Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Farewell to Mr. Paperback

Today I'm honored to present to you the first ever guest post on Pleasant Family Shopping! It’s written by Kendra Bird, a native of Bangor, Maine, anthropology student, avid retail history fan and a friend of this site from almost the very beginning.  For those from or familiar with Maine (especially the Bangor area), this will be of particular interest, but Kendra writes about something so many of us can relate to, regardless of location– the closing of a lifelong favorite store and the decline of the local mall. Shown above are some photos, vintage ads and articles she provided for this post. Enjoy!   

I went to say goodbye to my childhood bookstore today, but by the time I arrived, it was too late. The lights were off and the shelves, once bursting with books, magazines, gifts, stuffed animals and other items, were bare; some of them had even already been removed from the store’s now-lifeless confines. 

This wasn’t the first trip that I’d made to Mr. Paperback, located in Bangor, Maine’s 42-year-old Airport Mall, in the last week. Prior to today’s pilgrimage, I had wandered in a handful of times, purchasing various discounted items from the dwindling stock on its shelves. I had also been fortunate to acquire some memorabilia from the store itself; now in my possession are a number of rescued wooden signs that, for as long as I can recall, stood atop the various bookshelves, advertising the type of offerings present in each section. “SPORTS,” “HISTORY,” “CHILDREN 8-12,” some of them declare to no one in particular. Others, whimsically, show their age: “TIQUES & COLLECTIBLE,” one reads, while another proclaims, “ILDING CONSTRUCTIO.” One, perhaps poignantly, using hand-cut blue adhesive letters, reads simply: “MAINE.” 

Mr. Paperback was not just a bookstore…it was a local, independent bookstore, based here in Maine, with several locations around the state. At one time, its reach had been even more widespread, but some of the stores in the chain shuttered as the decades passed. The company had its origins in a downtown Bangor location, half a century ago, and the location to which I personally have such an attachment has been operational since its host mall opened its doors in 1970. Over the years, the mall saw each and every original tenant go out of business, or relocate -- some of them moving across town to the larger Bangor Mall, which opened in 1978 -- aside from Mr. Paperback, Radio Shack, and Doug’s Shop ’n Save; the latter is technically still in operation today as a state-of-the-art Hannaford supermarket, which is now the flagship anchor of the entire shopping center. 

Even in 1990, according to a supplement to the Bangor Daily News issue of April 26th of that year, “only a few stores remain[ed] from the stores that [had] opened in the mall” twenty years earlier. Original anchors Freese’s and Woolco, both department stores (the first local to Bangor, the second a nationally-known discounter), were long gone, as were many of the mall’s interior names. Nevertheless, Mr. Paperback stayed in business, first absorbing the space belonging to Spencer’s Gifts, which had relocated to the Bangor Mall, and then part of an adjacent restaurant, the remainder of which is now a Rent-a-Center.

During the same year that the Airport Mall was celebrating its twentieth birthday, I was eight years old going on nine, and starting to purchase my own books and magazines with my allowance money. There were only two places that I regularly did this: Mr. Paperback, and the B. Dalton store that was in the Bangor Mall (astute followers of the ebbs and flows of retail will note that the B. Dalton chain has also met its demise). I vividly remember the day that I purchased my first issue of Disney Adventures magazine at the Airport Mall Mr. Paperback. I remember seeing it on the shelf, finding out that it had a Tale Spin comic in the back of it (back then, we didn’t use the terms “fangirl” or anything like that, but I totally was one in regard to that particular cartoon), and insisting to my parents that I purchase it. This was in the fall of 1990, and I was only nine years old, yet this memory is still etched prominently in my mind over two decades later.

Until today, the children’s magazines and comic books still filled that same section of shelving on the back wall, and, despite no longer belonging to that demographic, I would always wander by there whenever I stopped by the store. The shelves were the same, the carpet was the same (though it seemed to be held together with mailing tape in progressively more places over the years), the (I‘m assuming) anti-shoplifting mirrors that ran above the shelving along the back of the store were the same. I only knew one other store that had mirrors like that, predating the fancy cameras and whatnot that stores boast today: the Bangor Mall CVS, which is also no longer in operation.

