Sunday, October 11, 2009

From Mayfair to Murphy's Mart

Seven long years after their largest variety store competitors had launched discount store formats, S.S. Kresge’s Kmart and F.W. Woolworth’s Woolco, the G.C. Murphy Company was now in the thick of planning for a discount store venture of its own. The following year, 1970, the first two “Murphy’s Marts” would open.

One of the most interesting aspects of Murphy’s planning, as detailed in the book “For the Love of Murphy’s” by Jason Togyer, was the process of selecting a name for the new line of stores. A number of different possibilities were considered along the way, including “M-mart”, which was rejected quickly, presumably due to its obvious similarity to Kmart. Then there was “Murphy’s Merchandise Mart” which could be nicknamed “M-M-M” or “Three-M’s”, but that one would have risked infringing 3M Company’s trademark, which itself was shorthand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. (I’m thinking four M’s would have been the charm – just toss “marvelous” or “magnificent” in there!) A mascot was even considered, in this case a “big lumberjack guy holding a sign that said ‘Big Murph’”, which would have been the new chain’s name. Murphy officials “didn’t go for it”, according to the book. Ultimately, the “mart” idea prevailed, and since “Murphy’s” was common parlance for the company’s stores as it was, the path of least resistance was to combine the two. “Murphy’s Mart” it would be.

Murphy’s corporate architect, Ralph Barlow, developed a very nice design for the new Murphy’s Mart’s, making excellent use of color and texture within the fairly restrictive parameters of discount store design. “Inside, he painted the marts in deep, rich shades of green, gold and orange; outside, the facades received deeply sculptured metal panels in the same bold colors” went the description in the Togyer book, which contrasted them with the “plain white Kmarts”.

The stage was set for a mid-1970 opening of the first store in Harmar Township, Pennsylvania, a “semi-rural” area north of Pittsburgh, near the Allegheny Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that was evolving into a suburb. The store was even named “Store #801”, signifying its status as the first Murphy’s Mart. As fate would have it, however, the Harmar Twp. location ended up being the chain’s second unit to open due to a unique opportunity that presented itself.

Three years earlier, in 1967, a giant (for the time) department store complex called Mayfair South Shoppers’ Forum had opened in Bethel Park, a south suburb of Pittsburgh. (There was also a “North” version of it in north suburban McCandless Township.) Within a couple of years, the Mayfair business failed and the large, attractive, one-story department store building (160,000 square feet) sat empty. Despite some reservations, Murphy management saw the opportunity not only to launch “the Marts” several months ahead of the original plan, but also the benefit of having coverage in two key suburban areas from the near get-go. A deal was struck to acquire the Mayfair property, the necessary renovations were carried out, and Barlow’s interior decor package was implemented. The first Murphy’s Mart, Store #802, opened in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania on May 27, 1970. Togyer’s book cites the designated grand opening giveaway for the early Marts – a plastic laundry basket (good to fill up with other stuff, no doubt!).

The Bethel Park store was unique in that it was an entire shopping complex, which according to an article in the Uniontown Morning Herald-Evening Standard article featured a greenhouse/garden center called “Arcadian Gardens”, a Firestone Tire Center and a Winky’s Drive In, the latter two of which are visible at the front edge of the parking lot. Inside the store were departments that would be common to all Murphy’s Marts, as listed in the same article – “Fashion Accessories; Fashion Apparel; Men’s and Boys’ Furnishings; Sweets n’ Eats; Music – TV’s – Photo; Writings and Wrappings; Knit n’ Stitch – Home Furnishings – Domestics; Housewares and Home Improvements; Toys and Hobbies; Tobacco Shop; Sporting Goods and Accessories. (I think I’ve used up this site’s entire allotment of semicolons in that last quote – great, I’ll probably have to pay for some “premium” version of Blogger now!) Oh, and “a full-line major appliance department (was) planned”.

Just under two months later, on July 22, the Harmar Twp. Store opened. This was the first “true” Murphy’s Mart prototype, and over the first couple of years of the banner’s existence, most of the Marts were cast in its mold. Typically, the “Murphy’s Mart” portion ranged from 80,000 to 100,000 square feet, but the buildings also contained another 30,000 square feet or so to be leased out to a “national or strong regional food chain for supermarket operations”, as the company put it in their 1973 annual report. In the Pittsburgh area, Giant Eagle was the preferred partner, and later on when the Marts entered Baltimore, an Acme Market usually rode shotgun. Other areas featured other chains – the Defiance, Ohio Murphy’s Mart, for example, was paired with an A&P.

