Tuesday, December 25, 2012

...and a Very Merry Christmas to You!

This past Thanksgiving I did something for the first time in many years. Most years I catch maybe 20 or 30 minutes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and many years have skipped it altogether. This year, my family and I watched darn near the entire thing.

I thought it was great this year, especially the music acts that stopped and performed on the “main stage” area of 34th Street, in front of The World’s Largest Store. I have a wide range of musical tastes, and felt that even those outside that range were presented very well. I was impressed.

Now I’ve always been impressed by that great structure behind the “stage”, the Macy’s flagship itself. It looked very nice that day, decorated with a kind of simple elegance, reminding me of the way it looked in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street”, something we do watch in its entirety each year.

But I can only imagine what their incredible facade displays of the late 50’s and early 60’s looked like in person. These were put together by the long defunct Bliss Display Corporation of New York. They often fully obscured the first floor, replacing the regular display windows (nothing to sneeze at in themselves) with scenes from a European-inspired Christmas fantasy world, framed in white and gold. This photo, scanned from an original slide, shows the 1963 version. As is often the case, I don’t know who the photographer was, but I’m grateful they documented scenes like this for some to remember, and for all to enjoy.  

And I’m very grateful for all of you, for your holiday wishes, your kind words and your support of PFS throughout the year. Wishing for each of you and your families Joy and Peace this Christmas season, and a great New Year!


Monday, December 24, 2012

It's Christmastiiiiime in Ford City!

It was the one indoor marching band event of my high school career. Early one Saturday morning each December, we’d pile into the buses for the 20 minute drive south, passing through towns such as Argo (Always brought to mind a box of corn starch. Still does.) and Summit to Ford City Mall for their annual indoor Christmas parade. There we’d join with other school bands, animal acts, clowns and assorted dignitaries marching the halls of the shopping center, while sound bounced off the terrazzo floor and storefronts.

We used these cheesy (on this site, that word always carries the best connotation) little songbooks called “Christmas Favorites” or something like that, which the school had probably owned since the 1950’s. I can still picture the red, green and white cover and yellowed pages. Our go-to song was that deeply meaningful Yuletide carol “Up on the Housetop.” The crowds, mostly families with young kids or older folks, always seemed to have a good time. So did we, although those memories tend to grow fonder with passing time (and with forgetting the “getting up early” part).    

These incredibly great photos come to us courtesy of Rick Drew. Rick’s Dad worked in mall management at Ford City during the mall’s early years. I would date these photos, based on the styles and store names to approximately 1968-70, some ten years before I assaulted the corridors there with my trumpet playing.

I’d love to tell the story of Ford City, one of Chicago’s most historically important malls, in full here someday, but only have time for a few brief notes at the moment. Ford City Shopping Center, opened on August 12, 1965, was “Chicago’s first all-weather, enclosed shopping center.”

The structure itself was originally built during World War II as a bomber engine plant. In the late forties, portions were used for the Tucker Car Corporation – an American dream that should have come true, and a story movingly told in one of my all-time favorite films, Tucker: The Man and his Dream. Later on it became an aircraft motor plant again, operated by Ford Motor Company, hence the name. For a few years in the early 60’s, before the mall development project, it sat vacant.

Initially, there were 82 stores, several locally-owned, with national chains F.W. Woolworth, Lerner Shops, Bond Clothes, ThomMcAn shoes, Wurlitzer pianos and organs and SupeRx Drugs (the yellow “s” at the left edge of the first photo) along with a National Tea Company food store. A General Cinema twin theatre opened soon afterward. The two anchors, at opposite ends of the center in classic “barbell” fashion, were Penneys and Chicago-based Wieboldt’s.

At 178,000 square feet, the Penneys store was the company’s largest single-floor unit at the time. Interestingly, as late as 1975, this Penneys store continued to outsell those at newer, much larger area malls, including the behemoth Yorktown Center (1968) and Woodfield Mall (1971). A year after Ford City opened, another Penneys opened 15 miles to the south at Harvey’s fabled Dixie Square Mall.  
The Wieboldt’s store initially had a restaurant and a supermarket, an interesting feature of many of their locations in the early 60’s, including Randhurst. What really strikes me about this store was that the signage, interior and exterior, was red instead of Wieboldt’s signature green, used virtually everywhere else. When I saw these pictures it was a shock, like seeing a blue Coca-Cola can or purple arches above a McDonald’s sign. So wrong, yet looking at these photos…so right. (These posts always have a way of turning melodramatic at some point, don’t they?).

In any event, they sure knew how to decorate the place for Christmas. Hope you’re having a great one!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas in Herald Square, 1974

When people think of New York City’s famed Herald Square, one name in particular comes immediately to mind – Macy’s, of course. Its 110-year old flagship, billed almost from the start as “The World’s Largest Store”, has been a revered local fixture and a worldwide tourist draw for generations.
Pictured here, in a photo dating from the 1974 Christmas season, are Macy’s next door neighbors at the time – arch-competitor Gimbels, whose rivalry with Macy’s was immortalized in comic fashion in the Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street” and E.J. Korvette, which opened there in 1967 and was known simply as “Korvettes” by the time this photo was taken.

Prior to Korvette’s tenure, the corner of 34th Street and Broadway was occupied by the Saks -34th Street department store. Saks & Company itself was taken over by Gimbels in 1923, and just after that opened their famous flagship store at 617 Fifth Avenue. The new Fifth Avenue location “present(ed) to New York a specialty store on a scale never before attempted in the selling of wearing apparel of the finer grade” (it was here the “Saks Fifth Avenue” name originated), while the 34th street Saks store would carry merchandise “along the (more modest) line which has characterized the Saks business”, according to an April 23, 1923 New York Times article.

In 1965, when the decision was made to close the Saks 34th Street store, E.J. Korvette, buoyed by the success of their own Fifth Avenue location, jumped at the chance to acquire the location. Korvette conceived it as a combination flagship store/corporate headquarters, a gleaming showplace with “eight selling floors, a selling basement, and a ninth floor for inventory purposes”, the Times reported in late 1965. Plans for the seven story office tower atop the store were already dropped by then, with zoning reasons cited, but by that time Korvette had already run into some trouble. The renovated building, as it appears here, opened on Halloween in 1967.