Over the years, I have bought fewer and fewer books, despite being a voracious reader as a child. This is largely due to simply being too busy to read for leisure; academic pursuits and gainful employment take up the majority of my time, and what little reading that I do manage to do is predominantly related to my areas of study. Despite this, I did pick up one book last week during Mr. Paperback’s “Going out of Business” sale; it was a graphic novel, which is not a literary format that I typically gravitate towards (though my husband is a big comic book guy), but it looked appealing to me. I think back now to that day in the waning weeks of fall 1990 -- it was not the potential intellectual merit of Disney Adventures that leapt out at me; it was the comic in the back. So, too, was the root of my initial interest in Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, which I read cover-to-cover a couple days later and found greatly enjoyable. Will it, decades from now, hold as firm a place in my memories as that now dog-eared Disney magazine from days long past?
The brick-and-mortar bookstore is an endangered species, much like another beloved institution of mine, the brick-and-mortar record store. Both of these are being replaced by commerce centered around electronic books (ewww!) and mp3s (yuck!) in exchange for physical formats. While I jest somewhat -- these media formats both have their uses and their merits, and I have been known to utilize both at various times -- there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hand, and seeing the words come alive with the turning of each page, or carefully placing a record on a vintage turntable and hearing its music, crisp and clean and warm, emanating from your speakers. That said, Mr. Paperback’s resilience in a dying industry, especially within the confines of a mall that has teetered on the precipice above “dead mall” status at least once or twice during its lengthy history, is nothing short of impressive. All good things do seem to find their way to eventual endings, though, and it is into the annals of history that the longstanding local book chain must now transition.
It is into those same annals of history, too, for the memories of Mr. Paperback that I hold so dear. All the bookstores that I frequented in my childhood are gone, as well as the stores at which I bought my first cassette tapes years ago. The Airport Mall itself, too, bears little resemblance to the mall that I grew up with, in which I went shopping with my mother, my grandmother, or other relatives. The closing of Mr. Paperback is almost the final death blow to the mall that I knew. Rines, the local women’s clothing store that my mother used to drag me into, despite my pleas to not have to endure another store full of clothes and devoid of toys? It’s now the county DMV office, though it bears many architectural vestiges of its former self. Twin City Coin, where I bought baseball cards with my dad as a kid? It’s now a sketchy establishment hawking “For Tobacco Use Only” paraphernalia. Dream Machine, the arcade that my brother and I used to take our report cards to in order to get free tokens for games? It’s now the “Maine Smoke Shop,” a considerably less-kid-friendly place. Freese’s Department Store? I bid farewell to that local legend back in the late 1980s, when a much younger version of myself peered through a darkened doorway into a lifeless store, where countertops and registers were covered by white cloths, almost like a room full of inanimate ghosts; this I vividly remember as the moment that I became interested in retail history, and the lives and deaths of individual stores, an interest that, obviously, remains with me now.

As Mr. Paperback goes gentle into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas), I find myself both regretful and relieved that work and academic obligations prevented me from getting to the store in time to say goodbye on this day, which I had been informed would contain its final hours of operation. It felt like I was in a film as I walked hastily into the mall after driving over directly from my workplace. I saw the darkness behind the plate-glass windows before I even rounded the corner. I knew it was over, and I was greatly saddened, but I also knew that I had been spared the inevitable emotional awkwardness of saying goodbye to a space that was so crucial to my childhood.

I snapped a few photos, peered wistfully through the glass into the darkened interior of the store, and walked back outside. I called my husband, told him I was at the Airport Mall, and said, “I didn’t make it in time.” He understood.

Some might find it silly, the act of saying goodbye to a place. But sentimentality is powerful, and while some are not burdened by it, others form great attachments to those things which provoke feelings of nostalgia -- the sights, sounds, tastes of our pasts -- the “good old days” that were rarely actually as good as we consider them to be in retrospect. I am in the latter camp, and I find no shame in that.

So farewell, Mr. Paperback. You will always have a place in my memories, and those, I’m sure, of many other people as well. 

Oh, and thanks for selling me that big computer desk for five dollars the other day, the one from the back room that had the cobwebs and price stickers from 1995 on it. It’s found a good home, I assure you.

Maybe someday, I’ll even write a book on it.

