Wednesday, October 7, 2009

G.C. Murphy - Dime Store Pioneer

From the moment of its founding in 1899 until the curtain came down nearly 90 years later, the G.C Murphy Company was first and foremost one thing – an operator of variety stores. Known colloquially as “five-and-tens” or “dime stores”, variety stores were giant forces in American retailing throughout most of the 20th century. Virtually every retail chain that sells general merchandise at “less than full price”, from one end of the spectrum (Walmart) to the other (any chain with the word “dollar” in its name) can trace part of its heritage, either directly or by influence, to the variety stores.

George Clinton Murphy was a native of Indiana County, Pennsylvania, an area located about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh, known best today as the boyhood home of actor James Stewart. Born there in 1868, Murphy would leave the area as a young man to go to work for J.G. McCrorey (the “e” was soon discarded) in McCrory’s Jamestown, New York variety store, some 150 miles north of Murphy’s hometown. Not long after Murphy joined the firm, McCrory sold Sebastian Spering Kresge, a salesman who had called on his store, an interest in the firm. Murphy was put in charge of mentoring Kresge in the business, traveling with him to Memphis to help Kresge open a new McCrory-Kresge store. Obviously, Murphy did a good job of showing him the ropes, as Kresge would later go on to become one the all-time retailing legends. In early 1899, Murphy left the McCrory-Kresge firm to start up his own store in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a town much closer in to Pittsburgh. (A few short years later, Kresge and McCrory would part ways, running their own namesake firms afterward.)

Within five years, the G.C Murphy Company would have 14 stores in the greater Pittsburgh area, all reporting to the McKeesport home base. Before long, Murphy’s ascendancy came to the attention of the then 76-store strong F.W. Woolworth organization, a company that was expanding rapidly into several major American cities (at that point mostly in the Northeast) through acquisition. In 1911, Woolworth would consolidate those many acquisitions into what would become the modern F.W. Woolworth Company, which, like S.S. Kresge Co. would become a 20th century American retailing titan. In mid-1904, Murphy sold his young chain to Woolworth, who insisted on the proviso that Murphy would not operate a five and ten cents store in their territories.

Note that the agreement said “five and ten cents store.” It did not say “five through twenty-five cents store”, which is exactly what Murphy proceeded to open, just down the block from one of his old stores that was now a Woolworth’s. Soon, Murphy’s new company had ten stores, one in downtown Pittsburgh and the rest in surrounding towns.

Tragically, Murphy would not live to see his company’s greatest successes. In 1909, he passed away suddenly at the age of 41. With no succession plan in place and a failed public offering of the stock, the company floundered for the next couple of years.

At this point, J.G. McCrory reentered the picture, at least briefly. Considering a possible buyout of the Murphy company, McCrory sent his deputy (and cousin) John Sephus “Seph” Mack to look into the possibility. Mack returned with a most enthusiastic recommendation in favor of a buyout. When McCrory balked for no apparent good reason, Mack began to formulate plans to acquire Murphy himself, enlisting the help of friend and fellow McCrory manager Walter Shaw. Of course, this would entail their resignations from McCrory, which took place in short order. In February 1911, the two men closed the deal to acquire the G.C. Murphy Company, and for the next nearly 60 years, either a Mack or a Shaw would be running the show.

Mack and Shaw had "complementary" personalities, with Mack called “the architect” and Shaw “the engineer”, according to the book “For the Love of Murphy’s”, a wonderful history of G. C. Murphy written by Jason Togyer, that serves as the source of most of the information in these Murphy posts. Mack’s hard driving personality and Shaw’s people skills made for a powerful combination that would help facilitate dramatic growth for Murphy in the ensuing years.

Murphy pursued some interesting policies that set them apart from their dime store compaƱeros, including the implementation of a much higher “price ceiling” in many of its stores, both literally and figuratively. As far back as the early twenties, many Murphy stores had a second floor which featured all manner of goods priced from 25 cents to a dollar, while down below the normal 5-to-10 cent price point was the rule. After some years of back-and-forth on this policy, the company was finally convinced it was a winner with customers and made it permanent, going so far as to move everything down to the main floor. By contrast, Woolworth’s price cap remained at twenty cents until 1935.

Another point that found Murphy at odds with the competition was the company’s store location strategy. Whereas Woolworth sought to establish coverage in such major markets as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, Murphy expanded their geographic base far more slowly, avoiding the “jump and backfill” approach, preferring instead to shore up their base in the industrial towns of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, long before the “rust belt” was rusty. Despite the intervention of a major depression and then a world war, these towns came through for Murphy year after year. By the mid-30’s, with nearly 200 stores in the chain, Murphy’s average per store sales and profits were far higher than Woolworth’s.

The 1940’s saw several leadership transitions within the company. Seph Mack passed away in 1940, and the chairmanship passed to his cousin Edgar Mack. Upon his death six years later, the top job went to Walter Shaw, Seph Mack’s original partner in the business. Despite these transitions, Murphy’s continued to grow, with the average store size increasing significantly through the 40’s.