Operating under Gimbels’ ownership, the two buildings were actually connected by a two-story bridge for over forty years, crossing 33rd Street and connecting the second and third floors of each. Initially, there was some thought given to maintaining the bridge after the turnover of the Saks building to Korvette, but it ended up being torn down in April 1966. “We saw no special purpose in continuing the bridge, a Korvette executive told a Times reporter, while his counterpart at Gimbels said “My own feeling is that a bridge connecting competitors just makes no sense”.
Korvette would be gone at the end of 1980 and Gimbels six years after that, but on this date, decked out in Christmas garb, they certainly looked nice side-by-side.

My sincere to thanks to Vincent Stoessel for the use of this photo, taken by his father.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A 1950's Christmas in Martinsburg

It’s always amazed me how Kodachrome film can make an over 50-year old scene look like it took place last night. That’s certainly the case here in this beautiful night shot of a Christmas shopping crowd at a Peoples Drug store in Martinsburg, West Virginia, from an original slide I bought some time back.

But this was well over fifty years ago, probably closer to sixty, an infinitely simpler time compared to today’s warp drive existence. This was prior to the “shopping center era” for most communities across America, and prior to the “mall era” for all but a handful. These were the early postwar years, just before the boom, a time when doing a big chunk of one’s Christmas shopping at the corner drugstore was still an entirely reasonable proposition. When the main Christmas gifts one received, oftentimes, were the ones that still matter most today –time spent and meals shared with loved ones.  Oh, and maybe a new Falcon Pipe for Dad and a bottle of Tussy Wind and Weather Lotion for Mom, of course.

Peoples Drug, the leading drugstore chain in the greater Washington, D.C. area, had a history that spanned the 20th century itself, save for a few years on either end.  Founded in 1904 with a single store at 824 7th Street in D.C., the company had grown to nearly 160 stores by the end of 1955, with locations in six states (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Tennessee) in addition to those in the District. The Peoples name lasted until the early 90’s, a few years after their acquisition by CVS.

I don’t know the address of this location, and being a night photo there aren’t enough visible details to date the building with any accuracy. As always, I’m hoping someone can help us here. The signage, however, sports the wonderful late 30’s/early 40’s deco lettering (“drugs”) that many drug chains (and variety chains like Kresge and Murphy) used from time to time on corner locations.

To the extreme right of the photo you’ll notice another retail icon – a tower sign for the Acme grocery store. Now there have been lots of Acmes out there – Acme of Akron, Acme of Virginia, Acme Co. (makers of rocket-powered roller skates, dehydrated boulders and the “Do-it-Yourself Tornado Kit”), but I think this store was part of the best known Acme of all, the Acme Markets division of the Philadelphia-based American Stores Company. For many years they operated a small number of stores in the West Virginia panhandle.   

All I know is I’d have loved to have done at least some of my Christmas shopping there.  A Stetson hat and a time machine, and I’m there!   
One quick note - I’m so sorry for the long gap between posts. I’d like to be able to say I was “waiting for the end of the world” as the Mayans would put it (or was that Elvis Costello – I never get these things straight), but I can’t. I’m working on some new things to put up here, some holiday related and some not, between now and Christmas.

In any event, I hope each one of you is off to a great holiday season, or will be soon! 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bring Back the San Fernando Penney's!

You know, there must be some people who read this site regularly and wonder – “Dave, you’re a blogger. Why don’t you ever take a stand on anything? You never weigh in on the big issues of our time. You’re always on the fence. Asleep at the wheel. Out to lunch. AWOL!”

Well, friends, I want you to know that I hear you, and today I’m answering the call! And the issue I herewith weigh in on is one that is, or should be, near and dear to our classic retail-loving hearts. It can be summed up in one phrase:

Bring back the San Fernando J.C. Penney.

When a national retail chain closes shop in a long-standing location, it’s typically news – in the local area, that is, and not far outside it. But this summer, when J.C. Penney ended an 80-year tenure in San Fernando, California (the city of San Fernando, specifically, which lies within the San Fernando Valley, part of Greater L.A.), it set off a furor that popped in and out of national headlines for weeks.

On Saturday, July 28th, despite rallies in the local community, online petitions, celebrity pleas, tons of local news stories and national coverage from the likes of the Huffington Post, the public radio show Marketplace, Bloomberg Businessweek (Plain old “Business Week” was much more concise, right? But hey, it’s his magazine now!) among others, J.C. Penney shuttered the San Fernando store, which had existed in its current location since February 1953.

Official comment from JCP on the matter has been terse, putting it charitably. “We would not have moved forward with this difficult decision if we did not believe it was absolutely necessary for the future growth of our company”, the company’s press response read.

Speculations behind the closing have been raised (and shot down) from several angles, with some alleging the closing was part of an effort to trim costs in light of huge losses JCP has experienced this year as a consequence of its controversial rebranding/repositioning efforts.  Others contend the small store (60,000 square feet with just over half of that space devoted to selling, three floors, no escalators), long an anomaly for Penney, is a poor fit for the rebranding concept. Still others claim the San Fernando location itself has been unprofitable for years.

It’s easy to understand why San Fernando residents are upset about losing their Penney store, an obvious point of pride for the community. The store has been an anchor for their downtown at a time when most big-name retailers long ago abandoned downtown locations for the “wide open spaces” we refer to today as malls and shopping centers. Certainly it was handy – while Penney has no shortage of huge stores in The Valley, it’s hard to beat “down the block” for convenience, even though selections were limited compared to standard Penney stores. There’s the longevity factor – the San Fernando location far outlasted the hundreds of downtown Penney stores built through the decades up until the late 50’s. Indeed, had JCP opted to close it down in 1970 or 1980, the uproar might never have materialized.

Lastly, the store’s timeless deco-influenced facades, front and rear, remain a thing of beauty. Most late 1940’s/early 1950’s Penney stores across the country were very plain in appearance, while the San Fernando unit exemplifies the extra effort that many national retailers poured into their California locations. Just two years ago, the building’s owner, Ashkenazy Development, spent some $350,000, including the services of a historian, to restore the facades and the “Penney’s” blade sign, which reportedly hadn’t worked for nearly forty years. 