Mr. Paperback closed on March 26, 2012. The first photo is from their now defunct website, the others were taken by Kendra.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May 1, 1962 - The First Target Opens

Once again, another legendary retailer celebrates their golden anniversary. It’s none other than Target, “the upscale discounter”, which officially launched 50 years ago today yesterday. Pictured above is the very first Target store, located in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb just north of the Twin Cities. From this humble beginning came one of today’s most successful and influential retailers, and one of the world’s most iconic brands.   
As mentioned ad nauseam on this site and in many other quarters, Target’s founding year, 1962, was the year of the discount store revolution. Walmart and Kmart, the industry’s other two key players, were also founded that year, as were a number of others, including Woolworth’s long-departed Woolco division and Big K, a southeastern chain that was eventually acquired by Walmart.
These chains and their coincidental founding year were all mentioned in our previous observance of Kmart's 50th a couple of months back,  but no sooner were the pixels dry on that post (Don’t you just hate expressions like that?) than I recalled some others that trace their origin to 1962 – Shopko, a Green Bay Wisconsin-based chain, still exists. Sky City, based in Asheville, North Carolina with locations throughout the Southeast, unfortunately no longer does. I’ll probably think of some more within minutes after posting this.
Target differs in a fundamental way from Walmart and Kmart, its two key competitors over the last 30 years or so (and for the foreseeable future), and this difference can be traced back to the companies’ roots. “Kmart was founded by a dime store company (S.S.Kresge) and Wal-Mart was a variety store company (Sam Walton’s Ben Franklin franchises),” said former Target executive Norm McMillan to Laura Rowley, author of On Target, an entertainingly written history of the company, while “The background of the Target enterprise was the department store business – so that influenced our strategic planning and the way stores were run.”
Indeed, The Dayton Company, founded in Minneapolis in 1902, had long been considered one of America’s best run department store firms. So well run, in fact, that they found themselves having to fend off a good deal of flak from their prestigious department store cohorts about their decision to go slumming in the discount world. Rowley quotes Target president Douglas Dayton in a 1966 speech to the Associated Merchandising Corporation: “I start with the assumption that all of you …wish that discount stores had never been invented, and I have no quarrel with that wish. It is a perfectly natural one. The catch is that it doesn’t seem to have impaired discount stores’ progress one iota…To some I may be laboring the point; to others - and I have to be perfectly frank - you have underestimated what is going on.” (This would have made a nice extra verse for Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, don’t you think? Just need to come up with a good quadruple rhyme.) A major change in consumer buying patterns was afoot, and Dayton bravely chose to jump into the fray.
Generally conservative, the Dayton Company could nonetheless claim a pretty bold move in their recent history. In 1954, they developed the nation’s first enclosed mall, Southdale Shopping Center, in Edina, a southwest suburb of Minneapolis. Dayton took the then-unusual step of inviting a key department store rival, Donaldson’s, to join the project. They engaged Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect with visions of the mall as a ‘civilizing force for the sprawling suburbs’, to design the center. Southdale jump-started Gruen’s career as an architect of unparalleled influence over the ensuing decade. For Dayton, it proved to be a financial winner and an anchor for their suburban “branch store” strategy.
In one sense, however, the concept of the discount store was really just an update of a time-honored department store tradition – the “basement store”, usually a basement or sub-level of a downtown flagship store reserved for bargain and closeout merchandise. Dayton’s had one in their Nicollet Avenue home base, as did many well-known department store operators across the country. While bargain hunting has been a great American pursuit for eons, in decades past there was often a certain stigma (unfairly) conferred upon those who consistently shopped “downstairs”, whether out of need or preference, instead of on the main floor. The discount stores, having no “upstairs” per se, erased this stigma, and their suburban locations put them closer to the fastest-growing base of customers. 
After some months of fact-finding “undercover missions” to discount store chains across the country by Dayton managers (Topps in Chicago, on a growth tear at the time, was one they particularly liked), the first Target store opened on May 1 in Roseville. It was a 68,000 square foot store with a surprisingly large grocery department -25,000 sq. ft., leased out to Applebaum’s Food Market of St. Paul. (Somewhere I remember seeing a photo of a very cool-looking ice cream carton with the original Target “bullseye” logo on it. Hopefully I’ll come across it again one of these days.)  