In 1951, G.C. Murphy acquired the Morris 5 & 10 Cent Stores, a Bluffton, Indiana-based chain of 71 variety stores. This proved to be an excellent move for Murphy, giving them a leadership position right out of the box in Indiana, a state that adjoined their existing market area. It was timely as well, as it provided a hedge against some major labor strikes that occurred around this time near their highly manufacturing and mining-based home turf. If there was a downside to Murphy’s store location strategy, it was a particular vulnerability to strikes, which of course affected the purchasing power of their loyal, largely working-class customer base.

Another leadership change took place in 1953, when the second generation took over. Jim Mack, son of Seph Mack, had his father’s hard driving style combined with a Harvard education, but according to the Togyer book had a presence that a number of Murphy employees found intimidating. Also Mack’s philosophy was very conservative in respects that would take their toll on Murphy over time. For example, Murphy was exceedingly slow to convert to self-service. Many of their fellow variety chains (along with most major supermarkets) had already done this, and the practice was met with overwhelming acceptance from consumers. Secondly, Mack was utterly disdainful of discounting, even banning the use of the word in Murphy’s stores. In the early 50’s this wasn’t a big problem. Ten years later, with Mack still in place, resolute and attitude unchanged, it certainly became one, given the 1960’s startlingly different retail climate.

In contrast, Mack spearheaded an interesting development for Murphy – the acquisition of several chains in the Southwest, far outside of the company’s traditional operating areas. The largest was the 1959 buyout of Morgan & Lindsey, a Monroe, Louisiana based chain of 92 variety stores in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Then there were a slew of “junior department store” (along the lines of a medium-sized Penney’s, for lack of a better description) acquisitions in Texas over the next several years - Cobb’s - four stores in west Texas, Bruner’s - 28 stores in San Antonio, Morris Dept. Stores – 13 stores in Dallas, and Terry Farris, with 17 stores in McAllen, Texas, just above the Mexican border.

The latter acquisitions proved to be disastrous, due to Murphy’s lack of understanding of the nuances of the shopping culture in Texas cities, and the very different requirements of operating junior department stores as opposed to variety stores. (Wait, did I just say “nuances” and “Texas” in the same sentence? Ok, we’ll call this one a “draft”. No offense, fellow Texans!) Worse yet, many name brands that had been longtime suppliers of these chains, including such mainstays as Levi Strauss, bailed when they learned of the new ownership by Murphy. They feared that their products would somehow end up in the Murphy dime stores, as Togyer mentions in his book. Murphy elected to supply its own house brands to the stores as a replacement, including their “Big Murph” jeans (I’m really hoping there wasn’t a “Lady Murph” brand, but it takes a lot to surprise me these days!). This practice “more or less ruined (the stores)”, a former executive told Togyer.

The Morgan & Lindsey stores, being true 5-and-10’s, fared better, but there was a fair amount of animosity between longtime M & L local store operators and the McKeesport-based Murphy brass that took some years to quell. Wisely, Murphy opted to keep the Morgan & Lindsey name, probably based on their experience with the smattering of G.C. Murphy stores opened in the Southeastern states, where the company’s poor name recognition put a damper on sales.

By the late 50’s, the standard G.C. Murphy stores were well-oiled machines. Downtown stores in their core Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic markets continued to sustain the company. As with other “five and ten” chains, the store cafeterias, without a doubt among the most beloved aspects of the Murphy stores and the subject of some of the fondest anecdotes in the Togyer book, were a major source of profits and an all-important traffic driver for the stores.

This was especially true in the company’s “flagship” stores, a class that included gigantic G.C. Murphy stores on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh (“Store #12”, pictured first above) and Washington, D.C. (“Store #166", located at between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets). The Pittsburgh store, for example, took up an entire block, and was remodeled at least ten times between 1931 and 1950 according to the Togyer book. In the 1960’s, this store was the site of a number of exciting promotions, including live in-store broadcasts by local DJ’s. Also, they leased space to a “full-time” fortune teller and all manner of other sideshows. Murphy even leased out one corner of the store a meat market. By virtue of their great locations in bustling sections of town and their well-earned “ local landmark” status, these stores were excellent performers for the chain well into the 1980’s, years after the company’s other stores began to struggle.

By the early 1960’s, however, it was another story for the rank-and-file small town and suburban G.C. Murphy stores. The discounting trend was in full swing, and the greatest pinch was being felt from their direct competitors – F.W. Woolworth’s Woolco stores, and to a much greater extent, S.S. Kresge’s Kmarts. Sensing an opening wide enough to drive a (hundred-thousand square foot discount store) through, Kresge invaded Murphy’s backyard and “erected Kmarts at all four compass points around Pittsburgh”, as Togyer puts it. Did Murphy defend their turf by opening large discount stores of its own? No. Not yet, at least.