The story took a nasty turn on the second night after the store’s closing, when residents discovered sign crews (after dark, with the company name on their truck covered up) pulling the “J.C. Penney Co.” lettering off the back of the building and one worker preparing to go after the neon blade sign with a torch, all in violation of an order to leave them alone pending a historical preservation hearing. The removed letters were reinstalled the next day.

At this late date, it seems unlikely that J.C. Penney will reopen the store, but you have to admit it would be a great public relations gesture and would serve to counteract some of the negative publicity the company has received in recent months. The “Save San Fernando’s JCPenney” site features a couple of interesting concepts for expansion, should JCP reverse their decision. At any rate, the store’s designation as a historic site appears to be assured. Rightfully so.

Our goal here, of course, is to depict great stores like this in their heyday, and once again I thank the J.C. Penney Archives at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University for their invaluable cooperation in supplying these photos – festooned in Grand Opening glory, followed by an interior view, then front and rear facade views from after the festivities cooled down.

As a postscript, here’s a sidenote from the “Basic Data Sheet”, a centrally-maintained dossier of sorts, for this store, last updated in 1971 and now part of the JCP archives. It’s interesting to note who Penney’s regarded as competition in those days -within a four-mile radius, there were department stores: Ohrbach’s, The Broadway, Robinson’s, a small Sears “hard-lines” store, discounters White Front, Kmart, Gemco and Cal Stores (sister division of Baza’r stores). “Fantastic Fair” one of my ultra-faves, is also listed, but I’m pretty sure they were gone by that time. (I’ll have to do a 10-part series on that one someday.)There were also the variety stores Grants and Newberrys, and apparel stores Scotts, the Melody Shop and Sally Dresses. The Penney’s unit outlasted them all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The Beat Goes On" at Dillard's

Here’s a set of vintage snapshot photos I purchased several months back. Taken in Austin, Texas in April 1967, they depict famed pop stars Sonny and Cher on a bandstand in front of a Dillard’s department store. The photos are a bit overlit and fuzzy (not unusual for outdoor shots from an inexpensive Kodak 126 Instamatic – like millions of others in those days, most of my childhood photos were taken on this exact type of camera), but you can tell that Sonny and Cher seem to be having a good time and the crowd is excited.  

When I first saw these photos I was intrigued, and two questions came to mind: What brought these entertainers, L.A. denizens to the core, to Texas? And what prompted a personal appearance at Dillard’s, then among the smallest specks on America’s department store landscape? (We’ll get to that in a minute.) Through a bit of research I found a satisfactory answer to first question and reached a fairly obvious conclusion about the second.

It turns out that Sonny and Cher were in town for a movie premiere. On April 11, 1967, the world premiere for the movie “Good Times”, the first picture to feature the couple in starring roles, was held in Austin. The premiere was part of a weeklong promotional Texas trek that, according to an April 29 Billboard magazine article, included stops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Abilene and El Paso. (“A cowboy’s work is never done”, they say.) My guess is a fashion show at Dillard’s was added at some point to the duo’s itinerary.

The “rock and roll movie” was a fixture of American culture by 1967, and if an artist had a few hits under their belt (Sonny and Cher had scored a number one smash with “I Got You Babe” in 1965, one of five Top 20 hits for the pair in just a little over a year), some personality and a unique presence (Cher’s dusky voice and exotic looks, Sonny’s fur vests and bowl haircut), a movie offer was usually a solid bet. These movies varied wildly in quality, and more often than not were “star vehicles” with minimal, hackneyed plots. “Good Times” featured the rock and roll singers in a movie about…well, rock and roll singers becoming movie stars. (Viewing it today, it’s a fun, much better than average sixties romp. And the styles were incredible, topped off by George Barris-designed his-and-her Mustangs specially built for the film. Long clips can be found on YouTube, but you didn’t read that here!)

History shows that 1967 was the start of a long dry spell for Sonny and Cher. “Good Times” bombed at the box office, and “The Beat Goes On”, a number 6 pop hit, would provide the Bonos’ last Billboard chart action for a very long time. So they headed for Las Vegas. Only made it out to Needles. There, they found steady work as a casino act, and over the next few years they carefully honed their stage personas (personae?) – Sonny, the naïve, somewhat air-headed dreamer, and Cher, his quick-witted, sharp-tongued wife, always ready to burst his bubble with the perfectly timed wisecrack.

Audiences loved it, and in 1971 CBS came forward with an offer for an hour-long summer replacement series. “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” quickly became a national sensation, a Top 10 show for several seasons in a row, and a weekly fixture of millions of TV viewers’ homes, mine included.

When the couple announced their divorce in 1974, it was a palpable shock. Their lives took very different courses over the ensuing decades, with Sonny eventually entering Republican politics, winning the office of Mayor of Palm Springs, California then a seat as a U.S. congressman. In 1998, he died in a tragic skiing accident. Cher, no last name necessary, remains an entertainment icon, with at least number one hit in each decade since her first emergence on the scene. I still think of her 1999 hit “Believe” as “the inescapable song”, because unless you stayed in your house all year with a supply of food, windows and doors duct-taped shut and the lights turned off, you couldn’t escape it. We took a family vacation to California that year and heard it at least once every 15 minutes, including while standing in line for the mine train at Calico. Somehow it made perfect sense.

All right. Lest you think this site has turned into “Retro Entertainment Tonight”, I figure it’s about time I said something about that stately structure behind our Hollywood heroes. That, my friends, is the first “real” Dillard’s store, which opened in February 1964 in Austin’s Hancock Shopping Center.

It was a far cry from the first store opened by William T. Dillard in Nashville, Arkansas, a rural town southwest of Hot Springs, in the late 1930’s. Born in 1914, Dillard grew up in the tiny town of Mineral Springs, Arkansas, where his father owned a dry goods store. His early years were typified by hard work at the family store and a desire to learn the retailing business inside and out, the quintessential American story of a young man diligently following in his father’s footsteps.

