Friday, December 10, 2021

A Warm Feeling On Wilshire

A brisk December evening in Los Angeles probably isn't as "brisk" as most other places in the country at the same moment. Still, it can get pretty cold there, but this beautiful holiday scene is guaranteed to provide a warm feeling.

The building in the background is one of the great landmarks of 20th Century retail architecture - the May Company store at the corner of L.A.'s "Miracle Mile", Wilshire Boulevard, and Fairfax Avenue. Opened in 1939, it operated as May Co. until that company's merger with J.W. Robinson's in 1992. The building now houses the newly-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, its stunning Art Deco corner facade joyfully intact.
Shared from The Streamline Moderne Era: Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s FB page.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all a very happy 2017!
I wanted to come up with something special to welcome in the new year and to thank you again for your readership in the past, and I'm hoping this fits the bill.
Whenever the subject of Sears comes up here, it's almost inevitable that someone brings up the candy and popcorn counter, and the amazing sights, tastes and wonderful smells to be enjoyed there. The delicious aroma permeated wide swaths of the sales floor, often following you as you browsed through the Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and Ted Williams sporting goods.
I believe this popcorn/candy counter photo, from an original slide in my collection dated January 1964, is of the Oakbrook Center (IL) location, but can't say that with absolute certainty.
Sorry I'm unable to duplicate that marvelous smell for you here, but I'm hoping this photo helps bring it to mind. And of course I'd buy you the 39 cent-sized popcorn - we have a lot of shopping to do!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fighting Inflation at Alpha Beta

Here’s a wonderful set of photos featuring two stores from one of Southern California’s most fondly remembered supermarket chains – the late, lamented Alpha Beta. The photos were taken in the early 70’s by Werner Weiss, webmaster of the Yesterland website, a superb tribute to the early years of Disneyland. Yesterland, one of the most celebrated and influential nostalgia sites on the web, marked its 20th anniversary online last year. Though Alpha Beta had stores all over SoCal (and several in other regions as well), these were both located in “The O.C.” – Orange County, Alpha Beta’s home turf.

What can you say about the store in the first photo, other than it was a stone cold 1950’s classic? Opened in June, 1958 in the Hillview section of Santa Ana, at 17th Street and Tustin Avenue, this store, with its massive pylon and iconic “Alphy” sign, perfectly exuded the optimism, excitement and humor of the “anything is possible” postwar Southern California. The store didn’t seem much worse for wear sixteen years later, in 1974, when this photo was shot, but you’d have to think it looked more natural with a parking lot full of tailfins.

The rest of the photos are interior shots from the Alpha Beta store in Huntington Beach, at the corner of Brookhurst Street and Hamilton Avenue. I haven’t been able to verify the exact opening year of this store (Alpha Beta’s “No. 126”), but according to Werner, who worked there in college and took these photos in the fall of 1972, it was a new store then. The store sports the “ranch style” roofline that Alpha Beta had favored since the mid-sixties.

What strikes me the most about these photos, even the one of the older store, is how reflective the scenes are of 1972-74 American life, due to the overwhelming presence of one word - “discount” – plastered all over the interior of the store, and in huge letters across the storefront windows.

These were the years when new words and phrases began to creep their way into dinner table conversations across the country: “inflation”, “cost of living” and “Consumer Price Index”, for example, because these things were directly affecting what was on the dinner table. It was an era of rampant, unprecedented inflation, when consumer dollars seemed to shrink by the week. Despite some fairly extreme governmental steps taken to stem the tide (a wage-price freeze, dollar devaluation, etc.), it continued for years.

The scene that evokes this strongest for me personally is in the fifth photo down, the “new ideas” display, with boxes of Tuna Helper, in three glorious flavors, clearly visible on the second shelf. My family ate so much of this stuff (and its sister meal enhancer, Hamburger Helper) in those years that I still feel General Mills should have awarded us a walnut plaque with a golden Betty Crocker spoon mounted to it.

In response to the situation, the major supermarket chains, including such Western-based heavyweights as Safeway, welterweights such as Albertsons, and more regionalized operations like Alpha Beta (then a division of a middleweight, Philly-based Acme Markets) practically fell over themselves trying to attach the word “discount” to their storied names. Certainly this was a national trend, however, with appended names galore - Acme “Super Saver” stores, Food Fair’s accelerated conversion to “Pantry Pride Discount Foods”, and numerous others. Then there was A&P’s disastrous WEO (“Where Economy Originates”) program, but that’s a saga unto itself.