Instead, Murphy sought to redefine the variety store concept, modernizing it to fit the changing lifestyle of the 1960’s consumer. The new stores would be called “A-A” (double-a) stores, featuring upgraded lighting and signage and bolder color schemes, but most importantly would employ a radically different approach to merchandising. Departments would be reorganized into “themed groups” to create a “boutique store” feeling, as described in the Togyer book, which describes a typical department – the “Entertainment Center”, as including “not just records, radios and television sets, but books, magazines craft supplies, musical instruments, and cameras”. The A-A stores would be larger but would actually carry fewer items than the typical Murphy store, and managers were required to ax items that fell below a certain sales threshold. Also, the A-A stores would be allowed to sell at deeper discounts than the standard Murphy stores. The bold new plan caught the attention of Chain Store Age, whose December 1967 issue consisted almost entirely of Murphy coverage. The magazine’s cover photo featured Murphy’s top executives huddled around a set of A-A store concept drawings, a banner headline excitedly proclaiming “G.C. Murphy’s On the Move Again!”

By the time Murphy had converted 10 percent of its 500-plus stores to the A-A format, they realized they had a bomb on their hands. Customers resented the fact that prices were higher at regular Murphy units than at the A-A stores, causing a public relations headache. More than that, they resented the fact that their beloved Murphy store carried far “less variety” than before. Even though the A-A stores carried more stock, they had fewer individual items (in today’s retail terminology, fewer stock keeping units or “SKU’s”). Beyond this, the A-A program offered little in the way of a panacea for the hammering the company was taking at the hands of the discounters.

Sadly, it took the 1968 death of Jim Mack, Murphy’s chairman, before the company embarked on a real solution to that problem. Unbeknownst to Mack or almost anyone else in the company, plans were surreptitiously being drawn up for a Murphy-owned discount concept. The very day after Mack’s passing, according to the Togyer book, the discount store plans came out of the drawer. The battle was about to be joined.

These are vintage G.C. Murphy publicity shots. First up is Store #12, the downtown Pittsburgh flagship, circa Christmastime 1973. Originally opened in 1930, the store was wrapped in the pictured “handsome streamlined faƧade” sometime in the late 40’s/early 50’s. The second photo, from 1968, shows the Annandale, Virginia store with an arcade-style facade that brings to mind some of the Memco stores that would open not far from there a few years later. Third, also from 1968, is a more conventional store from Beckley, West Virginia. Fourth, from 1973, a beautiful store with a fine colonial look from the quaint western Pennsylvania borough of Ligonier. Fifth, 1973 as well, is the interior entrance of the Monroeville, Pennsylvania store, a very inviting sight indeed. With fresh popcorn and pretzels beckoning, this one would have been hard to pass by. For sure, they knew what they were doing!

Pictured below, in 1968-dated photos, are two interior scenes from Murphy’s new “A-A” stores. The A-A concept may not have flown, but in my opinion, the designs represent a very nice updating of the variety store idea, and I particularly like the abovementioned lighting, bolder colors and modern (for the time) signage font. Immediately below is the wonderful candy department, scales at the ready.

Last is the “Entertainment Center” section, where I would have been guaranteed to waste a great deal of time. Portable record players were obviously a hot item (Sure hope the 45 adapters were built in!), and the white-framed portable television sets bring back memories. These rarely had remote control units, and I don’t believe that my family owned a TV with remote control until I was at least in high school. The silver lining to this was it gave people like me a great “hardship story” to use in the future – the modern-day version of Grandma and Grandpa’s “trudging through the snow for five miles to school every day, in worn-out shoes, uphill both ways” kind of thing. For me, it’s “Whenever we wanted to change the channel, we had to actually get up and go do it! It was horrible! You guys don’t know how lucky you are!” My kids shudder.

Then of course there was the records section, the main attraction for me from about age seven on. I’ve spent a good bit of time squinting at this photo trying to identify the album covers. (My personal area of expertise is covers of the 1970’s and 80’s, but I’m reasonably competent with the few years before and after that range. It’s too bad I couldn’t have minored in this in college – my GPA would have been greatly enhanced!) I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only been to call one so far, but it’s a great one – the 1968 blockbuster “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison”, fourth album from the far left on the top row. I’ve been a Cash fan for years - he was an artist who refused to ever let himself be bracketed. And much of his best work was done in the last ten years of his career, an enviable feat. If anyone can squint harder than me, let me know if you figure any of the other covers out!

35 comments:

  1. Yes, Murphy's had a strong presence in West Virginia, and the small towns of the coal fields were no exception. Towns which were, in addition to coal-producing towns, business centers for the surrounding area always had a G.C. Murphy. In addition to the Beckley store shown, there were stores in Princeton, Welch, Northfork, War, and Wiliamson. While the Beckley store looks to be purpose-built for Murphy's, the rest of the stores were in existing buildings. The Northfork store, for example, encompassed three bays of different adjacent commercial buildings which had apartments above. Archways were opened between the three bays. They did not all offer food service, but the smell of popcorn was in the air, and oiled wood floors was the norm. The only shopping center location was at Blue-Prince Plaza in Green Valley, WV, which is midway between Bluefield and Princeton. This opened after the Bluefield Woolworth closed, and was - oddly enough - located immediately adjacent to a Hills Discount Center. The Murphy store did not last but about three years in that location, and while it was new, it lacked the creaky charm of the old Main Street stores.

    These stores thrived until well up into the 80's, and their only other competition was the local company store which, in many cases, had turned into chains on their own and had moved away from the script-taking versions of the past. These chains included Pocahuntas Fuel Stores and Island Creek Stores.

