Thursday, October 1, 2009

Winter Sunset On Murphy's Mart

The sun sets on the Appalachian Mountains on a crisp, beautiful evening in early 1971. In the foreground is the Murphy’s Mart (yes, there’s an apostrophe-s in there, mind you) at Laurel Mall, which was located on Route 119 South between Uniontown and Connellsville, Pennsylvania. This store was the third Murphy’s Mart, opening on February 24th of that year.

“Murphy” of course was the G.C. Murphy Company, “The Pride of McKeesport, (Pittsburgh area) Pennsylvania” – a well-loved variety store chain with over 500 locations at the time, predominantly in the Eastern and Midwest states, but with a sizable base in the South as well, mostly due to a number of buyouts of existing chains. Murphy was a late entrant into the discounting world, having opened the first Murphy’s Mart in 1970, eight years after a couple of its main competitors, Kresge and Woolworth, jumped in. For the next twenty years the Marts would operate, with varying levels of success. Eventually most became Ames Department Stores, and eventually most of those, history.

Including this one, which stands vacant today to the best of my knowledge.

But in 1971, all was bright. And this store would definitely qualify for the ever-growing list of stores I wish I’d seen in their prime. (As the sun sets after a deep snow, that is. Click to enlarge this beauty, if you haven't already.) I’m thinking of putting out bids for someone to design a time machine. Any takers?


  1. The only Mutrphy's Mart I ever visited was a former "Big N" in Bowling Green, Ohio (the Neisner variety store chains discount operation), which Murphy had recently taken over--c. 1981. They continued Big N's lack of clean, orderly presentation and, like Big N, sold lower end items than one found at competitors like Rink's or K-Mart, which at that time was trying to upgrade its offerings.

    Murphy's was much beloved in its core markets like DC and Pittsburgh, but they seemed not to do so well as a discounter. They had an odd mix, for the time, or metropolitan and small town stores. theat may have worked for variety stores, but it didn't always work for other formats. Long ago, JC Penney and Sears had realized that they needed a different startegy and different store merchandise in small markets than large ones. The JC penney in downtown Bowling Green ran a different add and had a somewhat different assortment than the suburban stores 20 miles away on the south side of Toledo.

  2. (As the sun sets after a deep snow, that is. Click to enlarge this beauty, if you haven't already.) I’m thinking of putting out bids for someone to design a time machine. Any takers?

    The first thing I did when I saw this was enlarged it. I wanna put in a bid for that machine. I love that retro sign!

  3. I always wanted to see a "real" Murphy Mart, Huntsville's Parkway Mall had a Murphy Mart that was a G.C Murphy variety store with the MurphyMart name. As a young child, the G.C. Murphy stores in Northgate and Eastgate Malls in Chattanooga were a treat, they had the best selection of model cars, planes, and Star Trek as well the best HotWheels cars. Good selection of 45's and books also. And they had lunch counters that rivaled any Woolworth.

    I always found Murphy to be less dowdy than Woolworth's, which was in Downtown Chattanooga and Eastgate. Overtime Woolworth's lunch counters were the best surviving memory of them, and I would rate Grant's Bradford House as a better restaurant. Alas, I never saw a true MurphyMart or Woolco in its prime. At least I did get to venture into Richway, Kuhn's Big K, Zayre, vintage Kmarts, Rose's, Hill's and Sky City for better or worse.

    The surviving 3 national discounter just don't evoke the same feelings-Walmart has grown so huge and omnipresent, Kmart has deteriorated, with vintage units no aging well at all to put it kindly, and Target, well is brings an upscale yet sterile experience. Older Walmarts and Kmarts do still have hints of the golden era of discounters, but they are increasing rare for Walmart and in areas to avoid with Kmart.

    Now if only Kress have thrown its hat into the discount arena, if its signature downtown stores are any indication, they would have inspired and aspired to an architectural level not associated with discounting.

  4. I drove by this store in August when I was on Vacation. It was such a mess I couldn't tell you what it was. Everytime I go by an old Hill's or Murphys Mart I curse Ames under my breath.

