Saturday, September 27, 2008

Zayre, American Style

These photos were taken in 1971. Only two years removed from the sixties, that era in some ways seemed eons ago. If the early 70’s appeared slightly less turbulent on the surface, they really weren’t, what with the Kent State shootings, a ramp-up in the Vietnam War, and the first manifestations of the inflation problem afoot. America continued to undergo sweeping social changes as well, including some that filtered down to my isolated, suburban, grade school life. For one thing, our TV selection changed virtually overnight.

In 1971, CBS cancelled all of its beloved rural sitcoms and a number of its more “family-oriented” shows in one fell swoop – gone were The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D. (successor to The Andy Griffith Show), Family Affair, The Ed Sullivan Show and Hogan’s Heroes, among others. Granted, most of these shows were a long way from their peak, but they still drew respectable audiences. In their place would come new, more “ relevant” shows, pushing the new social hot buttons of the country – the initially controversial All in the Family (bigotry and the generation gap), its even more controversial spinoff Maude (women’s’ liberation), The Bob Newhart Show (sophisticated humor in an urban setting), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a single, professional woman and her neurotic friends) and MASH (arguably a Vietnam War comedy/drama under the guise of a Korean War setting) among others. I liked ‘em all, and could still watch the cancelled stuff in reruns.

A favorite show of mine, when I could talk my folks into letting me stay up for it, was Love, American Style which ran on ABC from Fall 1969 to Spring 1974. It was an “anthology show” that usually featured three (fairly goofy) comedy/love stories in the space of an hour. Love, American Style never came close to the stature of the shows mentioned above, but it did offer a chance to see all your favorite former 1960’s stars back in action, albeit by now they had traded in the buttoned-down sixties look for flowered shirts, super-wide lapels and ties, mutton-chop sideburns and mini-skirts. The show captured the 70’s style like no other, in my opinion – it was almost like watching “That 70’s Show” in real-time.

Speaking of 70’s style, (I’m in desperate need of a segue at this point) these Zayre photos offer a healthy helping of just that. Zayre, celebrating its 15th year in 1971, was by that time 180 stores strong and still growing at a nice clip. The first five photos show one of the fifty Zayre stores that were equipped with gas stations at the time, including a nice close-up of a gas pump (with no dollar position, of course – that wouldn’t be needed for years) and some intriguing photos of a group of “Zayre-ettes”, for lack of a better word, descending on the gas station, apparently there to assist the customers with self-service fillups(?!). They’re dressed in impeccable style for the era, in clothes I can only assume didn’t come from Zayre. And those boots were definitely made for walkin’ (ok, that’s a 60’s expression). Not to be outdone, the ladies in the cashier booth are snazzed out in plaid mini-skirt outfits. Everyone’s in trademark Zayre black and red.

Below are some interior shots showing a bit more of Zayre’s “American Style”, with wonderful pseudo-Early American décor (dig that pediment signage) throughout. I particularly like the “Sportswear” department photo, as it shows a nice view of the sloped ceiling section at the front of the store, a standard feature of the early Zayre prototype. The last photo shows a phalanx of Zayre shopping carts at the front of the store, reverse-painted plastic handles gleaming. As Archie and Edith sang, “those were the days”!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Zayre Family Album, 1971

With 10-plus years of successful growth under their belts, Zayre began to look at opportunities to bring some new retail formats under its corporate umbrella. Pictured above in a set of individual photos is the expanded “Zayre empire” as of late 1971. These additional banners each shared key attributes with the main Zayre operation, in product offering (fashions, fabrics, toys, general merchandise) and/or in geography (sharing Zayre’s primary New England trade area).

The first photo, of course, is of the “mother ship” itself. After an impressive five-year run, Zayre was coming off of a disappointing profit year, despite record revenues for 1970 of just under $600 million. At this time, Zayre had over 150 stores, covering nearly every major market east of the Mississippi River. The competitive onslaught of the behemoth Kmart chain was by now beginning to take its toll on the competition, though Zayre would prosper through it longer than most.