    The interesting exception is that there was not a Murphy's in the largest city in the area: Bluefield, WV. Kresge and Woolworth operated there, which explains Murphy's absence.

    Three-hundred miles north in Cumberland, Maryland sported a G.C. Murphy on their main street as late as 2000...and it still may be there for all I know. Upon going inside, it seems that it was a part of the last holdout of variety stores that were under the McCrory umbrella, but managed to keep its own name. Are there more of those scattered through the MD/PA area?

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  2. Somewhere in my photo collection are images of Murphy's employees in Marion Ohio dressed up in "costume" for a "Pioneer Days" sales promotion. I'll need to dig that out and send you a copy.

    Btw the way, the old Murphy's in Marion Ohio was heavilt remodelled into the Marion County Government Center in the 1990s.

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  3. Murphy's oddly opened only one store in Cleveland, in Kamm's Plaza, an early 60s's strip on the edge of Cleveland proper, on the west side. Perhaps, this was because Woolworth had saturated the city and suburbs, despite an early retreat, Kresge had a large presence. Still, avoiding Cleveland altoghether would have made more sense--I wonder if they had had expansion plans that were never fulfilled. I don't beleive they had any stores in Toledo, although this wouldn't have been far from their Indiana base and that city didn't have many variety stores outside of downtown. In contrast, they had quite a few stores in Cincinnati and to a lesser extent, in Columbus.

    Having a discount store and a variety store in the same plaza was not unusual in the early to mid 60s and these set-ups often did just fine where a shopping center had a large trading area.

    The beckley store looks like a carbon copy of the one on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC near Newark Ave. I think it lasted until the bitter end under McCrory management. Giant supermarkets , which has vitage mid-50s store adjacent to it bought the building for anexpansion that became terminally snarled in neighborhood politics. A new Giant is planned, but still faces a court challenge.

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  4. GC Murphy was a 2-level mall anchor at the Eastland Center in West Covina, California. The store closed in the late 70's and was gutted to become mall space. The upper level became mall stores in the mall proper, while the lower level remained vacant for years, before Office Depot moved in during the mid 80's (its still there today). A Mervyns anchor was added to the west of the old store. You can see in the OD where the stairs/escalator was. When the mall closed in the early 90's, the upper level of the GC Murphy became subdivided with a Levitz and Babies R Us. Inside the Babies R Us you can see the original walls of the anchor.

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  5. In how many ways can one express how great these pictures look? My favorites are the last two pre-text. Very classy!

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  6. Small world. A friend of mine used to post to Jason Togyer's blog, and after I followed the links and started reading, I started posting too. We became causal acquaintances and I followed the progress of the Murphy book's production. He's a great writer and the book is first-rate.

    Your synopsis pretty much captures the essence of the Morphy's story. The pictures seal the deal though. Although Jason talked at length about the A-A program in "For the love of Murphy's," we never saw pictures of what the stores looked like. For their era, they were something else! It was a lot fancier than what Woolworth and Krresge were up to.

    @jimbobga: The mention of Bluefield got me wondering about the area's retail history. As the region's largest city, I'm sure downtown Bluefield was home to a number of retailers, but a drive through the area doesn't give much of a clue about what was there. Can you enlighten?

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  7. I have fonder memories of Murphy than Woolworths. The candy counter brings back memories of the old Eastgate Center/Mall store in Chattanooga while the Entertainment Center evokes the newer location in Northgate Mall(1971). The Eastgate store had the traditional lunch counter, while Northgate had a restaurant. The Eastgate Woolworth's always seemed tackier and dowdier than either Murphy store, feeling like a store long past its glory.

    Dalton had McCory, originally downtown, and in Dalton's first post war shopping center, Bry-Man's Plaza. The McCrory was long since closed, a late 70's remodel of the center turned the store into enclosed mall corridor with the lunch counter still in use as part of a local restaurant.

    Kresge and Woolworth's didn't have a major presence in my "neck of the woods", less saturation, but still well known names. Kress was already disappearing from downtowns by my youth, my only memories being the iconic downtown building left behind. Regional operators P.F. Rose and Lays(Cleveland, TN) filled the smaller towns, leaving Kresge, Woolworth's and Murphy as "big city" 5&10's, meaning they were in Atlanta, Huntsville, Chattanooga, Birmingham, etc.

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  8. Nice picture of the Beckley, WV store! I wonder where in the city it was?

    In the 1970s, Murphy's Mart opened as one of the anchors in Beckley's Raleigh Mall. The mall's still there today; although Murphy's was closed and subdivided long ago and the entire place is empty to the point of depression.

    I concur on Murphy's strength in West Virginia: They had a presence in some communities that barely afforded a retail presence at all. Another 1970s Murphy's store (presumably a Mart) was located in Hinton, paired with a Kroger superstore.

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  9. Murphy's signs were often yellow, but there were almost as many red examples. I wonder why they didn't stay consistent with one color.