But there had been a precedent for this not that many years before, however. The early 70’s weren’t the first time the major food chains were forced to respond to an economic pinch. There was a dry run of sorts in the fall of 1966, when consumer complaints about supermarket pricing galvanized into a national movement, with boycotts occurring at stores across the country. Numerous press photos exist of bouffanted housewives carrying protest signs, a scene that led some in the press to coin the unfortunate term “girlcott” (Ugh.) to describe the situation.

The 1966 boycotts were short-lived, but in their aftermath, a number of chains experimented with standalone discount formats. Alpha Beta was one of them, with their experimental “Fad” (“food at discount” – nifty, right?) stores. Concerned about price competitiveness but unwilling to risk the Alpha Beta name on a discount venture, the first Fad store, a converted Alpha Beta unit, was opened in Costa Mesa in April 1967.

The location was chosen for its very close proximity to another Alpha Beta store, allowing the company to compare shopping patterns at the two stores and to answer the following questions, as outlined in Esther Cramer’s great book The Alpha Beta Story: “Would the housewife change her shopping habits if operating hours were reduced and games and giveaways were eliminated? Would the volume of sales increase to the necessary level if prices were lowered?” The answers, as it turned out, were “yes”.

As a result, three additional Fad stores were opened that year, followed by yet three more in 1968. Most importantly, it led to a change in pricing policy for the main Alpha Beta stores, which was rolled out in two phases – discounting of all health and beauty items effective in September 1967, and discounting across the entire store effective New Year’s Day 1968. Trading stamps and other promotional gimmicks were dropped, and even the famous tagline on their signs was changed, from “First in Foods” to “Best for Less”. In September 1971, having applied the lessons learned, the Fad name was discontinued and the (by then 11) Fad stores were converted to garden variety Alpha Betas.

So bargain-based grocery shopping turned out to be anything but a fad.

My thanks again to Werner Weiss for letting me know about his wonderful photos, and to the Orange County Archives for making them available. And for those who are curious about what the Fad stores looked like, here’s a typical example from a circa 1967 Alpha Beta Acme Markets promotional photo. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

To this day, I never pass up a chance to visit Oakbrook Center, the famed open-air mall in the west suburbs. Opened in 1962, it has retained a high degree of elegance and charm, despite numerous expansions and the normal coming-and-going of tenants.

Most early photos of Oakbrook depict the majestic Marshall Field’s there (now Macy’s), or the superb modernist Sears (now- still - Sears), or perhaps the beautiful landscaping and fountains.

But here, from an original slide, is a rarely seen view of the “back side” of the mall, showing three stores and the Oakbrook Professional Building, tastefully decorated for Christmas, after hours and against the night sky, looking peaceful.

Left to right are Maurice L. Rothschild, part of a (now defunct) Chicago-based clothier, Lane Bryant, the still popular women’s apparel store (still at Oakbrook but in a different location) and a Jewel Food Store. The Jewel, like its fellow mall-based counterpart at Randhurst, moved offsite to larger quarters fairly early on.

Whether you celebrate Christmas Day or not, I hope the day finds you well, and that you were able to spend it with people special to you. And may 2015 be filled with joy, peace and health for you and your loved ones.

And whether you’ve been following Pleasant Family Shopping for years or just found us recently, whether you stop by frequently or just once in a while, I want you to know it is deeply appreciated. Your readership, comments, photo contributions and friendship make it all worthwhile, and provide the best possible reason to continue doing this. I can honestly say when it comes to uncovering great old photos of retail stores and the stories and personal memories behind them, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface. From the bottom of my heart, thanks again.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

And A Happy 5th of July To You!

Hoping everyone is having a wonderful July 4th weekend. Another anniversary occurs this weekend, albeit one far less significant – today is the 7th anniversary of Pleasant Family Shopping, which began on July 5, 2007.

Over those seven years, 315 posts have appeared (a too-small percentage of them appearing in 2013 and 2014 – a trend I hope to reverse), and as always, your comments have contributed immensely.

So I decided to put together a list of the Top 10 percent of posts, as gauged by the amount of comment activity. A “Greatest Hits” post, if you will. This leaves out a few stalwarts like Safeway, Zayre and Publix that were covered earlier in the site’s run, but nothing’s perfect.

My thanks (and amazement) to those who have stuck with PFS for years now - from the bottom of my heart. And to those who have joined us more recently, welcome, and many thanks to you as well!


1. Suburban Shopping in the 70’s – If this had been a real shopping trip, it would have taken three days. Local and national retail chain stores from two neighboring west suburbs of Chicago.