The second photo depicts a Shoppers City, one of four Minnesota stores that Zayre acquired in the winter of 1966/67 from Northern Enterprises Inc., of Duluth. Northern Enterprises’ primary business was (of all things) a bus company – the Duluth-Superior Transit Line, to be specific. A couple of years earlier, Northern had bought the retailer in a diversification move as its transit business flagged. The chain’s founders, Melvin Roth and Seymour Rothstein, were kept on to run Shoppers City, an arrangement that Zayre stayed with after their purchase of the chain. Zayre set the company up as a wholly-owned subsidiary called SC Trading Corp. For the first several years, Zayre operated these four stores under their original name, later co-branding them “Zayre Shoppers City” in the early 1970’s. A unique aspect (for Zayre) of these stores was their “family center” arrangement – general merchandise and a full supermarket under one roof.

The third photo shows what is probably the most familiar Zayre-owned nameplate behind Zayre itself and the still-to-come TJ Maxx. Hit or Miss was a chain of discount specialty stores aimed at the young womens’ apparel market. Hit or Miss was a division of Dedham, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Trading Company, and their first store opened in 1965 in Natick, Zayre’s home base at the time. When Zayre bought Commonwealth in late 1970, there were only 10 Hit or Miss stores. In the ensuing decades, the Hit or Miss chain would become a familiar fixture in shopping centers all over America, reaching a most impressive tally of nearly 600 stores by 1991. There were perennial problems, however, and an unfortunate number of management shakeups and new strategies were tried along the way. Hit or Miss ultimately outlasted Zayre as a retail brand, but not by long - spun off to its management in 1995, the last Hit or Miss stores sadly closed in 2001.

Photos four and five show the Bell Shops and Nugents womens' specialty stores, the Feldberg family’s original retail business. Reaching a peak of nearly 80 units in the 1950’s, the Bell Shops/Nugents operation was trimmed back through attrition as the stores’ leases expired. Settling on some 40-odd locations in the late 60’s, the stores were still struggling until a new strategy was put in place. Up to that point, the stores apparel offering was far too similar to that carried in the Zayre stores. A decision was made to establish a separate buying group charged with upgrading the Bell Shops/Nugents image with a higher grade of merchandise, sold at correspondingly higher prices. This would lead to the opening of some new Bell Shops/Nugents stores right next door to new Zayre units, which did surprisingly well.

The sixth photo shows a Beaconway Fabrics store. Boston-based Beaconway had been the fabric/sewing notions licensee for the Zayre stores, and also operated five stores under their own name in the Massachusetts region. In July 1968, Zayre bought out the Beaconway firm, keeping the individual fabric stores open.

Pictured in the seventh photo is Warwick Shoppers World, a discount chain based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island that Zayre acquired in June 1970. This company was founded by Edward Zwetchkenbaum and had 10 stores at the time of the Zayre buyout, operating under the names Warwick Shoppers World (Warren and Middletown, RI and Worcester and Bellingham, Mass, among others) and Coats Field Shoppers World (Pawtucket, RI and Brockton, Mass). There was also an apparel unit called the New York Lace Store. The stores were advertised as Warwick/Zayre stores. An interesting footnote in Warwick’s history was the tiny chain’s fight against the “Fair Trade Laws” (now-repealed laws that allowed manufacturers to set retail prices) in the late fifties and early sixties. The company made national headlines at the time as they were sued by such big names as General Electric and U.S. Time (Timex), among others, joining the fair trade battle alongside much larger retailers such as E.J. Korvette.

The last photo shows a Spree! store from one of Zayre’s most interesting ventures, a chain of discount toy stores launched in September 1970. The chain reached 13 units by October of the following year, when a 36,000 square foot Spree! store was opened in Enfield, Connecticut. The timing proved to be unfortunate as the Spree! rollout coincided with the meteoric rise of Toys “R” Us and stiff competition from Child World, among others. By 1976, there were only six Spree! units, and those would be gone by year’s end.