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  10. Hi, Dave...I am enjoying your blog posts, as usual. But I have to ask: Are you done with your "White Album" phase? C'mon, it's such a joy! LOL

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  11. Jimbobga – Thanks for that great information on Murphy’s in WV. For sure, it was one of their best market areas. The practice of opening new retail stores on the first floor of older buildings with apartments above, like the Northfork location and others you mention, was extremely common, and many large chains – variety stores, grocers, you name it , did this in the first half of the 20th century.

    I’d never really thought of “company stores”, such as those owned by coal mines or mills and issued their own scrip currency as competition for the variety stores, but they certainly must have been. Excellent point!

    That is interesting that Murphy’s wasn’t in Bluefield –never would have guessed that. Regarding McCrory’s, I believe they have all been closed for some years now.

    Askthecoolcookie – I’d love to see that photo – thanks! And it’s amazing the types of reuse some of these stores have seen.

    Anonymous – A single store in any market is always a strange thing, and usually never profitable. One of the biggest examples of this was another Murphy store – this one in Apache Plaza near St. Paul that the Murphy’s book mentions – it was a 100,000 square foot monster and was their first “mall anchor” store, but it was so far from any of their other stores that advertising and distribution costs were astronomical. I’d have to think they had plans for Cleveland that never came to fruition.

    It’s interesting how Giant-Landover still has a few of their ancient classic stores standing!

    Jeff – Great to hear from you, but I think the Eastland Center store you refer to was actually a W.T. Grant location. Murphy’s never made it to California to my knowledge.

    Didi – Those two are my favorites as well!

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  12. Steven – I don’t know Jason, but he’s written a really entertaining and interesting book and definitely one of the best I’ve ever seen on a retail subject. It’s been extremely helpful to me in putting together these posts. When writing, I usually prefer to incorporate as many primary sources as I can, in my case newspaper and magazine articles from the time of the actual events, and a series of 5-10 posts for this site can easily contain material from 30 or more articles. The problem in Murphy’s case is not that much was written about them outside of the Pittsburgh papers, whose archives I don’t have access to (I do subscribe to “Newspaper Archive” which has a few papers from Pittsburgh area suburbs that have been helpful). While there have been scads of in-depth articles through the decades about Kresge, Woolworth, Grants, etc., Murphy usually only turns up with two or three lines in old articles about earnings releases or is mentioned as “part of the pack” in articles dealing with the state of the variety store industry. I have found a bit more starting with the Murphy’s Mart era, and as things wound down to the Ames takeover, the coverage vastly increased.

    A truly outstanding aspect of his book is the amount of information he was able to gain through interviews with former Murphy employees, both from front line employees (which included his two grandmothers, I believe) up through several executives, and several reminiscences from loyal Murphy shoppers. Really great stuff!

    I agree, the A-A stores were very sharp indeed. The great photo that shows the interior entrance to the Monroeville, PA shows what looks like an A-A interior package, yet with an older signage style, which leads me to wonder if they dialed back the A-A decor just a little when they scrapped the program – going back to Murphy’s traditional stocking patterns and department names while leaving the still fairly new color scheme in place.

    And the yellow signage is the only color I remember from personal experience – kind of set it apart from Kresge and Woolworth red. The sign color decision may have been based simply on trying to use what stood out against the background color of the individual store.

    Ken – I’ll bet Eastgate was really nice back in the day. I first saw it around 1988 when it had already been through several changes. I’ll have to ask my grandmother in Atlanta about that McCrory location. She lived in Calhoun until the mid-60’s but had family and friends in Dalton.

    Andrew – I wish I knew the address – maybe someone can chime in with it one of these days. It was a great looking storefront of a style that I would never associate with a “five and ten”. A Murphy’s Mart/Kroger superstore is a combination I’d love to have seen! They typically liked to pair up with supermarkets.

    Kim – C’mon, C’mon, C’mon! (hahaha) No, I’m not done with it yet! It’s funny, When I first got my own copy of the White Album (for Christmas, in high school I think) I could never stand that song, but through the years its grown on me to the point that it’s now one of my very favorites. I even love that insane cow bell! I had a thought about using it as a post title about Montgomery Ward (a series that I hope to finally finish up soon, btw), calling it “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’s”, but it’s way too long to fit on one line! :)

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  13. Dave, that would be hilarious if you could somehow use that lyric for Monkey Wards. =] I feel the same way about the song--it has grown on me, as the entire White Album. (Except for Revolution #9--the only Beatles song I despise.)

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  14. I see two copies of the Archies' album, over on the right (look for the cartoon cover).

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  15. NO one can ever forget all of the famous G.C. Murphy's promotions such as Old Fashioned Bargain Days, Friday the 13th, Asst Mgrs, and others.
    Murphy's was a cool variety/department store where someone with not a lot of money could live a quality life purchasing great quality work clothing products as Big Murph, their own line of paints, lawn mowers, and so much more. A lot of people who grew up with them sure miss them today.

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  16. Andrew: thanks for reminding me about the Murphy's in Hinton. I left that one out of the list. I guess that's because I grew up in the Bluefield trade area, and Hinton tended to look more toward Beckley for "big time shopping." The original Murphy's was in downtown Hinton, as was Kroger. The Murphy's Mart next door couldn't have been a very large store since the shopping center is still there, but there were small-ish Murphy Mart stores. I remember seeing the remnants of one on US 60 in East Rainelle, WV...or one of those towns along that road.

