shop there quite often when she lived in that area back in the early 1980s. Once Target started entering the SE Wisconsin market in the early 1980s, they pretty much did Zayre in from that point on....outdated stores or not (though as alluded to in the previous comments, the outdated stores surely didn't help their image compared to the 'clean' image of Target's stores).

    I personally never got into one of their (Zayre's) stores. They never got past the Milwaukee area, not to mention they could've tried, they probably wouldn't have survived anyhow, seeing as national player K-mart, along with regionals Prange Way, Copps and ShopKo, had a stronger presence with more loyal shoppers in my region of the state.

  5. I love Zayre. I never understand why though but I do! The ugly brown and orange scheme, the star logo, the ugly cashier uniforms, the loud, outdated huge ceiling vents and the annoying buzzing sound. Somewhere if it has survived, my motehr should have a bag or two of Zayre down in the basement. My parents shopped there often although I don't recall what they ever bought. When it became Ames my parents pretty much lost interest. It was no Zayre!

  6. I vaguely remember the Zayre that was in my hometown of Bangor...located in the Broadway Shopping Center, it later became an Ames and after that retailer moved to a mall across town into a spot vacated by New England-based Rich's discount department store (this was 1997 I believe, I was in high school at the time) the TJMaxx that was already in the Broadway Shopping Center moved to the much larger former Zayre, where they still are today.

    Although my memories of Zayre are sadly few and far between (they closed when I was just a child) I do remember the cool giant asterisk door handles that they had on the entrance -- I am fairly certain they stayed on there for a while after Ames took over, but I may be mistaken.

  7. My favorite Zayre was the Golden Gateway Zayre in downtown Chattanooga, built in 1958 as part of an urban renewal project that claimed blues legend Bessie Smith's house. But its design was pure 1950's kitsch. As escalator would carry you to the lower level were there was a Red Food supermarket and Shoney's Big Boy.

    The nearest location to me was in suburban East Ridge, TN so it was frequented more often than downtown. The Atlanta area Zayre's were dumps for a longtime and I often wonder how they survived against Kmart and Richway. Virtually all southeastern Zayre's closed rather than make the transition to Ames. Florida was the exception were Ames lasted about 2 years after the conversion.
    By then Target and WalMart were expanding aggressively.

  8. Nick- Those are great recollections, thanks for sharing them. And a very nice pic of the classic store! The Chicago Zayres became Ames stores, but were not well received the way they were in the New England region. Everything I've read points to the Zayre acquisition as a major factor in Ames' downfall.

    JW - Thanks very much! I remember the Venture stores well and hope to post about them soon.

    Adrienne - Thanks, and sounds like your memories of Zayre are similar to mine. And there's definitely something to be said for well- stocked stores, especially where toys are concerned! I plan to post about the Treasury coming up - we shopped at the Arlington Heights one a lot (kinda stole Kmart's thunder with us for a while) during the brief time it was open.

    Matt - I think the first Wisconsin Zayre opened in Racine. The fact that there were some strong regional players there may have deterred them from expanding, I agree.

    Didi- Good description of the late-period Zayre. I really don't know anyone in Chicago who stuck with them after they became Ames.

    Kendra - Welcome, and thanks for that info on the Bangor store. Interesting that it became a TJ Maxx, since they were originally founded as a division of Zayre.

    Ken - It is hard to believe that Zayre would have competed effectively against Kmart and Richway a that time. I'll have to check out the Golden Gateway store someday if it's still around. Red Food I remember, and of course Shoney's. I used to stop at East Ridge all the time, and am wondering where the Zayre was. I remember an antique mall (former discounter or supermarket, I'm sure)near a Cracker Barrel that comes to mind, although I don't recall high Zayre-like ceilings in that location.

  9. I recently discovered your blog which I really enjoy! I grew up in Joliet, IL, and I remember the Zayre on Jackson Street very well. My mom, my brothers and I would go there on a regular basis. The store in Joliet had the big neon Z-A-Y-R-E sign. Eventually the store relocated to the West side of Joliet, became Ames, and then went under. Thanks for sharing this, and evoking some great childhood memories!

  10. In college getting my undergrad a few years ago, I had a classmate who said he worked security at an Ames in the city. I can't recall where though. Our class was a criminal justice class and my classmate's point in talking about his experience working for them was the blatant racism that went on in security. I forgot the details but if that was all true, I am sure part of that didn't help their case especially since I believe the demographic they were going for working class/middle class people.

    Thanks to Kendra for reminding me about the star logos on the doors! I don't know how on earth I could forget about that. There was a Venture on Peterson Avenue in Chicago that we used to go to frequently and I remember seeing the star logo. As an adult I had a slightly older friend from work tell me that the Venture used to be a Zayre. It is now a brand new Target. It was torn done a couple of years ago to make way for Target.