2. Holiday Inn – The World’s Innkeeper – Pioneer of “Family Travel Fun!”, with signs that remain seared in our collective memories.

3. You’re the Topps, Baby! – Well-remembered discount chain from the Eastern and Midwestern regions.

4. A Tale of Two Guys – “Those two b***ards from Harrison, NJ”, and the discount chain they started, which eventually spanned two coasts.

5. The Golden Age of Gas Stations – A tribute to the bygone era of service stations through a look at some 30-odd famous brand names, some still here, many now gone.  Yes, I forgot Hess, Crown and numerous others. Next time!

6. The Original Big K – Southern discounter, later acquired by Wal-Mart. I’ve heard from more former employees of Big K than any other chain except Korvette, and virtually all recounted their years there with fondness.

7. Save at Venture, Save with Style – Discounter from the Midwest (and Texas!) that was stylish indeed. They got stripes!

8. E.J. Korvette and the Dawn of Discounting – About the chain that started it all, and its visionary founder, Eugene Ferkauf. My favorite discounter of all time.

9. Requiem for Randhurst – My personal tribute to Randhurst, triangular architectural masterpiece and pioneering Chicago-area mall. To my childhood eyes, ‘twas a wonderland.

10. The First Target Store Opens, 1962 – The birth of a legend.

11. Randhurst is 50! – Exquisite early promotional photos from Randhurst.

12. The Opening of Dixie Square Mall, 1966 – Some history of the most famous “dead mall” of all, and photos from when it was vibrantly alive.  

13. When It Was Penneys – The origin of the famed “Funky P” logo.

14. It’s the Montgomery, Not the Ward – The last days of the legendary Montgomery Ward, where I got my little red wagon, among other things.

15. The First Woolco Stores – The early years of F.W. Woolworth Company’s discount store division. Zig-zag awnings at their finest.

16. One Small Step for Woolco – Woolco on the move in the late 1960’s.

17. The General Cinema Experience – Remembering everyone’s favorite mall and shopping center-based theatres. Who could forget that catchy “Feature Presentation” theme?

18. G.C. Murphy – Dime Store Pioneer – A look at one of the great “5 and 10” chains, who later brought “Murphy’s Mart” into the world, then succumbed to Murphy’s Law, unfortunately.

19. The Kroger Superstores! – The apex of 1970’s supermarket style. Let’s Go Krogering!

20. Kmart – Eat Here and Get Gas! – Kmart branches out into auto service and fast food, late 1960’s.

21.  The Dynamic Dominick’s – Remembering a Chicago supermarket institution on the eve of its closing, though a look at one of their most striking stores. Still hard to believe they’re gone.

22. The Beat Goes On at Dillard’s – A shameless attempt on my part to hitch this site to a celebrity bandwagon, and a capsule early history of Dillard’s.

23. A Real Early American A&P - A Colonial-style A&P grocery store, before Colonialism was in fashion.

24. A Farewell to Mr. Paperback – A reflection on the closing of a favorite store, written by my friend Kendra Bird. Substitute your own most-missed store for “Mr. Paperback” and your local mall-that’s-seen-better-days for Airport Mall, and it will very likely hit home.

25. Kmart - That 70's Store – Because it most certainly was “that 70’s store”. TYFSAK!

26. A Look Through Penney’s Window – And a rather wistful one, at that. Time waits for no one. (Hold on, did I just name-check a Rolling Stones song?)

27. The Art and History of Cermak Plaza – Berwyn, Illinois’ landmark shopping center, built in the late 50’s and transformed into a legend with the addition of some controversial modern art sculptures in the 1980’s .The sculptures are gone, but the legend remains.

28. A Primer on A&P Centennials.  – Does it get more American than A&P? Or more “Early American”, to be specific?

29. The First Kmart Opens, 1962 – Celebrating 50 years of Kmart. Not taking bets on a second 50 years, unfortunately.

30. Wards in Huntington Beach, 1966 – A classic Montgomery Ward store that stood for a very long time after it closed, finally being torn down sometime after this post was written.

31. Shopping in Los Angeles in the 1950’s – A day in postwar shopping paradise. The only thing missing was a stop at Van de Kamp’s.

31.5. Ralphs Granada Hills Reloaded, 1965 - An incredibly awesome 1960 supermarket made even awesomer by a 1965 remodeling. Cooler than your grocery store. Cooler than mine.

Note: the photo above is a Container Corporation of America (Marcor) publicity shot, circa 1969.