But in 1971, things looked different, of course. As the old saying goes, “Nice looking family!”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Look Inside Zayre, 1968

A handful of scenes from a typical Zayre store, circa 1968. The first shows a couple of well-dressed folks shopping the health and beauty aids department. Just seeing the Listerine display on the end cap brings back the taste of the stuff. (Not necessarily bad in my opinion, just unique. And very strong.) Listerine was one of the heaviest advertised products of the late 60's/early 70's, with a multitude of TV ads featuring their famous medicinal claim tag line - "Kills millions of germs - on contact". Later on, they were forced to trim back the "germ-killing" claim to just those germs that cause bad breath. Oh, well.
The second and third photos show the menswear department, with an array of Fiesta Ware colored shirts (second photo, lower left) among other fine clothing items.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Zayre in Miami

Here are some nice circa-1970 photos featuring the Zayre and Grand Union stores that were located the corner of Dixie Highway (U.S. 1) and 136th Street in Pinecrest (Miami-Dade County), Florida. These photos and much of the background information that follows comes to us through the courtesy of Stuart Spector of Spector and Sons, a well-known general contracting firm that has built many significant buildings in the Miami area since 1925. Thanks, Stuart!

The store has a different appearance from the standard “Zayre look” of the time for a good reason – it was originally built in the very early 1960’s as a Consumers Mart of America (CMA) store, a membership store that operated along the lines of a Gemco or Fed-Mart back in the day, or a modern Costco or Sam’s Club. One of the most interesting aspects of the short-lived CMA chain was the fact that George Raft, the famous actor known for his gangster roles in Warner Bros. movies of the 1930’s and 40’s was CMA’s vice president of advertising and public relations. Raft was present at each new store opening, sometimes dragging his Hollywood buddies (for example, Jerry Lewis at the 1961 Torrance, California store opening) along.

When CMA went bankrupt in 1965, Zayre took over a number of their store locations, including three in Chicago (as previously mentioned) and three in Florida - South Dade County (the location pictured), north Dade County and Tampa. Spector and Sons, who had built all three Florida locations, took over the mortgages when CMA went bankrupt. They sold the North Dade and Tampa properties and still own the South Dade location.

Also of note is the Grand Union supermarket, which as can be seen underwent a slight facelifting between the time these photos were taken. Grand Union, a New Jersey-based chain, entered the Florida market in the mid-50’s and had 48 supermarkets (and 8 Grand Way stores, a Zayre competitor) there by 1968.

And check out the gas prices at the Zayre auto center!

After Zayre moved out, the building was damaged by Hurricane Andrew in the early 90’s and was later redeveloped by Spector and Sons as a Builders Square. It is now a Home Depot, and the former Zayre auto center is now a Bank of America branch.

Pat Richardson of the Charlotte Eats website, an excellent photo history of Charlotte NC area restaurants, sent me this link to a nice close-up photo of the Zayre store’s entrance from a bit earlier.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Zayre's Fabulous Department Stores

After a slow, careful period of initial growth through the end of the 1950’s, Zayre Corp., as it was now known, began to expand rapidly. Only six Zayre stores were in operation in 1959, the approximate year that Zayre’s volume reached that of the Bell Shops/Nugents stores. By 1962, there were 27 Zayres open, with ten to twenty new ones added annually for many years afterward. That same year, Zayre Corp. became a public company. Headquarters remained in Natick, Massachusetts, moving later in the decade to nearby Framingham.

Zayre set its sights on a much larger market area than that of some Northeastern contemporaries, including Bradlees (owned by Stop & Shop, who would expand outside the Northeast much later on) and Two Guys (owned by Vornado, who would add some West Coast stores in the late 60’s). Starting in 1960, the company embarked on a program to open stores in major markets all across the eastern half of the U.S., with a presence in nearly every state east of the Mississippi by the middle of the decade.