By his mid-twenties, however, Dillard had earned a distinction that set him apart from most American young men of the day, certainly those from rural Arkansas. In 1938, he earned a masters’ degree in business from New York’s prestigious Columbia University, where he attended on a scholarship.  Valuable as a Columbia education was, however, Dillard’s exposure to the Big Apple’s legendary department stores – Macy’s, Gimbels and John Wanamaker (Dillard worked at their Manhattan branch while in school there) – arguably did as much to shape his future career.  

Leaving New York, Dillard pursued management trainee jobs with Sears, Roebuck and Co. and J.C. Penney, and received offers from both. Penney offered Dillard positions in Walla Walla, Washington, of all places, and the much closer to home Topeka, Kansas. Dillard took Sears’ offer, which was closer still –a Tulsa, Oklahoma store. He stayed there only seven months before leaving to open his own store, in Nashville, Arkansas, as mentioned.

The store did well, but over time Dillard grew restless. Most of all, he was eager to avoid his father’s mistake of “wast(ing) many of his abilities because he was confined to a small town”, according to author Leon Joseph Rosenfeld in his brief but excellent 1988 book “Dillard’s: The First Fifty Years”. In 1948, Dillard purchased a 40 percent in Wooten’s department store in Texarkana, -- miles to the southwest on the Texas border, a much larger market with a population of 55,000. The following year, he bought the remaining interest in the Texarkana store (by then called “Wooten & Dillard”) and sold off the Nashville business.  Within five years it became the leading store in Texarkana, and Dillard, who had relocated his family there, was one the area’s prominent citizens.

Interestingly, Dillard reversed course in a sense when he bought back into a small market with the March 1955 purchase of a department  store in Magnolia, Arkansas from a friend. It was back to bigger things the following year, however, when the opportunity arose to acquire a well-respected East Texas  department store. For years, Dillard had admired Mayer & Schmidt, the leading store in Tyler, Texas, a town with a population similar to that of Texarkana.

Mayer & Schmidt, founded in 1899, was a well run store with a fine reputation, drawing customers from a radius well beyond the city of Tyler. In 1956, however, they were in trouble. The previous year, Mayer & Schmidt opened a second store in town “to capitalize on its prosperity”, but the new location turned out to be a flop, and “within a year it was closed and deeply in debt”, according to Rosenberg. Based on his success in Texarkana, Dillard was able to line up financing, and in April 1956, acquired a majority stake in the Mayer & Schmidt store. Dillard immediately embarked on a complete remodeling and expansion of the store, adding furniture, appliance, jewelry, records and hi-fi departments along with leased shoe, book and fur operations. The revamped Mayer & Schmidt debuted on September 17, 1956, and would prove to be a great success under Dillard’s ownership.

In 1959, a banker friend of Dillard’s informed him of another well-regarded department store recently befallen by rocky times. Brown-Dunkin Company was Tulsa, Oklahoma’s largest department store (more than twice as large an enterprise as Mayer & Schmidt), founded in 1924 by brothers-in-law John H. Dunkin and John A. Brown, and “occup(ied) the first nine floors of the fifteen-story Hunt building at Fourth and Main streets, the city’s busiest corner”, Rosenberg states, and “had become a household word in northeast Oklahoma”.    

Brown-Dunkin’s problem was one of succession. Dunkin had passed away in 1958 and Brown some years before that, and the store went into decline under the management left in place by the founders’ widows. Intrigued by the challenge of running a well-known store and the chance “to prove his abilities before a national audience” as Rosenberg put it, Dillard set off on an arduous seven-month process of negotiations with the Brown and Dunkin widows and numerous banks. Ultimately, he was required to put up the Mayer & Schmidt store as security for the transaction. Knowing he could fall back on the Texarkana and Magnolia stores should things go awry, Dillard pressed forward confidently. On the last day of February 1960, Dillard took control of the Brown-Dunkin store.

Initially there were headaches – after the ownership change was publicized, picketers from the local Building Services Union showed up on the sidewalks outside the Brown-Dunkin store. Unbeknownst to Dillard, the previous ownership had recently dismissed the store’s cleaning ladies and elevator operators, contracting out those functions to outside firms. Dillard refused to reopen the issue and eventually the picketing stopped. Then there was the matter of $150,000 worth of unpaid invoices discovered in a drawer, which forced Dillard to obtain an additional line of credit.

On top of these hassles was one more that ended up turning into a considerable plus. In sharp contrast to today, mid-20th century America was dotted with department store companies that ranged in size from single-store outfits to 20-plus-unit multi-regional chains, with most falling somewhere in between. To increase their negotiating power with clothing manufacturers and other suppliers, many department store firms signed up with (usually New York-based) buying cooperative agencies. These agencies strove to represent one department store chain in each major city, while doing their best to avoid any competitive overlap between clients. When Brown-Dunkin’s buying agency, Mutual, caught wind of the buyout, they figured Dillard wasn’t capable of pulling the potatoes out of the proverbial fire and dumped Brown-Dunkin in favor of Vandever’s, another Tulsa department store.

Not long afterward, Dillard joined up with the Frederick Atkins Company, “one of the more prestigious buying houses in the country”, as Rosenberg put it. The Atkins firm represented a host of marquee names including John Wanamaker (Philadelphia), B. Altman (New York), Hochschild-Kohn (Baltimore), Miller & Rhoads (Richmond), Ivey’s (the Carolinas and Florida), Pizitz (awesomely-named, Birmingham), Chas. A. Stevens (Chicago – did you really think I’d leave that out?) and The Broadway (of latent “Mad Men” fame, Los Angeles), among many others. When he signed on with Atkins in 1962, Dillard was their smallest client. By the early 1980’s, he was their largest.

Two years on and these problems behind him, Dillard was eager to expand.  Dillard had “recognized the shift of the population to the suburbs and the need to provide stores close to them” as far back as his brief tenure with Sears, Rosenberg noted, and he “had wanted to open a unit in a mall for some time to see if it would work”.  For this exciting new venture he partnered with Homart, a recently created mall development subsidiary of Sears, then ferociously active in the Southwest.  Dillard initially considered Homart’s first mall project, the just opened Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas. (Many years later, in 1987, Dillard finally put in a store there.) Also in the running was Homart’s still-in-development Coronado Center in Albuquerque.