  11. Hey Dave, love the site it just keeps getting better! I havent wrote in a while but I do check out the site weekly! I can't wait to see your posts on The Treasury stores. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area, California and have fond childhood memories spending weekends at the Treasury. I remember they moved into the former White Front store buildings here in the Bay Area. The most unique was the conveyor belts that brought grocery bags to the parking lot! Never seen that at any other grocery store since!

  12. We had Zayre nearby in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I remember the last days of the big neon Z-A-Y-R-E signs on those stores. They were removed in the 1980s and replaced with smaller signs over the entrances.

    As much as I love retail, I never warmed up to Zayre. They had cool looking buildings, but the stores themselves were awful. They never updated the displays or had any cool looking merchandise. They were awful.

    A newly-built, modernized version opened in Roanoke when I was 10 or 12, but they were only special to me because they were open 24 hours for a while, and my parents would go there in the middle of the night in the summer and around Christmas and shop for odds and ends. The store experience was a little better, but the store didn't last. Ames took it over and died within six months.

  13. Zayre ran pretty awful stores and the inability of Ames to understand their core customer pretty much killed the chain. Zayre was notorious for being out of advertised specials even on the day of the ad. The stores were usually a mess, with poorly managed displays. The things I do remember buying at Zayre were kitchenware and party goods. They didn't invest much in their stores once they were opened and often did not add stores in major markets once they were initially established. As long as their competition was K-Mart and the like, Zayre could survive. Most chains played by similar rules, the exceptions being some of the regional chains (which died or were acquired) and the more upscale stores like target and Gold Circle.

    Zayre's niche in many places were urban, mostly African-American shoppers. In Chicago, they were the one major discount chain to have a substantial presence in the city (K-Mart made some effort many years after Zayre had gotten established) and they probably benefited greatly from the multiple bankruptcies of Goldblatt's, the low end conventional department store chain that also had a heavy inner city presence. When Ames tookover, they failed to take into account the tastes of urban shoppers and this put a nail in the chain's coffin. The combo of Ames and Zayre really didn't make sense. Ames' background was in small town stores and they had no stores near their headquarters in sububran Hartford (which was in a failed Finast supermarket). Zayre's sale to Ames was the inevitable outcome of their parent company's shift toward off-price stores like TJ Maxx, the lack of investment in the stores, and a desire to quickly dump the business.

  14. Kim - Thanks very much! Those signs were memorable to a lot of us, I keep learning. Joliet has a great retail history.

    Didi- Ames didn't do well in Chicago at all, so I'm not surprised.

    Mr. Bluelight, great to hear from you again, and thanks! I'm looking forward to posting about the Treasury. I don't remember the conveyor belts at our local Treasury. And White Front was a really interesting chain from everything I've seen. We shopped at their sister chain, Topps, which I also hope to put on here soon.

    Steven - I agree, on both the appearance and the merchandise of the Zayre stores. Poor quality merchandise always seems to be the surest way to sink the ship. And I guess Ames fared no better in your neck of the woods. New England was their strongest area, for sure.

    Anonymous, that's a great analysis on Zayre's decline, thanks! TJMaxx was a far more promising business by that stage of the game.

  15. Dave - very cool post about the history of Zayre!

    The only Zayre that I recall ever going to was the one on Clark St. between Howard St. & Touhy Ave. in the beautiful Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. This had to have been the mid-1980's and, as I remember it, the store was pretty crummy. I was never in there after it became Ames. These days it is the "Clark Mega Mall." I'm under the impression that it's a flea market type place, and I 'm not even sure if it's still in business.

    Wasn't there also a Zayre at McCormick & Devon? I was never in that store but my Dad used to take my brother & I to the Plaza Theaters in the same shopping center to see movies. Those theaters were so dirty. Blech.

    Looking forward to your posts regarding Venture, Dave!

  16. Chris - Thanks very much! The Zayre you asked about was actually at Lincoln and McCormick (just south of Devon)and originally opened as a Shoppers World in 1964, before becoming a Community Discount Center, than a Zayre, then a Kmart (whew!). A Home Depot now sits on the site. I did a post a while back showing the original Shoppers World store, which you can see by clicking the "Shoppers World" label at the right side of the page.

  17. I worked in the Joliet, IL Zayre department Store about 1967 - 1969. The female employees had to wear flaminco pink smocks and the guys non-descript grey jackets. My most disturbing even there was discovering the huge Hershey's candy bars we had in the storeroom were invested with white bugs. When I reported it to the store manager, he told me to mark them down half price and place them on a table by the checkouts... Yeech!

  18. Ken - Woo, glad we never bought any Hershey bars at that store!

  19. Kim-- so glad to find a comment on the Joliet store-was very familar with it. It was in a plaza which originally housed a Kroger,SuperX Drugs, and a Save Way Liquor store(not a chain).