Wisely, they tended to open the stores in clusters, so as to maximize brand presence and advertising efficiency. By the end of 1966, Zayre had 92 stores total (not counting the specialty stores) with major concentrations in greater Chicago (9 stores), Miami (10 stores) and their home turf of Boston (13 stores). Medium-sized Zayre markets at the time included Washington DC (5 stores), Pittsburgh (4 stores) Atlanta, Cleveland and Columbus (3 stores each), Jacksonville, Tampa and Providence, R.I. (2 stores each).

Some of this growth came through acquisition. When Toronto-based Towers Marts, a chain with discount store locations from Ontario to Florida went bankrupt in 1963, Zayre picked up four of their Washington DC area locations – Silver Spring and Wheaton, Maryland and Falls Church and Alexandria, Virginia. Consumers Mart of America (CMA), a no-frills superstore chain with a smattering of locations around the country, was another early discounting casualty, and Zayre announced in March 1965 it would be taking over three Chicago locations (Ashland Ave., Oak Lawn and Palatine) and a couple of units in Florida. In December 1966, Zayre bought out Duluth, Minnesota-based Northern Enterprises, Inc., owner of four Shoppers City stores located in Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Interestingly (unlike previous acquisitions), Zayre retained the Shoppers City name for these stores.

In Zayre’s early years, their product mix leaned heavily towards soft lines (mainly clothing) due to the Feldbergs wealth of experience in fashion, gained through years of operating the Bell Shops/Nugents stores. As the sixties progressed, Zayre’s product offering resembled that of a more typical discount store, with toys, sporting goods, photographic, records, books, health and beauty products and much more added to the mix. A number of these departments were leased out to concessionaires during Zayre’s first decade, including linens, greeting cards, candy and health and beauty items among others, totaling nearly a third of Zayre’s store revenues. In the mid-60’s, Zayre bought out a good number of these firms, leaving only a handful of departments (accounting for only 12-13% of sales) as leased operations. Zayre was far from the only discounter to actively buy out their lessees at that time – Kmart, Vornado and several others did the same.

In describing Zayre’s stores, a 1966 Barron’s article put it succinctly – “The typical Zayre discount store is about 70,000 square feet and air-conditioned. All outlets are on well-traveled roads with ample parking space. While the stores are pleasant and neat, no attempt is made to create a high-fashion image”. The company itself put a slightly more upscale spin on things in their advertising, which in my opinion was a cut above average discount house ads, even if the stores weren’t necessarily so. For many years, the tagline “Fabulous Department Stores” appeared alongside the chain’s name in their ads. Fabulous confidence at the very least!

The photos above are circa 1963. The locations are unknown save for the last two photos – the TV/Hi-Fi department is from the Monroeville, Pennsylvania store and the night exterior (depicting a free concert on the front sidewalk) is the Beverly, Massachusetts location.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Very Good Start For Zayre

Although the first Zayre department store didn’t open until 1956, the chain’s beginnings date back to 1919, with the formation of The New England Trading Company, an underwear and hosiery wholesaler. Founded in the Boston area by brothers Max and Morris Feldberg, the company began as a supplier to full-line department stores and specialty shops. Ten years later, the brothers launched their first retail operation, Bell Hosiery Shops (later shortened to “Bell Shops”). Within a few years, the Bell Shops product line began to expand beyond underwear and hosiery to include other clothing lines. By the mid-30’s, the Bell Shops were full-blown women’s’ specialty stores, competing against such chains as Lerner Shops and Three Sisters. There were nearly 30 Bell Shops in the New England area by the end of World War II.

In 1946, the company doubled its store count with its buyout of New York City-based Nugents, another women’s’ specialty store chain with a great deal of similarity in approach to Bell Shops. The Nugents chain (whose name would be retained), with its store base in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, DC provided a natural extension of the company’s market area with virtually no overlap.

By the early 1950’s, the company’s sales had reached a plateau, and it became clear to the Feldbergs that fairly drastic changes would need to be undertaken in order for their business to remain viable. Despite classy remodelings, and in some cases the opening of larger stores, the Bell Shops/Nugents stores were losing ground due to two important trends, among others – the decline of downtown business districts (with notable exceptions, such as the Quincy and Malden, Massachusetts locations, where the city fathers had the foresight to provide large downtown free parking areas) and the rise of the “mill” discount store operations, a trend that literally rose up in the company’s backyard.