  5. I must agree with Clark, Ames came in and bought out Murphy's Mart and then closed them within a years time or so, so I hate Ames too. Not to mention they did the same thing to Hills and most Zayres. Murphys was almost like a time warp in the early 80's it was like a Giant variety store. I have never seen another store quite like it. I really loved it! They always seemed to be in small towns like the ones I knew in Springboro and Lebanon Oh. They offered a mix of a little something of everything. There were records that were 'cut outs' from $1.99 to $3.99, toys that were not all that great, Clothes that looked cheap, a great candy isle, still you had to see it to have an idea of what shoping there was like.

  6. Anonymous – Thanks very much for that great input! Like Woolworth, Murphy’s really was a variety store at heart, and as a result had difficulty getting their arms around the discounting concept.

    JCPenney and Sears have traditionally done an excellent job of tailoring their offerings to the local markets, as you say, but Sears has struggled for years now in nearly all their locations.

    Didi – I’m afraid there’ll be a long line, though…….:)

    Ken – Very cool, sounds like you got to experience them in their prime! I’ve been to Eastgate a number of times, the first was probably in the late 80’s and they were probably still there, but past their prime. I remember Grants’ Bradford House restaurants very well – they were one of the few in-store restaurants we patronized on a regular basis. Sounds like you managed to catch most of famous chains in your area, before they became retail “fallen flags”.

    Somewhere I have an article from 1964 or thereabouts that featured photos of a then radical concept for Kress, very much along the lines of a discount store, with a modern, classy logo. How many were built I don’t know. Those downtown Kress stores you refer to really were amazing – usually 4 or 5 stories with great terra cotta facades. Quite a few of them survive and most are under some sort of historic preservation. Does make you think that they could have made a splash in discounting, at least architecturally, if they had gone for it.

    I think your assessment of the remaining big 3 discounters (or more accurately big 2 and one trying to hang in there) is right on “target”. :)

    Clark – Ames’ buyouts definitely changed the retail landscape, and for sure the result has been a lot of empty stores. Thanks!

    Dwayne – The ironic thing about the Ames buyouts was the fact that they ended up hurting Ames itself, particularly the Zayre acquisition. Ames never really recovered from that, and it pretty much brought things to an end. Thanks for sharing those memories about the Ohio Murphy stores!

  7. Ames really had no idea how to operate the stores they bought. Zayre had been successful with urban customers, which could not have been more different from Ames' normal small town base. Hills had been trying to move from its layaway/small town/working class roots to something more "metropolitan" with limited success. Ames didn't seem to be much help in shoring up either end of their store base.

    There is an exhibit of terra cotta at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC that includes fragments from Kress stores.

    There have been numerous other exhibits related to Kress' srchitecture. Mr. Kress had a significant art collection that went to the National Gallery. It would have been difficult to translate all of that into a discount format, although perhaps they could have prefigured Target by going for cheap chic.

  8. I forgot to ask, does anyone know how long this location has been closed? Ames closed the Murphys I knew BEFORE they bought Zayre. Murphy's like Zayres were converted to Ames...then closed.

  9. Wow that's a big store, probably today would be consider a small store in today's standards.

    Nice picture.

  10. For those curious what it looks like today:

  11. I keep forgetting Ames had bought out MurphyMart. I never really experienced Ames, as Zayre's Atlanta division was closed with the sale of the stores to Ames and Ames only lasted a year or two in Florida after the buyout. Hill's retreated from its southernmost markets at the same time, so they never made it to the Ames conversion.

    The same year Zayre and Hill's exited, Wal-Mart opened its first stores in Atlanta and Chattanooga, filling the voids left by the two, while Richway was sold to Target-who closed the stores for 6 months to a year remodeling(painting everything red and gray and closing up the classic skylights) before reopening the stores.

    The years 88-89 were difficult years for retailers, as consolidations and market retreats began, paving the way for Walmart and Target to rise to national prominence. From all accounts MurphyMarts demise was less painful than Zayre and Hill's and ultimately Ames final liquidation. I believe Zayre had ended with many former Grant's locations in New England, with Ames inheriting those. Given that Grant's had bankrupted, and Murphy, Zayre and Hill's were already in decline, combining declining operations rarely succeeds in shoring up and strengthening the combined operations. Will Sears Holdings repeat history?