    I remember the front of the store well.The sign (of course), plus a rather large row of yellow,red and blue on white elongated diamond panels above the entrance. (they later were switched to orange by the late 70s) The doors had a stainless steel bar on them that said, I think, "ZAYRE Welcome" on them.

    Dave-you mentioned the Flintstones comic book you got at a Zayre. The Joliet store had a comic book vending machine (Remember them?) It looked ancient--you would drop in your coins, pick a comic, and pull the corresponding knob.! I remember getting a "Jughead" comic there when I was about 8.

  20. Another memory I have of Zayre-I remember waiting in the car with my dad in the parking lot of a Zayre store around 1973, but it wasn't the Joliet store. This store had a Jack In The Box restaurant nearby-I remember the lighted overhead Jack in the box and thought it was magically floating in the air! It (Zayre)had the pink sign, as well.

    Does anyone have any idea where this could have been? The most likely possibilities would be Markham, Richton Park, or Aurora.
    Bolingbrook had a store also, but I don't think it had the big neon sign, as it was built later.

    Please help! My parents have no recollection of this!

    1. Hi James, Dave & everyone. I was the Receiving Manager at the Richton Park Zayre 1983-1985. I don't think the Jack in the Box was nowhere nearby (if it was still open). Also, I was at the Markham store a lot, because one of my friends was a manager there & I don't think it would have been that area either. My guess is that Jack in the Box was in Bolingbrook.

  21. James - Thanks, and I sure do remember those comic book vending machines. Thing is, I probably haven't thought about them since I was a kid! Amazing! Comic books have all but disappeared from American childhood - you almost never see them for sale, save for a few "Archie digests" here and there at supermarket checkouts. The comics that are published are pretty much aimed at an adult audience.

    I'll keep a lookout regarding your Zayre/Jack in the Box question. With any luck, maybe someone will respond with the answer.

  22. James, the Zayre you are talking about is the one in Markham that was located I believe on 159th and Kedzie in the Canterbury Shopping Center. I grew up in Markham in the 70's and I remember the Jack in the Box which later turned into a Baskin Robbins among other things.

  23. I worked at the Markham Zayre (159th Street, east of Kedzie) for about 6 months in high school and did a lot of shopping there.

    One item I bought there was a rust-goldish color corduroy sports coat when I was about 16. It was a cheap purchase and probably showed to be one. The funny thing was that it actually improved it's look over time.

    I still had the jacket when I left college and by then I was starting to get complements on it. People even asked to borrow it on dates and such. When I became a high school teacher, the home econ teacher offered to patch the elbows and put new buttons on it and it looked even better.

    The coat disappeared when I stopped in Tempe to visit a buddy in grad school who lived in a frat. I was 25 at the time. For all I know, the sports coat is still floating around the ASU campus 35 years after I bought it.

    I still have a paisley photo album I bought at that Zayre about 1970.

  24. Mick - Thanks for those great reflections! It's amazing how many of us remember things we bought there, even this many years later. It was truly a fun era!

  25. I remember the Zayre's in Des Plaines too! I dont remember when it closed but I do remember buying some storage crates, sheets, and and iron there when I left for college in '88.
    Hmm what else, I recall using babysitting money in Jr High to buy a Foreigner record. And they had a hige bin of cheap Atari 2600 games my brother and I drooled over.

    Thanks for the memories.

  26. Jayme--Very belated thanks for identifying the Zayre as the Markham store--that was always my hunch, but I wasn't sure!

  27. I have a can of petroleum jelly from Zayre. The Zayre price tag fell off a few years ago, though...

    It was bought in Florida in the early 1980s, before I was born.

  28. I'm not sure which of the 2 Greensboro NC stores Ken was referring to but I always enjoyed the High Point Road store. I could always find what I was looking for at Zayre and usually less expensive than Kmart. My mother-in-law once bought a Christmas tree there a couple of days before Christmas and they sold it as it stood on display, totally decorated. For about half the cost of the tree, she got several hundred dollars worth of lights and ornaments as well. I never liked the Ames stores.

  29. Anonymous - I think many stores still do sell decorated "floor model" Christmas trees after the holiday just to get rid of them.

    I was still living in Chicago, where I grew up, when the Zayre stores converted to Ames. The change wasn't well received at all there.

  30. So glad I found your blog, while googling Zayre! I was Customer Service Manager at the Springfield (Illinois) store 1981-1983, then Receiving Manager at the Richton Park store after that. I loved that company so much and this all brings back so many good memories. I could tell you some stories, (nothing like the candy bars with bugs though --that was NOT typical)! You would not believe the "loss prevention" team! They had a cat walk and were always watching, AND I saw many shoplifters get tackled to the ground! I hated the orange vest, but as CSM I was allowed to wear my own brown blazer instead. I am so happy that we bought the service desk at auction, when the Springfield store closed! We still use it in our little flower shop. Funny how it seemed so much bigger back then!