Instead, he chose a third Homart project, the Hancock Shopping Center, to be located in Austin and co-anchored, of course, by Sears (second photo here). Dillard’s methodology behind this choice was novel, to put it mildly. From Rosenberg’s book: “Dillard had been visiting in the city (Austin) and was waiting for his flight to Albuquerque when he happened to thumb through a telephone book. He noticed there were more Lutheran churches in Austin than any other denomination and associated the churches with Germans, who had always impressed him with their work ethic and honesty. On that basis, he decided that Austin would be an excellent place for his store.”  (And here I always thought the Methodists were the benchmark for retail site selection. Shows you what I know.)

Obviously the Lutherans and a great many others liked Dillard’s store. It was an unqualified success, resetting the template for all of the company’s future growth. From that point forward, Dillard “took every opportunity in subsequent years to co-anchor new malls with Sears or Penney’s”, Rosenberg wrote, “…he was not in direct competition with either store, and they both made good mall partners for him”.

Importantly, the store was the first to carry Dillard’s own name, not counting his early dry goods stores in southwest Arkansas. (As a side note, Dillard sold the Texarkana and Magnolia stores in 1962 to Aldens, a Chicago-based catalog retailer then seeking a piece of the brick-and-mortar side of the business. Aldens had recently bought out Shoppers World, and would itself be absorbed by Gamble-Skogmo in 1964.) Although he would continue to put his own name on stores in markets that were new to the company (Austin, for example), for years he maintained the names of acquired companies in their respective markets, such as Mayer & Schmidt and Brown-Dunkin, even when adding new mall-based stores in their areas.

As mentioned, the Austin, Texas Dillard’s store opened in February 1964. Later that year saw the return of Dillard and his family (from Tulsa) to Arkansas, this time to Little Rock, the state capital, where he had recently assembled a considerable retail enterprise. Over the previous year, Dillard bought out the Gus Blass Company and Pfiefer’s, two of the three largest department stores in the area, the other being M.M. Cohn. The buyouts were carried out with the help of funds from the Mayer & Schmidt stockholders and $1.5 million kicked in from Sperry & Hutchinson, who invested on the condition that Dillard hand out their S&H Green Stamps in his stores. Both Blass and Pfeifer’s were large downtown stores with one branch apiece – Blass in Pine Bluff and Pfeifer’s in Hot Springs. In 1965 a mall-based Blass store was opened at Park Plaza in Little Rock, and two years after that, another at the then new (and just recently torn down, except for Sears) Indian Mall in Jonesboro. Starting in 1967, Dillard’s Little Rock-based operations were combined under the name of Pfeifer-Blass, although I don’t know for sure whether this change was extended to store signage.    

The late 60’s and early 70’s were a furious period of growth for Dillard’s companies, and virtually all of it took place at the malls. 1965 saw a Brown-Dunkin store at Southland Shopping Mall in Tulsa, followed by another at the Northland Shopping center the following year. In Oklahoma City, he opened a “Dillard’s Brown-Dunkin” store at the Sheppard Mall, “a first step in phasing in his own name for all his stores”, according to Rosenberg’s book. In 1968, two Dillard’s stores were opened in San Antonio, at Central Park Mall and what is now known as South Park Mall. And the growth continued from there – the first Missouri location, at Springfield’s Battlefield Mall was added in 1970, as was the first Louisiana location at Shreveport’s Shreve City Center.

In 1974, the various Dillard-controlled stores all took on the “Dillard’s” name, reflecting the incorporation of Dillard’s enterprises under one financial umbrella. More importantly, it provided a consistent brand image for marketing purposes. While many (including me) lament the passing of so many great department store nameplates in recent decades, it has proven to be an unstoppable, irreversible trend.  It’s interesting to note, however, that even Macy’s, the proverbial poster child” for department store rebranding, owned Davison’s (Atlanta) for 61 years before converting them to Macy’s in 1986 and Bamberger’s (“New Jersey’s greatest store, and one of America’s finest”) for 57 years before finally hanging the red star on its front door that same year. 

When William T. Dillard passed away at age 87 in 2002, his namesake company that began so humbly was America’s third largest department store chain, according to his New York Times obituary. Today, among “luxury” department stores (i.e.: not including Sears, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney), they remain number three, behind Macy’s and Nordstrom and ahead of Neiman Marcus and Belk, per Stores Magazine’s latest rankings. Today, Dillard’s boasts over 300 stores in a coast-to-coast empire. And the beat goes on.

Below, a 1972 newspaper ad hailing the new Dillard’s store at the Northwest Arkansas Plaza, as reproduced in the Rosenberg book - an enjoyable hodgepodge of names and architectural styles if there ever was one.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Our Lucky Winners!

Well, friends, the results are in, and pictured above are the winning “ballots” for our Randhurst Book contest, in the order in which they were drawn! Congratulations to Don Fields, Mel (of Ephemeraology fame), Pseudo3D, Mygypsynature and Anna Banana!

If each of you would email me your address at pleasantfamilyshopping(at)hotmail(dot)com, I’ll get your book packaged up and on its way to you!

In the very unlikely event I don’t hear from all of the winners in a reasonable time (say a week from now, give or take a few days), three runner-up names have been drawn.

My thanks to all 36 of you who entered the contest, for your very kind comments and your support of PFS. And a very special thanks to Greg Peerbolte, Executive Director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society (and author of the book) for his organization’s co-sponsorship of this event. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Randhurst is 50!

Today marks another in a series of retail golden anniversaries in a year already full of them. While less renowned than the others we’ve talked about here in recent months, it’s the one closest to my heart. Fifty years ago today, Randhurst Center, the “pinwheel on the prairie” to cite one nickname from its early days, opened in Mount Prospect, Illinois, about 20 miles northwest of Chicago.