With the family’s second generation, Stanley H. Feldberg (son of Max) and Sumner A. Feldberg (son of Morris) now in positions of high responsibility, the company began to explore its options. A considerable effort was put into studying the wildly successful mill stores, particularly Cumberland, Rhode Island-based Ann and Hope. The mill stores – Ann and Hope, Mammoth Mart, J.M. Fields and others, shared a common formula for success. With a host of closed, empty textile mills available at dirt-cheap rents, these companies began operation selling mainly clothing, linens and other softlines. Eventually space was leased out to other firms offering such items as shoes, jewelry, tools or appliances, starting the tradition of leased departments in discount stores. As these companies became more prosperous, they began to build their own new stores, either free-standing and/or in shopping centers, allowing much greater visibility along with the many other benefits of custom-built facilities. In a sense, these firms eventually assumed the characteristics of a traditional “chain store” corporate structure.

Having settled on discounting as the logical new direction in which to take their company, the Feldbergs decided to forgo the “mill building” route, preferring to launch with a newly constructed store when the opportunity presented itself. In late 1955, that opportunity came when Stop & Shop, Inc. approached with an offer to build them a store alongside a new Stop & Shop supermarket to be constructed in Hyannis, Massachusetts. In June 1956, the Hyannis Zayre store opened, a whopping 5,000 square feet in size. The store was soon expanded to 7,500 and then 10,000 square feet, and was replaced in 1962 with a 45,000 square foot unit directly behind it. The second Zayre opened in September 1956 in the Roslindale section of Boston, with a much larger footprint of 39,000 square feet. Within a few years, Zayre stores would typically average 70,000 to 90,000 square feet.

Longtime New York Times retail writer Isadore Barmash explained the origin of the chain’s name in a 1985 article – “One day, the Feldbergs and Bert Stern, an advertising consultant, were casting around for possible names for the new operation when Max broke off to take a call. He ended his phone conversation with a typical Jewish phrase: ‘Zehr gut’ or ‘very good.’ Mr. Stern repeated ‘Zehr, where, we need a nice-sounding name.’ The men stared at one another. ‘Zehr – let’s spell it Zayre’ – for very good, they decided.” And thus, Zayre became part of the discounting pantheon.

By 1961, there were fifteen Zayre stores in operation, racking up $50 million in annual sales. Much faster growth would come in the early 1960’s. Zayre was off to a “very good” start, to be sure.

Pictured above is a circa 1962 Zayre store in the standard configuration that so many of us grew up with. Below are exterior and interior shots of the first Zayre store (tiny by comparison) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, shortly after its opening.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

You Couldn't Do Better Than Zayre

The main things that stand out in my memories of Zayre were the stores’ signs, with their absolutely gigantic lettering. We shopped a lot at Zayre (the Des Plaines Market Place location, at the corner of Elmhurst and Golf Roads) through my early childhood, but pretty much switched over to Kmart for our discount store fix from about age 8 on.

Ironically, I still possess an item bought for me there, which is more than I can say about a lot of the chains I’ve waxed nostalgic about here on this site. It’s the September 1970 issue of the Flintstones comic book. I was recovering from the chicken pox at the time, and my folks bought it for me along with a pair of slippers with a rocketship on them. A few years ago, on a trip back to Chicago for Christmas, my Dad wrapped up two boxes of my old comic books and “regave” them to me as a gift. My kids read ‘em now, and they’re still actually in fairly good shape!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Where Were You In '62? - At Ralphs!

A bit more on Ralphs before a brief pause in the story. This photo is from 1962, and appears once again by courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library. This photo was commissioned by Foster and Kleiser, the famous billboard company, for an unknown promotional purpose. The sign is typical of Ralphs (much more so than the one shown in the last post) in the 1958-62 period.