  12. From what I could find, this store closed around when the entire (Ames) chain went under (2002)

  13. Almost forgot to add from my internet findings...apparently the mall's owners have turned much of the mall space into a temporary indoor flea market. They said they'd keep that going as long as it pays for the property or until a developer decides to purchase it and demolish the mall for something else. The Ames building itself has zero market value according to them.

  14. Anonymous – I remember how much Ames struggled in the Chicago area when they took over the remaining Zayre stores there, many of which were in urban locations or inner-ring suburbs.

    And have you seen the Kress book that was published some years back by the National Building Museum? I think it called “America’s Five and Ten Stores – The Kress Legacy” or something very close to that. It was a beautiful book with lots of photos and an excellent narrative of the Kress story. I could kick myself for not picking it up at the time – it sold for about 20 bucks and is now out of print and goes for multiples of that.

    Dwayne – The Ames Fan Club website –, the definitive source for anything about Ames, has a directory of Ames stores and lists the closing year for it as 2002.

    Mark – It’s 80,000 square feet, still a respectable size, but less than half of typical Walmart Supercenter. Looks larger from the photo’s perspective, though.

    Anonymous – Thanks for providing that photo link. Sure is kind of sad and desolate by comparison.

    Ken – I think the Murphy’s Mart closings may have been less painful because there were fewer of them.

    You’re absolutely right about the late 80’s being a time of turmoil in the retail world. I remember the daily headlines during the Campeau/Federated debacle, a major item in the chain of events that led to the reduction of the myriad of American department store nameplates down to (almost) one – Macy’s.

    Sears’ fate is anyone’s guess – even a real estate play doesn’t make sense with today’s depressed values. I still feel that someone with real merchandising vision could turn things around, but they continue to go from one half-baked strategy to another.

    Anonymous – A flea market - wow. I kind of like flea markets, but if I visited this one, I’d probably spend all of my time there snooping around, looking for any vestige of former Murphy’s Mart greatness!

  15. Off the subject of Murphy-Mart, but related to the discussion of Kress' entry in the discount arena. One of the Kress discount stores was built in the 60's on East Aloma Avenue in Winter Park, FL. The store had no architectural features whatsoever. It was a cheap, white, and of concrete block construction. A red Kress logo was over the entrance. The inside of the store was totally utilitarian in nature, and totally unlike the beautiful downstown stores people were familiar with. Perhaps Kress determined that their downtown stores had started to be considered dowdy and out-dated, so they tried to change the image with this small discount center. It was a step in the wrong direction, and the Winter Park store did not stay opened for more than two years.

  16. We had two Murphy's Marts in Morgantown, WV when I was a kid. One was a mall anchor store and another was a downtown former G.C. Murphy's just with a new sign. I really loved shopping there when I was a kid... everything from toys to parakeets! The one at the mall was briefly both Ames and Wal-Mart, but is now empty. The downtown one was empty for years before being scaled down a LOT and becomming a Dollar General. Ames took over Hill's too, but the Hill's building has been empty for nearly 10 years since Ames left.. with all the lights on 24 hours a day! What a waste! I need to go take some pictures. A few years ago, the old neon-and-blinky Hill's sign was still rusting out back behind the store.

  17. Spent many a day and night at the GC Murphy's/Murphy's Mart! Grew up in North Huntingdon, PA right outside of McKeesport the HQ for Murphy's. The North Huntingdon store was one of the first of the mart's - maybe 3rd or so I think...

    It is now a Target.

    My Uncle was a store mgr was Murphy's and I loved going to his store in North East, PA in the late 70's early 80's.

    Bought many a 45 from their record department.

  18. Hi Dave--I just discovered your blogsite (several hours ago) & sure have enjoyed all the terrific history presented here. I grew up in Waynesburg,PA (around 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh); we had a GC Murphys & McCrory's side-by-side on Main Street, and as a kid in the 1970s, I spent a lot of time in both those stores. (We always considered McCrory's as the 'poor mans store' as it had poor lighting, & a wooden planked floor that creaked loudly--but it was my grandma's favorite five n' dime.)