Two and a half years after the first Murphy’s Mart opened, there were ten stores in total – eight in the greater Pittsburgh area and two in the Youngstown, Ohio area. In next few years, the pace of new openings would increase and the geographic footprint of the Murphy’s Marts would be significantly expanded. Along with that, however, would come major changes in the Murphy’s Mart format to address the tough mid-70’s American economy and to rectify some faulty assumptions the company made that only became apparent after time. They had finally made their start, though.

In a way, I think it’s a shame they didn’t go with “Big Murph”- that would have been memorable. I can envision a costumed Big Murph standing there, Disney World style, handing out laundry baskets to customers on opening day. Scary, no doubt, but memorable.

The photos above are from 1970. First is an aerial view of the first Murphy’s Mart in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, followed by one of the second location in Harmar Township. The third and fourth photos, showing excited (and a few dazed) shoppers with death grips on their free laundry baskets and a view of the checkouts are from the Bethel Park location. I believe the rest of the photos, showing various departments (note the targets in the sporting goods section, something that’s in evidence in several similar photos from other chains on this site – was archery that big back then?) are from the Harmar Township store.


  1. Murphy's Marts, as far as I know, never made it to Southwest Virginia, but I remember passing the Harmar Township store about twenty-five years ago and wanting to go inside. We were on a church bus trip (and weren't staying overnight), so that wasn't going to happen, but the memory stays with me. It was an impressive store.

    One way I could tell from the pictures that the Harmar Township store was built as a Murphy's was the lighting. Murphy's stores often had these massive, remarkably ugly lighting fixtures, 8' x 8', that I never saw anybody else use until recently, when Lowe's and Sam's Club started doing a variation on them to replace their halide lighting.

    It's very rare to see the original Murphy's lights intact anywhere, even in old Murphy's stores. They were massive energy hogs and their appearance left a lot to be desired.

    More common as the years wore on, and present in the Bethel Park store, were two 2' x 4' lights grouped together to form a 4' x 4' square. With the notable exception of Kmart and Woolco, just about every large store in the '60s and early '70s used this formation at one point or another.

    One thing that happened over time is that the Murphy's Mart decor package worked its way into the variety stores as well. The store at Tanglewood Mall and another in Lake Drive Plaza in Vinton, Va. used to have the exact same signs and two-tone orange walls.

  2. Nothing else to say, just forgot to sign up for the email updates :-)

  3. Thanks so much for sharing the Murphy's Mart story through the wonderful book. "for the Love of Murphy's"
    Growing up in the western suburbs of Pittsburgh, my family was a frequent Murphy's and Murphy's Mart shopper.
    They were great stores, with great prices and super locations. I really miss them today.

  4. I just love all these grand opening pictures from the 1960's. Grand openings were such a huge deal back then.

  5. Steven - The Harmar Park store is one I'd like to have seen in person, for sure. I hadn't really noticed the light fixtures - they are huge! Almost like what you'd see in a well-equipped basement workshop. The Bethel park fixtures are more attractive, and I'm guessing were installed by Mayfair, the original tenant. It makes sense that Murphy would have used the same color scheme in at least some of the regualr variety stores. The signage actually reminds me a bit of the 60's/70's Sears signage that was used for decades in some stores.

    Andy - Glad you've enjoyed it, and as mentioned, the "Love of Murphy's" book is a great read. some of the author's emphases and conclusions are different from mine, but he maintained objectivity despite the heavy participation from ex-Murphy's employees. For those like yourself who grew up with them, it has to be a wonderful trip down memory lane.

    Dan - They really were, and fortunately many of these chains had the good sense to photograph them. Sadly, this is a part of American life that pretty much only exists in memories.

  6. Dan - They really were, and fortunately many of these chains had the good sense to photograph them. Sadly, this is a part of American life that pretty much only exists in memories.

    But that just goes back to the corporatization of everything these days. Corporatization has its good points, providing a decent product with standard quality. In other words, you know what you can expect.

    Corporatization, however, tends to zap the creativity in people. You can see this in any industry from grocery to radio to television to movies. Radio, especially, is one of my pet peeves since it is so robotic and cookie-cutter these days. Go to even some of the suburban neighborhoods of the 1960's before the advent of national builders, the variety of homes was far more interesting.

    From what I've read in the past about many of the great retailers, they were absolute showmen. They were hucksters who know how to promote. I think this whole notion of creating an "event" is lost on the corporate suit who seems to only have the ability these days to crunch numbers.

  7. I agree with Danny, I love the grand opening photos. When do you see people packed to the hilt inside a store like that on opening day anymore?

    Speaking of people, I always wondered if the actual people in these photographs ever come by these photos by chance in an internet search?

