The sixties were the golden age of many things, depending upon your perspective. Rock and roll music, television, movies, sports, comics, cars, the suburbs, malls, you name it – if it existed during that tumultuous time, there are legions of folks who will claim that decade as the peak of the form, whether they actually lived during that time or not. To me, the sixties were definitely the golden age of the discount store, and the Interstate Stores banners, Topps and White Front, were among the most interesting of the bunch. In the Chicago suburbs, where I grew up, Topps was a fast-growing player in those years.
The first Topps “Discount City” was opened on October 15, 1956, in Hartford, Connecticut. Founded by Frank Beckerman and Selwyn Lemchen, the company’s initial slogan was “Profits in Pennies”. The company grew steadily in its early years, adding stores in West Haven, Middletown and Fairfield, Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts, Albany, New York and in far-flung Chicago, among others, by the beginning of 1960. Soon afterward, the Hartford store was replaced with a larger unit and a new Topps opened in Berlin, Connecticut. By the fall of 1960 there were ten stores in the chain.
The Topps stores averaged 60,000 square feet and proudly claimed “more than 100 departments”, running the gamut from housewares, baby furniture, auto accessories, sporting goods, shoes, records and toys to all manner of clothes for the whole family. That wonderful discount store oasis, the snack bar/cafeteria, was featured in every store.
Topps’ growth and success coalesced with a successful experiment that New York City-based Interstate Department Stores was conducting at the time. A staid, traditional chain of medium-sized department stores whose history dated back to 1916, Interstate had 47 old-line department stores in 1958 when it leased an old textile mill in Copley, Pennsylvania and equipped it with sales counters, shelves and garment racks, opening it for business as a discount store operation - the company’s first. When the Copley store racked up two million dollars in sales against only $12,000 in rent expense that first year, Interstate soon realized which side its bread would be buttered on.
Among Interstate’s top management, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Copley project was Sol W. Cantor. Described in the New York Times as a “lean, intense retailer…well schooled in the traditional department-store business”, Cantor, who would soon be named company president, forcefully led the charge into the discounting arena. In 1959, Interstate bought out White Front Stores, a 30 year old Los Angeles firm with only two stores but an impressive $20 million in annual sales. By 1966, Interstate would open 20 new White Front Stores was looking towards expansion to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
A year later, in September 1960, Topps Department Stores, Inc. was acquired by Interstate Stores at a cost of $ 4 million. Interstate now had footholds in several Eastern states and the Chicago area to go along with their newly acquired Los Angeles territory. Over the next six years, as the Times reported, Interstate would open 35 new Topps stores, increasing the average square footage per store from 60,000 to over 80,000 square feet.
One important change in the Topps stores under Interstate’s ownership was in the merchandise mix. Heavily weighted towards softlines (clothing, linens, etc.), Interstate introduced appliances, automotive supplies, sporting goods and other lines until the softlines/hardlines mix approached 50%. White Front, whose reputation was heavily built on appliance sales (in the early 1960’s, the Interstate organization was General Electric’s largest appliance customer on the west coast, and was Admiral’s largest customer altogether), required an opposite strategy - the new White Front stores featured extensive clothing lines for the first time, although hardlines would continue to dominate there.
Most of the new Topps stores were opened in partnership with supermarkets to maximize their customer drawing power. Several of the Connecticut Topps stores, for example, opened up with Food Mart stores riding shotgun. Food Mart was an independent chain based in Holyoke, Massachusetts and founded in 1949 by Frank Castaldo. In the Chicago area, the Topps stores were paired with National Food Stores. National Tea Company, founded in 1899, had long been a leader in the Chicago grocery market.
Topps continued to expand into new markets and to beef up their existing ones as the sixties progressed. In August 1962, for example, three Topps stores were opened in the Cleveland area in a single day. The same year, 1962, saw Topps grow to eight stores in Chicagoland - Waukegan, Rolling Meadows, Niles, La Grange, Joliet, Chicago Heights, Highland (Indiana) and Addison. My family shopped occasionally at the Rolling Meadows store, which was paired with a National Food Store. The combination was called a “Topps-National Super City”.
By 1968, Interstate had 60 Topps stores, along with 28 White Front units, 32 traditional department stores (these were being slowly phased out by this time) and 8 toy superstores. The previous year, Interstate had bought out the Washington D.C. –based Children’s Supermart chain, the forerunner to Toys "R" Us. Around that time, (now company chairman) Sol Cantor, noting that it had taken Interstate 38 years to reach the half billion annual sales mark, boldly predicted that the next half billion would only take 5 years – in effect, Interstate would be a billion dollar company by 1972.
It wasn’t to be. The early seventies provided a rude awakening for many discount chains, and Interstate’s stores, Topps in particular, suffered some of the worst hits. In 1971, 10 Topps stores were closed, including three Columbus, Ohio units that were sold off to Gray Drug. The combination of rising costs and increased competition continued to take its toll, and by 1972, the company began to post substantial losses. Plans were announced to close an estimated 14 White Front stores that year. A 1972 Los Angeles Times article quoted a stock market analyst who assessed the company’s troubles as saying “improved merchandising at the discount department stores appears necessary for meaningful profits”. Interstate chose instead to close more stores. By 1973, 19 Topps stores and 19 White Front stores were closed. “Profits in pennies” would have looked good at that point.
In early 1974, having posted a $60 million loss the previous year, Interstate pursued an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the variety and discount stores owned by McCrory Corporation. McCrory’s stores were profitable and had a net value of $120 million, which would have offset Interstate’s losses. With the McCrory opportunity gone, Interstate filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, hoping to reorganize. Unable to obtain further credit from their suppliers to continue stocking the stores, the US Government soon forced the company into Chapter 10 receivership. Forty-one 41 Topps stores were closed by that time, and Interstate announced the immediate closing of 11 more Topps stores, with the remaining 9 to be closed “in due course”. Plans were already underway to sell the remaining White Front stores. Company chairman Sol Cantor resigned, and a trustee was appointed to oversee the liquidation process and to ensure the viability of Interstate’s remaining golden asset, Toys “R” Us. Eventually Toys “R” Us founder Charles Lazarus would take charge of the company (which emerged from bankruptcy in Spring 1978 and was renamed Toys “R” Us Corp.), leading it to success far beyond anything Interstate had ever known previously.
We didn’t shop there often, but one memory stands out, dating from around 1973 or so. One evening my dad, brother and I were shopping at the Rolling Meadows Topps store. The store was near empty (not surprising given the state of the company at the time), and in the main aisle stood a bearded, rumpled, outdoors-type dude of about thirty years of age, standing all alone next to a table with a stack of slim hardcover books on it. It was a book signing, at Topps, of all places! It turns out he had written a book of poetry, and just asked the store manager if he could sell his books there (anything to build traffic, I guess). Upon closer examination, the books themselves looked a bit rumpled as well, and the author launched into an explanation about a canoe trip he had recently taken, with a case of his books onboard (he didn’t explain that part). The canoe capsized, soaking the case of books. The guy’s story was so offbeat, my dad actually bought one of his books!
The first five photos, an exterior and four inside shots date from 1967, the remaining two color shots, including “The Scene” (Here come da judge, baby!) are circa 1970. The black-and-white photo above is of a Baltimore Topps store from 1967, very similar in appearance to the store in the first photo. Pictured below are a new Topps store which opened in 1962 at 467 Main St., East Hartford, Connecticut, and a circa-1960 Chicago area Topps coupled with a National Food Store.