I’ve written about Randhurst several times on this site in the last few years, and there’s not much I can add to that. We started with a historical overview of Randhurst on the eve of its massive redevelopment, looked at the wondrous Randhurst Christmas seasons from the 1960’s, and introduced the Randhurst book - a comprehensive, entertaining and copiously illustrated history of the mall from then to now.  As mentioned, I contributed some research and had the honor of writing the foreword to the book. It was a great experience and I learned many things, not the least of which was how to spell “foreword”.
But just look at these photos. Taken right at the time of Randhurst’s opening, they are among the relatively few formal publicity photos (many snapshots and slides exist) of the shopping center ever made.

Of course they show the place in its pristine state, but setting that aside, many of us would still find it hard not to compare the classic Randhurst (and the other great malls of the past) with what we frequently see today. Take the anchor stores’ inside entrances, for example – contrast today’s “one style fits all” signage on whitish or rustish or grayish marble tile backgrounds with the exquisite variety of old. The prominent columns and filigreed second-level openings of Wieboldt’s. The handsome brick and globe lights of The Fair, which remained through much of the Montgomery Ward era.  Carson Pirie Scott’s (not pictured here, unfortunately, but viewable on earlier posts) stunning blue tile with antique gold signage.

Then there are the kiosks – no tacky stands, no pushy salespeople hawking vitamin supplements or cell phone covers (granted, there wasn’t a 60’s equivalent for those), or toy airplanes flying into your face.  Instead they were quaint, low key and beautifully designed, reflecting architect Victor Gruen’s European sensibilities. 
Even the amusements for children are vastly different. Where today outdoor playground or Little Tikes equipment and rubberized floors are the norm, once upon a time we played on cement-sculpted animals. On polished granite bases. On top of a cement floor. Yes, friends, the insurance industry would love that today. 

And now, at Randhurst and a number of other malls across the country, the mall “core” itself is disappearing. Outdoor walkways and parking spaces have replaced the seating coves and fountains of the past. One thing that really strikes me about “lifestyle centers” is the acoustical difference. The echoes, the dull rumble of even a small crowd at the good ol’ mall, is disappearing. Now they sound like…parking lots. (For those of you who tend to stay a step ahead of me, I’ll spare you the expected Joni Mitchell paraphrases.)

But forget all of that for now, this is a milestone worth celebrating! And in light of that I’m going to do something completely new here. Yes, friends, we’re having a contest! In observance of the 50th anniversary of Randhurst and the somewhat less important 5th anniversary of Pleasant Family Shopping, I will be giving away, by random drawing, 5 copies of Randhurst: Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center, written by Greg Peerbolte of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and published by The History Press. The book contains a free foreword by me, and was voted one of the Ten Best Books Ever*. 
What do you have to do? Well, it’s simple! Just leave a (hopefully tasteful as always) comment on this post, with a way for me to identify you on the winners’ list. “A way to identify” means something other than Anonymous (one of my most loyal commenters), and can be your real name, an assumed name, you Army serial number, checking account number and pin, whatever you’re comfortable with!

On Saturday, August 25th, each name will be written on an appropriate piece of paper, placed into an enclosure of some sort, and five names will be drawn at random. I will publish the winners’ names (or whatever you use) on the site that evening, and winners will need to contact me with their address info. It’s that easy! Don’t delay - enter today!  
NOTE: No purchase necessary, but of course we always appreciate such things. This offer is void where prohibited, taxed or generally frowned upon. One entry per person, please. Odds of winning are somewhere between 100,000,000 and 10 to 1. Many will enter (I hope), only five will win. This contest is not open to employees of the Mount Prospect Historical Society or their families (like I’m gonna know) or employee (singular) of Pleasant Family Shopping and my family (except my Uncle Louie, who wouldn’t read the #@&$ thing if I paid him, so I’m okay there). E Pluribus Unum, Annuit cœptis, Quid - Me Vexari? and all other conditions apply.  Thankyouverymuch, you’re a beautiful audience.

* on the subject of Mount Prospect area shopping malls.   

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Happy July 4th, Plus One!

Yes, my friends, it’s that time again! The day after America’s birthday comes Pleasant Family Shopping’s birthday, number 5 this year. It’s the day I go scrambling through my files for a nice summer scene and try to come up with something clever to say about it.

The scene is certainly nice enough  - a good old Piggly Wiggly, in this case a Texas location operated by Shop Rite Foods of Texas (not affiliated with the Shop-Rite of the Northeast), circa 1965. The sun is shining, the lady is well-coiffed (shoot, hair spray is even advertised on the wall!), and the store employees are courteous and nattily dressed.  The Cokes are in glass, as they should be - 6 1/2 ounce size in the thrifty 12-pack.

As far as the “clever” part goes, I’m at a loss this time around. My best idea for a post title, “Gettin’ piggy wit it”, might not make sense to some folks (something that usually doesn’t stop me), and besides, it’s already been used on a bumper sticker. Oh, well!
Thanks so much for your support. I hope to earn your continued readership.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 2, 1962 - The First Walmart Opens

Ben Franklin could’ve had it made. I’m not referring to the “founding father”, of course – the one Americans will honor tomorrow, he of the long hair and granny glasses, kites, keys and lightning bolts, Almanacks and The Saturday Evening Post. I mean the famous variety store chain that borrowed its name from ol’ Ben, the “Ben Franklin 5 and 10 cent stores” that dotted communities nationwide for a big chunk of the 20th century.   

