Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Surprise Visit to Katz City

So I’m on a business trip to Springfield, Missouri a few weeks ago, in town just for the day. I’m there to call on a customer, a well-known manufacturer of well-known products, as part of an effort to become well-known. As I drive through town, the usual mental prep is taking place.

Until I spy a building in the distance, that is, one I’d previously seen only in photographs. It’s a CVS Pharmacy to beat them all – a gigantic glass-fronted structure with a zig-zag (the proper architectural term is “folded plate”) canopy suspended above the store facade. I recognize it instantly as the famous “Katz City” drug/department store, opened in 1961 as the crown jewel of the legendary Katz Drug Co., a Kansas City-based drugstore chain known for their unique-looking stores, brash marketing approach and above all, their mascot - a grinning black cat. To top it off, just a block or two up Glenstone Avenue is a perfectly preserved early 60’s Steak ‘n Shake restaurant, a delightful relic of that long-ago era when fast food was good for us. (Or at least we didn’t know any better. That itself was good for us.)

Out the window goes my mental prep, of course. Wild thoughts begin to run through my head, like how to break the news to the family when I get home that night – “I’ve been transferred to Springfield. We’re moving in two weeks. Sorry, Kids!” After a few minutes I settle down, deciding instead to just visit the store after my appointment is over. When I get there later that afternoon, I’m struck by a couple of things –the zig-zag canopy’s fine state of repair (by no means typical for classic retail properties, unfortunately), and by the sheer size of the place - the typical CVS interior decor and signage was there, of course, but so was what seemed like miles of low-rise shelving devoted to gift items that you’d never find in one of their typical stores, plus a massive-width main aisle. An impressive 75,000 square feet, I learn upon checking my “Katz files” back home.

Indeed it was the largest store in the Katz chain at the time of opening, described by the company as “The Store of the Future Today” and “a one-stop shopping colossus”. The store was designed by the Kansas City-based architectural firm of Kivett and Myers, whose resume of deco and mid-century modern gems includes several other Katz stores that still stand, such as these striking examples in Kansas City on Main Street and in Overland Park, Kansas. The Springfield store was unique in that (to my knowledge) it was the only Katz location not to feature their trademark script logo or the black cat mascot on the store exterior, although both were likely seen in abundance inside.

As the chain’s ownership has changed through the years, so has the name above the front doors, of course. In 1971, Katz sold out to Skaggs Drug Centers, Inc., whereupon the store became a Skaggs unit. In 1984, Skaggs (now renamed American Stores, after another company they bought) acquired Chicago-based Jewel Companies, owners of the Osco Drug chain, and eventually the Skaggs stores were redubbed as Osco units. In 1998, American Stores was sold to Albertsons, and when that chain was dismantled in 2006, the free-standing Osco Drug stores, including the futuristic one-stop shopping colossus pictured above, were snapped up by CVS. Thankfully, they’ve preserved the store’s classic exterior thus far.

The photo above shows the store as it appeared not long after its December 1961 grand opening, festooned and glowing for the occasion. I’d love to have “crossed this Katz’ path” back then, but better late than never!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

The floors are washed and waxed, the checkout lanes fully stocked with paper bags, and the cash registers are loaded with change and crisp new bills. We’re ready to launch a new year of Pleasant Family Shopping, a look at the everyday places that make up a surprising share of our youthful memories, in part because we spent so darn much time at them! I’m referring to the chain stores – the supermarkets and discount stores, and the shopping centers and malls that our parents dragged us to as kids. The places we took so much pride in driving to when we finally got our own license and wheels. The places where many of us held our first jobs, made lifelong friends and even met future spouses.

One doesn’t have to be very old to notice how much these places have changed over the years. If you’re over 25, you’ve already seen a good number of household names come and go, and for those of us over 40, the current retail scene is a universe apart from that of our youth. Over time, as the extent of these changes has sunk in and life has become more complicated in so many ways, it’s amazing how nostalgic many of us have become about them, to the point where our “shopping memories” are seemingly right up there alongside the dream vacations, Disney trips and other highlights we may have experienced in years past.

Fortunately, many of these places were photographed in their prime, and it’s the goal of this website to present them as they were, along with the sometimes surprising, often frustrating, but almost always interesting history behind the great American retail firms from which these stores sprang. Your own memories are an extremely vital part of things here – they truly complete the picture, and I want to express my deepest thanks to those of you who continue to share them with the rest of us through your comments.

The photo above shows the checkout area of a Food Fair supermarket, as depicted in a 1962 ad for Kentile Floors, a long-defunct manufacturer of asbestos tile flooring, strangely memorialized by identical neon signs that still stand in Brooklyn and Chicago. I love the pattern of the tile floor in relation to the checkstands, almost a “starting block and running lane” pattern. (Had food been this closely involved, I might have gone out for track-and-field in high school.) The store’s pastel colors and the style of cash registers lead me to believe that the store may have been a few years old at the time this photo was taken, and that the tile flooring was a new upgrade, although I'm not certain of that. Also, note the one-line marquee on the back wall, a very common feature of 1950’s-era Food Fair stores that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. Ordinarily it would to be used to promote a store special of some type.

Of course, today at least, it would have read “Happy New Year!” The best to you and yours for 2011!