    In 1981 (my first year of college), they began building a Murphy's Mart in a cow pasture heading out of town--I applied for a summer position (that turned into 7 years of full-time) and we literally assembled shelves & unloaded tons of stock as they poured concrete around us. (In fact, we spent the entire summer preparing the store for it's grand opening. It was disconcerting seeing all the customers pour in on that first day, we were used to having the store to ourselves.) I wound up dropping out of college, but working full-time at MM from 1981 thru 1987, as one of 3 guys that ran the Garden Shop/Home Improvements Dept.

    Being such a rural community, we sold tons of assorted lumber, concrete, all types of paneling & roofing materials, riding mowers, 50 & 80 lb sacks of manure & soil... It was the hardest job I ever had (I eventually went back to college & now work as a computer analyst) but before Ames moved in, it very much was a family. Murphy's Mart was not a well-paying job & the hours could be rough (how I hated Thursdays--I worked 12-10pm every Thursday!) but I STILL have such fond memories of being there. The managers treated us kids like their own--they knew our parents, attended employees family events (and our Human Resource manager even brought soup to coworkers that were sick). You never knew who was on the schedule & who was in the store on their time off paying a visit or bringing in food. We all did it, as we always had various lunches and suppers and other get-togethers in the back. It really was an extended family--I think it's what it made it so hard to leave there--when Ames took over in the late 80s and began "changing all the rules", reducing benefits, ending many of the employee activities (claimed it was insurance related), and began focusing on making the store part-time only, THAT helped me (and many others) to move on.

    Ames might've closed officially in 2002, but for many of us it had ended over a decade earlier.

    Sorry for the long post--again, what a terrific site here! Thank you!

  19. I was at the Laurel Mall this week and the Murphy's (Ames) is still vacant.Pix at

  20. I was hired at Murphy's in Waynesburg in April 1987 when it was being switched to Ames.I rescued a lot of peg board and hooks from the dumpster to give to a friends "Mom and Pop" music store (which still does brisk business!)I stayed on for about a year building bicycles,gas grills and the cheap particle board furniture.Our manager always sold the assembled floor models to the older folks,so I would build the same thing many times!
    I often talk of how I miss Murphy's,Hills,Hecks,Big Wheel and even the old school K-Marts.Cleaning out my wifes grandparents house,I've been discovering a lot of brand marked items from these stores.I may be able to find some old ads,as folks from our area of that age group seem to have been pack rats!Stay tuned...and save me a seat in the time machine!

  21. Referencing the aerial photo, the building at the far left was an Acme grocery store. It closed by the early 80's (more or less) and was used by a couple different farm supply companies before being shuttered about 3 years ago.

    The Mall's other anchor stores were Montgomery Ward on the opposite end (which lasted till the bitter end) and Metzlers (local department store) in the middle.

    The Wards space is now the home of Pechins, a local grocery store infamous for extremely low prices. Metzlers was used as a flea market before it expanded out into the rest of the mall. The former Murphys Mart is empty.

    A single movie theater was later expanded to four screens, and is now part of the Carmike company. Neither the Laurel Mall cinema and the Carmike 6 in nearby Uniontown have been upgraded to stadium seating.

    Most of the stores were local businesses or regional chains such as National Record Mart. In the 70's, there was a pet store, TV/electronics store. The restaurant was called Bon Homme Richard, but I don't know if it was part of a chain or not. Never saw another one.

    I remember the christmas displays being very nice in the 70's, and they always had a train running in the center court in front of Metzlers.

  22. Hi,
    My first job was at the Murphy Mart in Randallstown,MD. I loved working there. I worked in the jewelry and accessories departments. The people were wonderful to work with.There was a perfume that I wish I would have bought a lot of....Ben Hur. My husband who was then my high school sweetheart liked it,too.
    Love your pages of wonderful times in history!!!

  23. Dee - Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing those great memories of your own! I've seen Ben Hur the movie, but can't say I'm familiar with the perfume!

  24. Dave, I just found your great blog. You have put up even more information then is in the book which I thought was great. I've been reading for hours remembering it all
    Like Dee, I started work for MM 901 in Randelstown Md as an asst mgr right out of college. Then I went into sales and actually worked for the Company that sold Murphy's the "cutout" records that Dwayne. It was like deja vu reading this. Thanks for the great blog!

  25. My father ran the Murphy's Mart in Texas and
    Alabama worked as store manager 35 years.