    Additionally, I left the Murphy's in Mullens, WV, out of the list, and that's odd because it was different than most. Downtown Mullens was more of a retail cluster than a stretch of stores lined up along a Main Street. In the center of a block was Murphy's, with Kroger holding court on the corner, complete with the blue and white "pinched-off" sign on the corner. Go around the corner, and you came to Murphy's again. The store was built in a L-shape, and surrounded the Kroger. The Kress in downtown Orlando, FL, did the same thing, but that's a different story.

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  17. Dave: it's interesting to compare stores occupying the bottom floor of an apartment building to the stores in today's lifestyle centers which "seem" to be operating stores on the ground floor of an apartment building. While nobody lives upstairs in most of these centers, that nostalgic feeling is at least addressed.

    As for company stores...if you ever have the opportunity to look through photo books of the coalfields, you'll see pictures of company stores of every type imagineable. Some of them were nothing but hastily built shacks; others were larger wooden buildings that served only one purpose, and that was to give the miners a place to buy food...whether it was with cash or with scrip. A few were almost grand palaces of mercantilism, and strove to instill a sense of pride in the community. It all depended on the outlook of the company that owned the town. Pocahontas Fuel, for one, built imposing stores, and they were scattered throughout the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

    I read somewhere that US 52 in southern WV was at one point the "longest stretch of continual habitation in the United States," and while that may be pushing it a bit, one could travel 50 miles and always be in a town of some sort; these were usually "coal camps," but every seven or eight miles along the road would be an actual city of 3000 people who did not all work in the mines, but provided services to all of the people in the area. [My family lived in the coalfields from 1912 - 1997, and not one of them ever set foot in a coal mine.] As smaller coal companies just packed their bags and closed up shop when the coal ran out, the smaller company stores closed along with them because there simply was no town left. By the mid-fifties, the company stores were more like the retail division of the larger coal companies who had mines in several towns throughout the area, and there stores evolved from the stereotyped company store to small-town department stores that just happened to sell groceries. There were even mergers and buy-outs in the ranks. In Keystone, WV, for example, the company store occupied both sides of Main Street. Built out of that cool cobalt structural glass, the department store was on the south side of the street; across the street was a large gas station, service center, and restaurant. In 1950, the store was called "Koppers," which was bought out by "General Stores," and by 1965 had become "Island Creek Stores." In a sense, they were no longer company stores at all...and scrip went out the window in about 1955.

    By no means were these places considered discount stores, and that's probably because early company stores didn't try to save their customers any money at all since a] they owned the customer and b] they were the only game in town, for the most part.

    If you ever get the chance, stop by Tamarack on the WV Turnpike in Beckley [or Princeton] and spend the whole day in the book department. From the "Images of America" series to locally-published books about the area, you'll be totally amazed at an area that "used to be."

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  18. Steven: You'll probably wish you hadn't asked about the retail history of Bluefield...but here goes:

    Bluefield was not a coal-mining town, but was the economic center of the southern WV coalfields for decades. Consequently, this city - whose population was never more than 25,000 - had a downtown area the city of towns three times that size. Even looking at what's left today gives you a sense of the importance of Bluefield.

    There were two commercial areas in the city. Stretching west along the railroad were three- and four- story building lined up like soldiers along Bluefield and Princeton Avenues. These were mostly companies which catered to mining businesses, but A&P and Acme both had stores in this area until the last 50's.

    The more moderate - and even upscale - shopping was clustered around the railroad station along Princeton Avenue and Federal Street. Oddly, the city had an abundance of department stores, but not as many mom-and-pop specialty stores. I'll briefly describe the retail scene from 1955 along Federal Street.

    At the right at the top of the hill where Bland and Federal Street meet was large 4-story department store called Hawley's. The store is still there, and the name is just under the cornice. Proceeding down the hill toward the railroad on the right side of the street:
    H&M shoes...had six stores in southern WV at one time.
    Piece Goods Shop [small chain]
    Pinnacle Restaurant, a deli, the West Virginian Hotel, Thornton's Department store, and Al Land Jewelers.
    On the left side of Federal street just past Bland was the Bluefield Sanitarium, then a large JC Penney store built in the early 50's. Cohen Drugs, which became Rite-Aid; Steckler's Men's Shop, a skinny six-story Montgomery Ward, a huge SS Kresge [there is a park on that spot now]. In the next block, Leggett's, and then AW Cox Company.

    Woolworth's was on Princeton Avenue, front the railroad tracks, as was another A&P. Because this area was somewhat less desirable due to particular ladies which made their livings catering to the needs of rail workers and lone male travelers, Woolworth's had a Federal Street entrance which consisted of a Woolworth sign and an arrow which led you to a back door because "proper ladies weren't seen on Princeton Avenue." Woolworth's closed by 1962.

    At one point, Leggett had two stores operating at the same time. They took over the Hawley's store and named it "Leggett's on the Hill." It lasted three or four years, and I'm not sure what the distinction between the two stores actually was.

    At one point, Kresge operated a "green front" store in Bluefield. Apparently, a green-front store offered lower-priced merchandise.