According to Rowley, the general merchandise mix was 65 percent hardlines (“auto supplies and appliances”) and 35 percent softlines (“clothing and accessories”).  Roseville was the first of four units launched that year – three in the greater Twin Cities area (Crystal and Knollwood/St. Louis Park being the others) and one a bit further north in Duluth. This 1965 photo of the Duluth store shows just how quickly the chain’s architectural style evolved from the very modest design of the first Target.  
Throughout the balance of the 1960’s, growth was “steady and methodical” when compared to Kmart at least, who were burning up the countryside with some 35 new stores a year at the time.  Three years passed before the opening of the next Target in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1965. The next year, 1966, saw Target’s first expansion market, Denver (Glendale and Westland Centers), followed by two more on the home turf, Fridley and West St. Paul, Minnesota in 1967. In 1968, Target expanded into St. Louis with North and South County stores. A third store was added in Bridgeton the next year. The close of the decade saw Target stores in Dallas (North Dallas and Garland, with a Village Fair location added in 1970) and Houston (Hedwig Village and South Loop, with Sharpstown added in 1970), along with a unit in Colorado Springs. 
One probable reason for the measured approach was the simple fact that Dayton had a lot of things on their plate in the late 60’s, putting it mildly. In 1969, Dayton bought out the Detroit-based J.L. Hudson Company, “the nation’s largest independently owned department store operation”, as their 1968 annual report put it. Now called Dayton-Hudson Corporation, and with more than double the department store operations as before, the acquisitions didn’t stop there. That same year they picked up Lechmere, a Boston-based electronic and appliance retailer, whose operations were lumped in with Target’s as part of D-H’s “Low-Margin Division.”  These moves coincided with a major expansion of Dayton’s bookstore operations, which were launched in 1966. Bruce Dayton, the company president, decided to name the company’s bookstores after himself, substituting one letter in the last name, of course – “B. Dalton Booksellers”, a mainstay of shopping malls for decades.    
Whether or not it was a deliberate part of the strategy, there was certainly an added benefit to the slower rollout of the Target stores. It enabled Dayton-Hudson to hone Target’s upscale image – the key differentiator that led to the furious post 1980-growth and high repute the company enjoys today - over time. Their faux French nickname, “Tar-zhay”, surfaced almost right off the bat, according to Douglas Dayton, Target’s original division president, who told author Laura Rowley he first heard customers using the word at the Duluth store way back in 1962. For a time, they even used “Miss Target” (actually pronounced “Miss Tar-zhay”!) for their private label line of women’s shoes.  
Eventually a stronger graphic image was needed, and for that Target reached out to Unimark International, the legendary Chicago-based design firm responsible for some of the most enduring corporate identities in business history, including those of American Airlines and Ford Motor Company. (And one that many of us wish had endured - the 1971-2011 JCPenney logo.) It’s hard to overstate Unimark’s effect on the world of corporate design, especially in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the world seemed to change overnight from a graphical stone soup to solid-color backgrounds and Helvetica.  
In 1969, the new logo was introduced -a single, thicker ring around the bullseye replaced the double-ringed earlier versions, and Helvetica supplanted the multiplicity of fonts Target previously used. Another very significant Unimark contribution was the widespread use of the color red, which all these years later, Target virtually “owns” from a retail standpoint.  
Gotta love those red plastic shopping carts, right? And the “Target Lady”. And those retro products (like cereals and detergent) they keep featuring. Here’s to another 50 years!   
The photo above is from the fascinating book UNIMARK INTERNATIONAL – The Design of Business and the Business of Design by Jan Conradi and appears here through the courtesy of Kevin Rau, the book’s designer and archivist of the stunning collection of artifacts that illustrate the book. This book is essential for design fans and is an incredible business history as well. Forget Mad Men, this was the real thing! (Ok, don’t forget Mad Men. Sorry for even bringing that up.) Kevin has his own design firm, Rauhaus, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he specializes in corporate identity, publication design and wonderful printed work using classic letterpress technology.
Thanks also to Michael Doty for the tip on the great circa-1970 Target commercials below. Note the combination of the new Target logo with some of the “hodgepodge” mentioned above. Fun stuff!