Note the multi-colored “LIQUORS” sign, standard issue for many L.A. supermarkets (sort of suggests a similar psychological effect to saying “free balloons”, right?), and the sale posters above the awning instead of their usual place of honor on the store windows. I can picture the store’s maintenance man up there changing the posters, cigarette dangling, muttering “Beans down 2 cents a can. Why don’t they make up their @#%& minds?”

That also looks like a pick-up window at the snack bar/café. If anyone remembers this location, please clue us in!

Mike S. was kind enough to identify this store as the Ralphs located on Roscoe Boulevard and Topanga Canyon in Canoga Park (San Fernando Valley). Check out the comments section of this post for his great memories of the area!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ralphs Granada Hills, 1959

I dig this store the most! It sends me. This is none other than the Granada Hills Ralphs, which opened in November 1959 at 17020 Chatsworth Street, at the Balboa Boulevard intersection. This store is a stunning example of the individuality and high-concept architecture that Ralphs applied to its new supermarkets on a regular basis. A Ralphs manager summed up their philosophy for Progressive Grocer at the time – “We try to make each new unit a pilot store in which a good many architectural and merchandising experiments are undertaken - rather than getting a good pattern and cutting the new stores to fit that pattern”.

What a striking sight this store must have been, with its 60-foot tall tower sign out front. If retail store signs today showed such taste and restraint, the world would be a better place, don’t you think? The triple-faced sign featured a rotating quadruple “R” on top and mirrored spheres, long before they were called “disco balls”, suspended below the sign. For those who collect such information, the original cost of the large spheres was $500, the small ones $100. The building itself was an all-pink structure (with a large expanse of glass) with another knockout feature in the store’s peaked roof, which sported a pattern of huge white diamonds against a dark red background, all executed in Arizona natural colored pebbles, described as a “natural rock roof”. Wow. The interior, according to Ralphs’ press release, was “a pale apple green, creamy white and a wonderful shade of soft pink, all accented by the gleam of chrome and stainless steel”.

The store opened with a four-day “International Song-Dance-Food Festival”, featuring 250 folk dancers from 27 nations, the Tinkertown Train, Eddie Cletro and his band, and last but not least, Flippo the Clown. An hour-long live TV broadcast (not an uncommon occurrence for L.A. supermarket openings in those days) went out on the first evening on KHJ-TV. To top it off, there was a preview of the 1960 International Auto Show in the store’s parking lot. Almost enough to make you forget the milk.

In 1965, the store underwent a complete interior remodeling that received a great deal of press attention for its “departmentalized” approach. The peak-roofed structure still exists, though the building has been expanded. Unfortnately, the pebble roof has long since been either been covered over or replaced, the sign long ago relegated to history. It is now home to a Walgreens and a Staples.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fifties Ralphs

A couple of Ralphs stores from the beginning and the end of the 1950’s, a decade that saw the chain greatly expand its reach within greater Los Angeles. Architecturally, these aren’t as easy to categorize as the Streamline Moderne stores that preceded them or the Modernist stores that followed, but they were nonetheless certainly pleasing enough.

The first store was located in the Westdale section of Los Angeles, at the intersection of National and Sepulveda Boulevards, and opened in November 1949. The photo, taken approximately eight years later, shows off the store’s unique “checkerboard” pylon. The L.A. Times article announcing the store stressed its self-service philosophy, as expressed by the new store’s perceptive manager – “Modern women like to pick their own food without the aid of a sales middleman”.

The second store opened in Gardena in April 1958. This is one of those stores where a basic design was transformed into something special, in this case via the addition of a very impressive “sweeping curved facade”, as the Times described it. Similar design principles were often adapted for much larger, more "significant” buildings such as airport terminals or downtown civic centers in that era.

To my knowledge, neither of these stores still stands.
Well, my knowledge has just been expanded. Jeff, who has brought us up to date on the fate of many L.A. area stores, informs us that the Westdale store still exists as a Ross Dress for Less store!