    As the coal fields began dying, so did Bluefield, and the death knell to downtown retail came with the opening of Mercer Mall about five miles east of town. Penney's, Leggett, and Thornton's all moved there. Within a year, downtown Bluefield was a ghost town.

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  19. There was also a two story C.G. Murphy's in Upper Arlington, Ohio that anchored Lane Avenue Shopping Center (later Lanes Avenue Mall, now back to being a strip center called The Shops on Lane Avenue) in its first itteration. The building was to the immediate east of the main strip center, seperated by Wellesley Alley. The building was later the central Ohio flagship store for MicroCenter and their now defunct Perscom (personal computers) division. The building is still standing and is a Whole Foods market now. I would LOVE to find a picture of that store because everyone in Arlington remembers it, but no one knows of any pictures.

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  20. Ken...I've always thought Bry-Man's Plaza [Dalton, GA] was dumb-sounding name for a shopping center; it kind of reminds me of a developer who names the streets in the subdivision after his children. Wasn't there a store there by the name of Bry-Man's, however? Also, you mentioned GC Murphy being in Atlanta. You may know more about this than I do, and you could be right...but once you got out of the Appalachians, Murphy's seemed to be out of place and kind of an oddity. There were some Murphy stores in Florida, but even Orlando only had one of them, and Tampa didn't have any. I'm wondering if that wasn't part of the Murphy/Woolworth gentlemen's agreement. At any rate, Atlanta was such a Woolworth and WT Grant town - with a couple of Kress stores thrown in for good measure - that I would be surprised if Murphy's was ever there. It would be interesting to find out.

    Andrew: the Murphy store in Beckley would be located downtown, but I'm not sure of the street. Books that I have about Beckley show many older pictures of downtown, and while there are several pictures of Grants, no Murphy stores ever clearly show up. There is one picture that shows a variety store at the end of a street, but while the red and gold sign is visible, you can't make out which chain it is. The size of the store looks to be the same as the Beckley Murphy in the picture, so my bet is this: Murphy's was originally located downtown in a two-store retail/apartment building, then burned, and in its place Murphy's built a new store. That's how a 50's Penney's was found in downtown Bluefield, so that's a logical explanation.

    To stray a little for the Murphy topic...there never was a Murphy's in Savannah, GA, but in the 21 years that I lived there, many people talking fondly of a chain of variety stores called "Silver's." I know nothing about them. Any clues?

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  21. JimBobGa: Thank you for the history lesson. I had family in Bluefield and Northfork, but they never really mentioned much about what the retail scene was like.

    Of the names mentioned, I remember Leggett, JCPenney, Piece Goods Shop and H&M Shoes in their more contemporary iterations. Piece Goods became a rather large regional chain before petering out in the 1990s, and H&M Shoes expanded into Blacksburg and Martinsville, Virginia by the 1970s. The old Martinsville H&M still has an intact 1950s era storefront, in fact.

    In any event, this fills in some major gaps in my retail knowledge, and I appreciate your recollections.

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  22. Being from McKeesport Pa i had no shortage of friends and relatives who worked for Murphy's. Whether the "Home Office", store or warehouse. The AA store in downtown McKeeesport had 2 floors for retail, the street level and basement. It was almost a minature "mart". Can't think of anything they didn't sell. On the upper floor there was a good size cafeteria and a dining room, along with the lunch counter actually in the store. What memories.

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  23. Dave, Eastgate was the second largest shopping center in the southeast when it was built, after Lennox Square in Atlanta. I'm sure Florida and Washington-Baltimore were excluded from this comparison. The Penney's had the 1960s logo until its 1984 remodel and Miller Bros and Loveman's filled the anchor list with Woolworth's, Winn-Dixie, Eckerd, GC Murphy and Eastgate Theater as the junior anchors. The Winn-Dixie became Revco the mall was enclosed and WD exited Chattanooga for the first time in 1975.

    jimbobga-Bry-Man's Plaza was named for the two developers, Wallace Bryant and I believe Manis for the second, he was out the development business after building the center. I was anchored by J.C. Penney Co., a Sears catalogue store, Colonial Stores, Winn-Dixie, Dunaway Drugs, and McCrory. A free standing Kuhn's Big K was located across Hamilton Street via the arcade of the center and a street level crosswalk. Kay's Kastle ice cream, Thom McAn, Three Sisters, Singer Sewing Machine among others. In 1979 an addition, BryMan's Plaza South opened with a new Winn-Dixie(now Office Depot), Dunaway(Eckerd until is sale to Jean Coutu, now empty), Duff's Smorgasbord(subdivided into Dollar General and a Chinese restaurant)and Baskin-Robbins(closed). There was never a Bry-Man's store and the full name was Bry-Man's 7 City Plaza, reflecting its regional position in northwest Georgia, referring to Dalton, Calhoun, LaFayette, Summerville, Chatsworth, Ringgold and Ellijay.

    As to Atlanta itself, I don't recall any Murphy's. McCrory was at Northlake, the only 1970's build mall in the ATL to have a 5&10. Grant's was in Cobb Center.
    Woolworth's Grant's, and Kresge were the three dominant 5&10's. Atlanta was an early Kmart stronghold far more so than Kresge, and Woolco and Grant City were few in number.

