The word “mammoth” calls to mind something big, huge, out of the ordinary. So the giant new discount stores must have seemed to folks who were used to shopping at the traditional “five and ten” - type variety stores that were a fraction of their size. It only makes sense, then, that one of these new “discount houses”, the upstarts of the retailing world, would adopt a “mammoth” as its trademark. And when it happened, did they choose an ancient woolly mammoth, with its ultra-long, curved tusks and generally terrifying appearance? Not at all. Instead, they went with a refined, genteel, bi-pedal elephant, smartly dressed in trousers, a sportcoat and tie. This friendly fellow was “Marty”, official mascot of Mammoth Mart, the late, great New England-based discount chain.
Quincy, Massachusetts native Max Coffman, the founder of Mammoth Mart, was born in 1910 to Russian immigrant parents. Coffman was one of those people of whom it could truly be said that retail was “in his blood”. Starting out as a grocery delivery boy, Coffman worked his way through high school and college performing a number of retail jobs. After four years with Enterprise, a Boston-area department store, Coffman joined Union Premier Food Stores, forerunner to Food Fair, where his responsibilities included overseeing the opening of new stores. In 1937, he joined Economy Grocery Stores, parent of Stop and Shop, a leading New England area chain. At Stop and Shop, Coffman’s responsibilities were once again centered on the company’s new store program. It was here that he learned the benefits of self-service, and especially of having a centralized checkout area at the front of the store - a practice that he would help pioneer later on for the discounting field, where it had previously been a foreign concept.
In 1941, Coffman, along with his brother-in-law Henry Gornstein, went into business for himself, opening an Army/Navy surplus store in Quincy. Problem was, with the outbreak of World War II, the supply of military surplus items had dried up, so Coffman stocked a variety of apparel, mainly work clothes, instead. The end of WWII in 1945 unleashed a flood of surplus items to the market, enabling Coffman to open five more surplus stores by 1948.
By the early 1950’s, as discussed numerous times on this site, a new form of retailer was springing up all over the New England area, known in the early days of the business as the “discount house”. Again, as mentioned, these new stores were often located in old, vacated factories that begged for tenants and were available for a song. J.M. Fields, Ann and Hope and Interstate Stores’ (who would later buy out Topps and White Front) first discount operation all began in this mold. While Zayre chose to come out of the box with new construction instead of the “mill building” approach, their merchandising approach bore some similarities to the aforementioned companies. The stores were very simple, often outfitted only with pipe racks and basic fixtures (as these chains became successful, much more sophisticated store designs would follow), but they made money hand over fist. Max Coffman was quick to recognize the potential of this new self-service, volume based, low price approach, and decided it was the route he needed to take.
In March 1956, the first “Mammoth Mart” (originally Mammoth Mills) was opened in a 51,000 square foot former foundry building in Framingham, Massachusetts. Robert Drew-Bear, in his book Mass Merchandising, describes the opening day scene, where there happened to be a “…very heavy snowfall. As a matter of fact, even the large searchlights were buried by the storm. Nevertheless, the buying public came to the store opening and a new era was born for Max Coffman and Mammoth Mart”.
The profitability of his Army/Navy surplus stores paled in comparison with that of the discount store, so Coffman soon closed them down in order to fully devote his resources to opening new Mammoth Marts. Coffman expanded cautiously, especially in the early years. “I wanted to get a good solid foundation established first”, he was quoted in the Drew-Bear book. In 1959, the second Mammoth Mart was opened in Bangor, Maine, with a third unit in Lewiston, Maine the next year. 1961 through 1965 saw the opening of an average of two new Mammoth Marts per year, and also the company‘s first public offering of stock. 1966 was the chain’s “breakout” year, so to speak, with the opening of six units, one of which replaced the original Framingham store.
The Mammoth Marts were located in strip shopping centers (except the free-standing Bangor unit), usually next door to a supermarket. The store size ranged from 42,000 to nearly 90,000 square feet. The stores’ merchandise mix, was heavily weighted towards apparel. In the early years, factory overruns and seconds were stocked. Drew-Bear’s book notes the chain’s private label brands, including “Princess Anne” for their nylon stockings. (Somehow, that just sounds better than “Mammoth” stockings, eh?) The company also operated their own shoe departments, a rarity in the discount industry where they were generally leased out to others. Small appliances, housewares, cameras, records and books helped round out the mix. Another feature of the stores were their snack bars, de rigueur for the time.
As the Mammoth Mart chain grew, so did Max Coffman’s reputation as a respected businessman, a fact acknowledged well outside his company’s New England trading area. In 1967, Coffman received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, which he accepted that year alongside such other notables as Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon, Lawrence Welk, and Ewing Kauffman, chairman of Marion Merrell Dow pharmaceuticals and soon-to-be founder of the Kansas City Royals.
