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.


  1. I read on Wikipedia that the brothers were going to name the store Zayre Gut but didn't have enough money to put "Gut" on the store. It's Wikipedia so I will take that as a grain of salt. I just wondered where that tale came from.

    Here is a great photo of the early logo that has been floating on the net for years. Ironically it is in a gas station history page but if you scroll towards the end you'll see the early logo.

    And here's another great building of one:

  2. I wonder where the 1st pic was taken?

  3. Didi - The Feldbergs were wealthy (their sons graduated from Harvard and Dartmouth in the 1940's) even before they founded Zayre, so I'm certain that wasn't the case. More likely they figured that those who didn't understand the Jewish expression would misinterpret the word "gut". Makes for a great story though! :)

    That's a great photo of the 70's Zayre sign. The man who took the photo, Robert Droz, has a great site on the US Highway system.

    And that's a nice pic of the Miami Zayre. Pat Richardson (of the Charlotte Eats site) sent me that link as well. There's some great stuff on that pbase Florida site!

    Mike - I don't know, but it's the spittin' image of the Des Plaines Zayre my family shopped at, and the photo dates from the same time. A good number of Zayres looked like that,though.

  4. Dave, This brings back memories. A lot of good info and historical background! The color photo on the earlier Zayre post looks suspiciously like the Zayre at Saugus Plaza (Saugus, Mass.) If it isn't it is its twin.

  5. If the Feldbergs were wealthy than it is safe to say that the Wikipedia entry on the name is a pile of horse puckey :o).

    I have to check out Robert Droz's site which I didn't know about. Thanks.

  6. Love that pic starting off the the post -- comparing it to the way the building looks today, it is evident that it is a virtual clone of the store we had in Bangor (as is probably the case with most, if not all, of the locations built around that time). Of course, the huge windows on the front have long since been walled off, but you can still tell, structurally, that it was the exact same time of building. Thanks for posting more on Zayre.

  7. There was also a Zayre in River Grove which this one reminds me of for some reason.

  8. Sorry, that was supposed to read "type of building," rather than "time of building." :-)

  9. Larry - Thanks very much! I don't know the location of that photo, it might have been Saugus.

    Didi- Right! :) I did find out that "zehr gut" also means "very good" in German and that Yiddish is a German-derived language written in Hebrew characters (more than I expected to learn in the course of all this old retail fun!).

    The highways site is a lot of fun with a tremendous depth of information.

    Kendra - Thanks, and it is very much a standard-issue Zayre, exactly like the Des Plaines one I remember as well. The stores Zayre bought out had a different appearance, of course. Most stores from that era (including old Kmarts, etc.) that a had a huge expanse of glass have walled it off to save energy and the conssiderable expense of keeping those windows clean.

    Mike - Where was the River Grove one - North Ave.?

  10. I don't get it, how does walling off windows save energy? Seems to me that windows equal lots of natural light during the day, no?

  11. Mike - Thanks!

    Didi - "Walls" of windows often drive up heating and a/c costs because of the tendency to lose heat or air. I do think that modern window technology is probably a lot better at preventing this. As far as lighting goes, lots of windows help to a point, depending on the weather and which exposure the store faces. Personally, I love natural light and keep my window blinds - home, office or wherever fully open during daylight hours. I'd love to see a return to more windows.

    In the 70's there was a huge drive to build new schools with almost no windows and to use colored opaque panels to replace windows in older existing schools, reportedly to save energy costs and "reduce distraction" (i.e. prevent daydreaming) for students. A totally depressing trend that's finally being reversed.

  12. Oh, I hated that trend. My college had many classrooms like that. Abosolutely no windows. I need the distractions. Thank goodness for desks close to an open door.

  13. Lots of windows also lead to lots of faded product. You might be surprised how fast that can happen. I have frosted skylights in my store and even that can be too much for some things.

  14. RR Ryan - Good point. They also take up wall space that can be used for product displays. I think that may be as big a rason for the "fewer windows" trend as any. Thanks!

  15. I worked at a Zayre store in Indiana in the 70's. It was booming at that time.