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  24. Thanks, Ken, for clearing up the Bry-Man's history for me. There was an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sometime back regard Dalton, and this center was mentioned, as was the reason for its name, but I had forgotten the fine print.

    It's odd how that now those many of those seven cities named now look elsewhere for shopping. Those in Ellijay find it much easier to head south to Kennesaw than to Dalton, while those needing 'big town shopping' will head to Rome rather than Dalton.

    I know that Kress had at least two stores in Atlanta: downtown near Five Points, and a store on Peachtree Street just south of
    10th Street on the west side of the street. I'm not aware of any other Kress stores in town, however...and I know of no Kresge's in Atlanta. If Mr. Kress and Mr. Kresge had a genrtleman's agreement to stay out of each other's territory, where were the Kresge stores? Not questioning your knowledge about this, but maybe Atlanta was spread out enough that Kresge and Kress sort of co-existed in some markets where the suburban towns were cities in their own right and competition wasn't a problem.... Atlanta, Marietta, and Decatur, for example.

    I'm wondering if there ever were any Murphy stores in Georgia at all. The only one I remember seeing in the 60's was in Pine Hills Shopping Center in Orlando, Florida, but there were probably others somewhere between there in Alanta.

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  25. Here's a link to a website devoted to G.C. Murphy:
    http://www.gcmurphy.org/

    It only gives Rome, Tifton and Moultrie as having a Murphy. I don't recall Murphy in Rome, only Lay's at Riverbend Mall and both Kress and Kresge donwtown. As for Moultrie and Tifton, I can't say.

    Kresge was on the lower level, known as Plaza Level of Lenox Square, near Colonial. Exactly when it closed I'm not sure as the Plaza Level was razed in 1979 for the Food Court, next to Davison's/Macy's/Bloomingdales.

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    Replies
    1. There was a Murphy's and a McCrory's in Tifton,GA. Both were downtown on Main St. Murphy's on the NW corner of Main and 3rd and McCrory's in the 500 block of Main St. near the theatre. Murphy's had the better selection and a bigger and brighter store.

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  26. Oh wow I just saw this today and wanted to comment that I have vague memories of "Murphy's" from the mid to late 70's in Elkins WV. My grandma lived there and she would take me when I was a kid, when I would visit her from DE. I can't remember if it was located in downtown Elkins or on a highway strip, and I'm not sure but I think they had a restaurant. I remember eating a burger and some nice thick fries with lots of ketchup. I wish I could remember more.

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  27. to jimbobga...
    i am from princeton wv, looking for pictures of the gc murphy store from there. a place i walked to every saturday with my grandmother. along with my brother and 2 cousins we would walk downtown and always visit murphys for a toy or a fish or a helium baloon.

    i also wanted to ask you about keystone. my great grandfather had keystone furniture and hardware and my great grandmother was the postmaster for a period. i am not sure of the dates, but he died in the early 60's. she stayed there until the early 90s. they were anna maude and raymond monroe goade. i have been looking for info and especially pictures of downtown keystone and related people. do you have any more info?

    thanks in advance

    schon st. clair

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  28. Great memories. I worked at Murphys from 1957 until 1968. The store at Fountain Square in Indianapolis was my favorite.

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  29. Here's a few more of the albums.

    Three to the right of Johnny Cash is a self-titled duet album by Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell.

    To the left of the Archies in the top row is Steppenwolf The Second.

    There are two copies of the Doors' Waiting For The Sun, to the left of and also below Steppenwolf.

    Three to the left of the Doors in the top row is the Bee Gees' Idea.

    The album below the Archies looks like it might be the Box Tops' Non-Stop. RIP Alex.

    What's on the endcap to the right of the albums? Books? Magazines?

    BTW in 1968 I was spending my allowance on 45s at the Murphys in Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL.

    Thanks for writing these blogs. They bring back a lot of memories.

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  30. Oops, my mistake in the previous message. It's the first Steppenwolf album. Would you please correct that? Thanks.

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  31. ONe of the G.C.Murphy's in my area was responsible (via an employee) for the destruction of nearly all of the mall stores (excluding the anchor stores) of my local mall in 1994.
    The Murphy's in question: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hello_gina/3016708635/

    More about the fire:
    http://www.interfire.org/res_file/pdf/Tr-085.pdf

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  32. Loved this site, thanks for bringing back memories. I am a former employee of the 'home office' in McKeesport and have not heard these names for many years. WOW...interesting background info. also.

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  33. My father Gene Stalnaker was one of the most
    successful Store Mangers for 35 years
    He started working at Murphy's in WV when he was a kid. He opened stores and would run them a few
    years and then we moved to the next one.
    I have pictures of Murphy's and store meetings
    even a actual paper stock.
    My dad gave his life to that company, 70 hours
    a week all his life.He passed away 1986
    My mother and dad moved 28 times.
    His last store was
    Huntsvile Al Murphy's Mart Madison Square Mall.

    Randy Stalnaker

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  34. does anyone have a picture of murphy's in pine hills fl in the pine hills shopping center thanks jerry

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