Samuel Moore Walton of Bentonville, Arkansas was far and away one of Ben Franklin’s most successful franchisees. Starting with a lone store in Newport, Arkansas in 1945, by 1962 he had 16 profitable stores in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
In addition to being an unusually savvy retailer, Sam Walton was a researcher - a true “retail scientist.” An idea sponge. His laboratories, in this case, were the pioneering discount stores of the Northeast – Korvette, Ann and Hope, Mammoth Mart and others who by the late fifties were sowing the seeds of a full-scale retail revolution that would bloom within a few short years.  Walton saw the enthusiastic response to these exciting stores and saw no reason why their concept couldn’t be duplicated in the rural towns of the South, areas that were primarily served by small chain stores and mom-and-pop shops. In many places, even those were few and far between.
Having formulated his ideas and drawn up his plans, Sam did the loyal thing – he flew up to Chicago to meet with the execs of his franchisor, Butler Brothers, the parent company of Ben Franklin. There, he mapped out his discount store concept in great detail, covering all of the key aspects – the larger stores, the plethora of departments, the everyday low prices, the streamlined distribution model whereby Butler would do most of it themselves, eliminating the costly middlemen wholesalers. Then he offered it to them - lock, stock and barrel - if only Butler would be willing to carry the plans out. They told him to stuff it, so to speak.  
Rejected, he returned home to Bentonville, and on July 2, 1962, fifty years ago yesterday, he opened the store pictured above – the first Walmart store, in nearby Rogers, Arkansas. (The photo itself is circa 1970. The “Discount City” sign was added shortly after opening, a tagline they used for over three decades.) Not long after the first store opened, the Butler brass traveled to Rogers and saw firsthand the favorable customer reactions. They pulled Walton aside and told him “Don’t open any more of these Walmarts”, lest he jeopardize his relationship with their company. His exact response isn’t recorded, but through his actions Walton essentially told them to stuff it. So to speak.
Within four years, there were five Walmarts, and by 1980 there were nearly 300. Today, the company has over 9,000 stores internationally and they are the undisputed King of Retail. Best I can tell, no one is even vying for the crown.   
Here is the grand opening ad for that landmark store, boasting 22 departments! (And some way-cool specs!)

For those interested in learning more about the Walmart story, let me commend to you the fine book pictured below. “Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man”, written by former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Karen Blumenthal  and published last fall. I was able to help Karen source some photos for the book, and she very kindly sent me a copy. Written for the “young readers” market, it’s an intelligent, entertaining, well-illustrated biography that will definitely appeal to adults with an interest in retail history and/or modern-day commercial culture.  
Walmart books (with the exception of Walton’s autobiography “Made in America”, an essential read) tend to fall into one of two categories – the “fawning over Walmart” group or the “Walmart as scourge of humankind” group.  Blumenthal takes a very balanced approach, and “young readers” notwithstanding, gives a great amount of historical detail and insight into the events and personalities that shaped the company. Importantly, the book doesn’t shy away from the controversies of recent years. It’s a very satisfying look at an important historical figure.    

Monday, July 2, 2012

J.C. Penney, King of the Soft Goods

Reaching its silver anniversary in 1927, the J.C. Penney Company found many reasons to celebrate. The amount of Penney stores had more than doubled since 1920 to more than 750 locations “in practically every State in the Union” according to the New York Times (close to it - 45 of the then 48 states), and annual sales of nearly $116 million.  

By this time the founder himself, James Cash Penney, had largely turned over leadership of the company to others while he vigorously pursued various philanthropic interests, most importantly a program to enhance America’s agricultural production. A farm boy at heart, Penney donated millions towards the development of dairy cattle herds, soil improvement initiatives and crop science, particularly in the South.  An October 10, 1929 article in the Atlanta Constitution summed it up as follows: “In his breadth of vision, unselfishness of purpose and devotion to the upbuilding of our agricultural interests, Mr. Penney is doing a work which stamps him as one of America’s outstanding citizens”.    
Two weeks after the article appeared, though, came the great Wall Street crash - the prelude to years of hard times for many American individuals and institutions. J.C. Penney the company weathered the depression reasonably well, although it would be five years before it again reached the lofty peak of its 1929 sales of $209 million. For J.C. Penney the man, however, those years were devastating. 

As it happened, Penney literally “gave away” his personal fortune during the 20’s and early 30’s, funding the various farm interests and other good causes to the tune of millions, with little awareness of the increasing gravity of the country’s (and his own personal) economic situation. In 1931, Penney’s lawyers advised him he was “virtually broke”, a story recounted in author Bill Hare’s “Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney”, a rattling read. A number of top Penney managers, in an effort led by Penney president Earl Sams, pooled money to buy the founder a new set of shares in own namesake company, and for the first time in years the company paid him a salary. These were the first steps towards setting Penney, “an incalculable asset to the company that (he) founded and built”, as Hare wrote (in Sams’ voice), back on his feet. “After three years he would cease taking the salary, and by 1940, when the company declared a dividend of $5 per share, he owned 51,000 of them. But the going was rough at first.”
This incident also sparked a much-publicized spiritual awakening in the despondent Penney’s life, which occurred during a visit to the famed Battle Creek (Michigan) Sanitarium, founded by John Harvey Kellogg (brother of W.K. Kellogg, the cereal king). Mary Elizabeth Curry, in her fine book Creating An American Institution: The Merchandising Genius of J.C. Penney, tells the story of one early morning when Penney walked the halls of the sanitarium and overheard a chapel service where an old hymn called “God will take care of you” was being sung. Penney joined the service, “and asked God to help him, and what occurred next was so personally dramatic he liked to call if a miracle. He felt as though a heavy burden, all his fears and worries, had immediately lifted from his shoulders”, Curry writes. Penney himself wrote numerous books and gave hundreds of talks on the subject in the ensuing decades, alongside and as part of his emissary work for the company. Penney was by no means the only “famous businessman - preacher” of his time, but certainly among the best known. Such a combination is relatively rare in high profile business today.

As if the economic conditions of the 1930’s weren’t difficult enough, the Penney Company faced another hurdle in the form of the brewing “Anti-Chain Store” movement. As early as the mid-20’s there were rumblings in the press about the “So-Called Menace of Chain Stores”, as a December 1926 New York Times article phrased it. The company generally offered a “low-key response” to such challenges, according to Mary Elizabeth Curry, preferring to “emphasize service and values for customers”. “It isn’t the purpose and it isn’t the desire for our organization or to destroy the independent merchant. Our job is to serve well a community through our plan of economic distribution”, Curry quotes a Penney executive from 1930.
Push came to shove a few years later with the advent of the Patman Bill, a proposed piece of legislation that would have literally taxed many chain store operations out of existence. Faced with this, the company was forced to take a much stronger tack, and it was Penney’s chairman, Earl C. Sams, who took the lead in the matter, testifying before Congress in 1940.  He laid out Penney’s case against the bill in five main points, as quoted in the landmark book “Chain Stores in America 1859-1950” by Godfrey M. Lebhar: “1) It would destroy the Penney company or any similar company. 2) It would destroy the finest field of opportunity that has ever existed in retailing for the young ambitious man born without family means. 3) It would add to the cost of living for every American family of limited means and would lower the American standard of living. 4) It would deal a staggering blow to the entire economic life of this country and would be especially destructive of the smaller cities and towns for the benefit of larger cities. 5) It would hurt and tax this entire nation for the protection and enrichment of a small minority of self-interested middlemen and of another small minority group of ill-advised marginal retailers.”