  8. I wonder if Murphy's was in cahoots with Wards for anything? I found several small rural malls (about 15 stores) anchored by Murphy's Mart and Wards, mostly in Pennsylvania:

    *Butler Mall, Butler (torn down ca. 2002 for Walmart)
    *Laurel Mall, Connellsville (mall almost entirely vacant; Murphy's was partnered with Shop & Save, now Pechin Super Foods)
    *DuBois Mall, DuBois (still open, expanded with JCPenney and Sears; Murphy's/Ames now Big Lots/Staples, Wards now Ross/Dunham's/Old Navy)
    *Franklin Village Mall, Kittanning. Murphy's was also partnered with Shop & Save; the Murphy's is now a Sears Dealer and Big Lots, and the Wards now a Tractor Supply (I think).

    Also, Raleigh Mall in Beckley, WV was a similar venture which had Stone & Thomas (now Elder-Beerman) as a third anchor. Murphy's became Quality Farm & Fleet (now Gabriel Brothers) and Goody's (vacant), while Wards became Tractor Supply. Strange that the QF&F didn't become a TSC.

  9. That vintage Firestone Tire is still there standing at the Bethel Park site to this day, and not much with it has changed.

    The Murphy's Mart ended up Ames, and like you said, Giant Eagle was the partner supermarket. Ames lasted until the final days at the site. Upon Ames closure, Wal-Mart took it, and they're operating there now.

    Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle have basically a similar arrangement here as Ames did. It must kill Wal-Mart every night. After Murphy's closed, Ames and Giant Eagle split the site differently, Giant Eagle taking a significantly larger portion than they had for the quickly modernizing chain to add the bells-and-whistles an 80's supermarket required.

    That small little building beside what's now the Wal-Mart garden center remains as a branch of PNC Bank.

    The rest of the center may or may not have been demolished. There's a Dollar Tree (I think) and a Pep Boys down from Giant Eagle.

  10. Dan – I agree about the lack of creativity as a whole, but it seems to me to be cost-driven more than anything else. To build the architectural equivalent of the great retail palaces of the late 50’s through the early 70’s (supermarkets, department stores, whatever) would cost multiples of what even nice examples of such facilities cost today.

    And “robotic” and “cookie-cutter” apply to a lot of things, definitely radio, at least the Top 40 version of it – but there hasn’t been much decent on the charts in forever, in my opinion. So they might as well use robots! :)

    Didi – They’re great, and we’ll probably never see their like again. It goes with a more innocent time, when things like this held fascination. For some of us, it still does!

    Who knows if people search this stuff out? I’ve had a couple of folks identify people in the photos, but it’s happened strictly by chance, and no one has “found themselves”, at least that I know of.

    TenPoundHammer – Nothing I’ve read has led me to believe that Wards and Murphy’s worked together. There’s some irony in that both chains were late to their respective games - Murphy’s in their late start with the Marts, and Wards in waiting so long to build modern suburban stores. Sears and Kmart took their places in line.

    And thanks for that update on those MM locations!

    Daniel – Very interesting update on the original Murphy’s Mart location! Thanks very much! This one is so different due to the fact that it was an entire “complex” instead of just a discount store/supermarket combo. Thanks again.

  11. saw the book "For The Love of Murphy's" today at B&N, and remembered visiting your website before so i am back. my mom was hired to work at the Harmar Murphy's Mart when it opened in the Knit 'N Stitch department as she was a great seamstress and made many clothes for herself as well as my 2 sisters and me. we of course shopped there all the time for many years after she left and i have the fondest memories of those days.

    thanks for this great website. you should publish your own books...that would be awesome!

  12. The Bethel Park Murphy Mart I remember very well. It was a 5 minute walk from my house where i grew up. This Store at one point got a Giant eagle to the right of the main entrance. also to the far right was Arcadian Gardens the last building in the picture was actually a greenhouse. Giant Eagle kept expanding as time went on, they expanded in the space between them and Arcadian gardens. Giant Eagle did not go entirely to the back of the building. behind Giant Eagles space at the rear of the building was Muphy,s cafeteria and sewing department and stockroom. later this space was given to Giant eagle for further expansion.The Winky's fast food at the front of the parking lot was torn down around 1980 and rebuilt as a Wendy's. other outparcels built after the picture was taken in 1970 Long john silvers, Poderosa, Pizza Hut. The firestone is still there and looking about the same as day 1.

  13. I was at the grand opening day at Arcadian Gardens in the sixties. I remember the Mayfair store too and wondered if anyone else did. Does anyone know if there were other Mayfair's beside these two? - Tom

  14. From Coral Springs, FloridaFebruary 23, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    Brings back some Great Memories. I Grew up half a mile from this Shopping Center. In the Winter when all the Leaves were gone from the trees I could see this Shopping area from my childhood Home. I used to Go to the Murphy's, Ames, and Giant Eagle shopping, with my Grandmother and Mother.