Coffman’s retailing savvy also caught the attention of one Sam Moore Walton, operator of a small Arkansas discount chain with a big future. In his autobiography, entitled Made in America, Walton specifically mentioned Mammoth Mart. Sam called on the Mammoth Mart offices and was given a tour of the operation by Coffman’s son Jeffrey, which he recalled in his father’s obituary as reported by the Boston Globe - ''I showed him around," said Jeffrey. ''I was only 20 years old. Who knew what he would become?"
At the end of 1970, Mammoth Mart was in great shape. Seven new stores had been added, bringing the company total to 34. Two were located in Maine, one in Vermont, and the company’s first four stores outside of New England – Bel Air (suburban Baltimore), Maryland and Lumberton, Henderson and New Bern, North Carolina. A childrens’ clothing store division,”Boston Baby”, was started around this time.
On a personal note, Mammoth Mart is special to me because it’s one of a handful of classic retail chains outside of the Chicago area that I shopped at extensively. Throughout the 1970’s, my brother and I spent three or four weeks every August with our grandparents in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, where we frequently shopped at the Mammoth Mart at Park Square, an area of town located just on the edge of Woonsocket. It was located in an “L-shaped” shopping center along with a Star Market. A Kentucky Beef restaurant sat on the edge of the parking lot, which later became a Burger Chef. Many times we’d hit all three in the space of an afternoon. Across the street was an Almacs grocery store, a popular Rhode Island chain.
My favorite part of the Mammoth Mart, of course, was their record department, a welcome sight after those exasperating moments spent in the fitting rooms, trying on yet another pair of corduroys. The record department had a great cut-out bin, where I picked up a number of bargains. Without a doubt, the oddest album I found there was Yoko Ono’s 1973 double-album entitled “Approximately Infinite Universe” on the Beatles’ Apple label. It was a bit on the surreal side for Mammoth Mart – I remember thinking “What an ironic juxtaposition - How incongruent!” (Actually, being 12 or 13 at the time, it was more along the lines of “Man, this is weird!”) I didn't buy the album.
Getting back to the storyline, the retail landscape grew bleak for many discount and variety chains in the early 1970’s. Interstate Stores (Topps and White Front), Arlan’s, and Grants, among others, got into financial trouble, leading to the eventual closure of those chains. The stagflation of the American economy caught many retailers flatfooted, especially those with older stores or less than stellar merchandising. Some chains did well, including Kmart on the national level, and local competitors Ames and Caldor. Unfortunately, Mammoth Mart ended up in the former category.
In June 1974, Mammoth Mart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The ten “Boston Baby” stores were closed. Happily, (unlike many other chains) the company emerged from it six months later, and shortly thereafter resumed payments of dividends to its shareholders. In April 1977, a “secret suitor” made an offer to buy out the 51-store Mammoth Mart chain. The “secret suitor” was soon revealed to be King’s Department Stores, Inc., a Boston area discounter (ironically founded in 1956, the same year the first Mammoth Mart, and headquartered in Brockton, Mass, Mammoth Mart’s original corporate home) with 121 stores along the eastern seaboard. The deal was finalized in August 1977. Mammoth Mart was no more.
The next year, King’s was set to merge with W.R. Grace and Company, a firm best known for chemical production but had recently acquired a number of retailers – Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, Sheplers Western Wear and Handy City hardware, to name a few. The merger failed to go through, and King’s more or less faded away over the next few years, closing most of its stores, including several former Mammoth Marts. In August 1982, King’s parent company, KDT Industries, went bankrupt, selling its remaining 42 stores to Ames the following year.
Max Coffman, Mammoth Mart’s founder and early discounting pioneer, spent his post Mammoth Mart years in real estate ventures and philanthropy. Mr. Coffman passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.
The North Smithfield Mammoth Mart I referred to earlier was torn down around 1990 (the store, of course, had closed much earlier) along with the Star Market. A Super Stop and Shop was built in their place. The Burger Chef was torn down to make room for expanded parking. The Almacs across the street closed along with the rest of the chain in 1995. A Hollywood Video store and an Ocean State Job Lot (which is actually a very interesting store – I visited it for the first time last year) now occupy the building. Time sure marches on.
And as for “Marty”, the retired Mammoth Mart elephant mascot? Last I heard, he was living a quiet life at his place on the Cape.
The photos above, from a 1962 trade ad, show the brand-new 88,000 square foot Mammoth Mart in Brockton, Massachusetts. Mammoth Mart was headquartered in Brockton, “home of (champion boxer) Rocky Marciano”, as Max Coffman proudly told a UPI interviewer in 1965. The company’s HQ was later moved to nearby West Bridgewater. Here are a couple of links of interest - a list of the Mammoth Mart locations, and a nice photo of the Scarborough, Maine Mammoth Mart circa 1967.