Beyond that, Sams attempted to debunk the theory “that chain stores were ruining the smaller communities”. The real culprit, he maintained, was the proliferation of quality, paved roadways that now enabled Americans to travel far afield to shop – no longer were they captive to the ‘local town square’ for the necessities of life. On the contrary, the chain stores had indeed served “as a check on the drying up of towns and small cities” (Godfrey’s words) because according to Sams, “(they) have brought  to these small centers the same values, the same crisp new styles, and the same modern stores that were available in the bigger cities. And the customers know it.” As it turned out, the arguments put forth by Sams and others did much to swing public opinion to the chains’ side. On June 17, 1940, Patman’s “chain store death sentence” bill “suffered the death sentence itself”, Godfrey wrote, when it was killed in committee, never to reach the House floor for a vote.
While J.C. Penney was known (and would continue to be for some time) as a “small town chain” despite its impressive sales and burgeoning store count, there were a growing number of exceptions to the “small town” aspect. In 1931, the company opened its largest store to date in Seattle, a new building on the former site of the Bon Marché flagship department store. (Some years later, Penney’s San Francisco unit would claim the distinction of largest store.) Around this time Penney opened other large stores in key Western cities, including Oakland, Ogden (Utah), Salt Lake City and Reno, all of which “(did) a large volume of business”, as the New York Times put it at the time.

From the mid-30’s to the mid-50’s Penney sales volume, from stores large and small, ballooned from $225 million to over $1.3 billion. An interesting side note, related in a September 1950 Fortune magazine article entitled “Penney’s, King of the Soft Goods”, was the way Penney store managers shared in the company’s good fortune, no pun intended. (Granted, they shouldered a great deal of responsibility, including all hiring, training, advertising decisions and ordering of all products stocked – no merchandise was “pushed” on a Penney store by the home office in those days.) The rewards were substantial, however - “A good manager in a fairly large store can make fancy money” (“fancy” meaning 1/3 of the store’s after-tax net –yikes!), the article said, citing the example of the aforementioned Seattle store’s manager who pulled $125,000 in one year. The plan was later modified to allow assistant managers and other key employees to share in the pie. Still, a good many managers earned $30 to 50,000 a year, and nearly a third (of then 1,600 store managers) raked in at least $15,000 annually – fancy money indeed when nice houses could be had in most corners of America for well below ten grand. 
By 1950 J.C. Penney was a solid third place in America’s department store sweepstakes, behind the mighty Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the faltering yet still formidable Montgomery Ward. One of the keys to continued growth, the Fortune magazine article surmised, was increased presence in the Eastern half of the country. Up to that time, Penney was still thought of as a Western retailer (with “a Penney store in practically town above 5,000 and many smaller ones”) despite recent inroads into some key Eastern and Midwestern markets. “In the East, nobody knows a damn thing about the Penney Co.”, one manager was quoted as saying.  To be sure, building up the Penney reputation to the same level it enjoyed in the West would take time, with rough going in a number of markets. In Camden, New Jersey for example, Penney went head-to-head with Gimbels, Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers, “(whose) heavy advertising pull(ed) customers away from Penney’s, not toward it”. And in Cincinnati, where Penney opened a stunning new store in 1948, fierce competition from Shillito’s and others kept the store in the red for nearly two years after opening, a most unusual occurrence for Penney.

Over time, Eastern Penney store managers, many of whom started with the company in its native West, would adapt to the unique needs of their new markets.  The article cites the Camden store manager, for example, who began with Penney in Spokane, Washington, transferring to Milwaukee then to Quincy, Illinois before landing at the helm in Camden, a market where a constant barrage of advertising was necessary to drive sales, a situation he hadn’t experienced in his earlier tours of duty.
The manager of the Springfield, Massachusetts unit worked in Penney’s San Francisco flagship store, moving to Santa Barbara before traversing the country to run the Springfield store. New England customers, as a rule, were very different from those in California. “In buying curtains a California customer wants to know first how wide the ruffle is, how full it is, and what the colors are; the Springfield customer asks whether the organdy (a type of fabric often used in curtains) is permanently finished, how securely the ruffles are sewed on and how long it will last”. Another cited example concerned towels, then as now one of Penney’s strongest product lines. Whereas bath towels typically outsold face towels 2 to 1 “presumably because a bath towel can serve either purpose”, in the Springfield store the opposite was true. The manager was undecided as to “whether the frugal New Englanders use face towels after they bathe, or whether they are just trying out Penney face towels before shooting the moon and buying the larger size.” (They also tended to say “ayuh” when responding affirmatively to questions, a point the article curiously omits.)

In any event, Americans were buying more face towels, bath towels, washcloths and all manner of other linens from their local J.C. Penney store than anywhere else, in addition to clothes for the whole family. “King of the Soft Goods”, indeed, but big changes lie ahead.
The first four photos above appear by courtesy of the J.C. Penney Archives at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University, the last is from an original slide in my collection. From the 1950’s, the following locations are depicted: Stockton, Long Beach and Glendale, California, followed by Rockwood, Tennessee (apparently a much older store, refaced) and Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a very nice hat tip to the area’s traditional adobe architecture. Note the gas stations represented in the picture – a Phillips 66 sign right next door, with a Conoco station across the street from it. Across the street from the Penney store itself, reflected in the store windows, is what appears to be a “Teague” Texaco. If you have a free week this summer, you can read about those and more here.