Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Publix and the Wings of Time

A couple of years back we featured a series on the history of Publix, the Florida-based supermarket chain. As mentioned throughout those posts, Publix is a company that has inspired a highly unusual degree of loyalty among its customers, a fact that’s no surprise to most folks who live in their market areas. They have a “mystique”, if you will, acquired over the years - something most retailers would kill for. A key ingredient in forming the Publix mystique in the decades following World War II was their unique store architecture – bold, forward looking, well-executed designs that stood out in a sea of strip mall similarity. The “winged” Publix stores in particular stand today (virtually, that is, as I believe all of the originals are gone) as enduring icons of the “Florida Boom” years.

Recently, I was delighted to receive an email from Florida native Tim Fillmon offering to share some photos he took between the late 1970’s and early 90’s of various classic Publix stores. At the time, Tim worked for the State of Florida in historic preservation, and on his travels he documented the changing sights along the way – “from signs and shopping centers to courthouses and motels”, as he puts it. In this day and age that type of activity is (thankfully) becoming increasingly common, but before the advent of digital media, when film was expensive and there were no easy means to share one’s work, it was all too rare. I want to express my thanks to Tim for sharing these with us and hope that you will do the same in the comments section.

Tim has strong family connections to Publix. His sister worked there from 1966 until her untimely passing in 2009, and his father headed up the construction of many Publix stores, including “Central Plaza in St. Petersburg, Britton Plaza and Northgate in Tampa and many others in Orlando, Hollywood, Lehigh Acres, and other places around the state.”

The fun thing for me is how the photos depict these Publix stores as I would have known them had I grown up in Florida. For other tail-end baby boomers or Gen-Xers who did grow up there or who vacationed there regularly, they should bring back some good memories. In any event it’s clear that, 20 or even 30 years after opening, these stores had charm to spare.

In the spirit of recreating the random nature of a typical “early 1980’s drive around town”, I’ve deliberately avoided putting these in any sort of chronological order. I’ve added a few notes for each photo.

“Always start with the night shot” is my philosophy, and shown above is a great one of the Publix at Gainesville Mall, a store that opened in 1967. Does your local supermarket have animated neon? I didn’t think so!
The neon is glowing here, and it’s not even dark out! This was the Southgate Shopping Center location in New Port Richey, Florida, not to be confused with the other Southgate (of Johnny Depp/Edward Scissorhands fame) in Lakeland. Look at the gold “winged” parcel pick-up sign in front, typical of the attention to detail on these stores. Isn’t this nice?
Many of the shopping center-based Publixes pictured here have since been replaced with much larger stores, usually sporting the Spanish-styled architecture that’s de rigueur in the Florida retail world of today. Here’s one instance, however, where the replacement Publix is as fun and quirky as the original, if not more so – from the College Park neighborhood of Orlando. Check out this video of the “Retro-Publix” that occupies this site now. The “rotating wings” sign is reportedly original. Wow!
A wonderful little jewel box of a store, located at 1720 16th Street North in St. Petersburg. Save for the 60’s/70’s cars and the S&H sign (which replaced an earlier neon version), this one looks virtually as it did in 1950, the year of its opening. It featured design elements that Publix would employ through the early and mid-50’s (up until the advent of their famous “winged” designs) on ever larger stores, including Art Deco styling with glass blocks, Vitrolite-faced awnings and two-toned cutout letters. This tiny Publix finally closed in 1982, and the building now houses America’s finest-looking Family Dollar store.
A unique facade was employed at the First Federal Shopping Center Publix in St. Petersburg. The transitional period between the Art Deco and “Winged” eras is clearly in evidence. (“Transitional period.” You’d think I was talking about Picasso here.)
Here’s an example of the larger deco-style Publix stores, a unit that was located at 3615 Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. The framed “arches” jutting out from the sides of the store were common features of their early 50’s stores and appear to have been more important as a decorative element than as a gateway to storeside parking. The word “PUBLIX” once appeared across the top portion of the arches on either side of the store, but by the time this photo was taken it had been removed. A modern Publix now sits on this site.
Hillsborough Boulevard in Tampa, with a parking lot full of “downsized” American cars. I remember my deep disappointment with the looks of the first downsized full-size cars introduced by GM in the fall of 1976 (I wasn’t a driver yet –just in eighth grade!), thinking how ugly and “chopped off” they seemed. The following year, they downsized the mid-size cars, which looked even worse. It seemed to take eons for the “Big Three” American car companies to get their styling mojo back, by which time their overseas-based competition (for whom smaller cars were always the rule, of course) had racked up huge market share gains. Interesting times, those were.
Here’s the Publix store at the Hollieanna Shopping Center in Winter Park, Florida, just north of Orlando. To the right is trusty sidekick Eckerd Drugs, Publix’s pharmacy tenant of choice for many years starting in 1959. Prior to that, most Publix-owned shopping centers featured Rexall drugstores, owned by franchisee Walt Touchton. When Touchton sold off his stores to Rexall mega-operator Liggett, Publix was disaffected by the ownership change and offered Jack Eckerd the proverbial “opportunity of a lifetime” to locate his drugstores in Publix-owned shopping centers. Within ten years Eckerd became one of the largest drug chains in the country, and in his autobiography Eckerd was quick to credit the Publix deal as the catalyst of that success.
The Hollieanna store once again, wings clipped and remodeling underway. Those letters have baked in the Florida sun for a long time. I'm digging the two-toned Monte in the foreground!
On an earlier post there’s a 1960’s-era postcard showing the Punta Gorda Mall Publix (again, the place was much more “shopping center” than “mall”) as it appeared in its early years. This photo shows the store after its 1970’s remodeling, a makeover that many Publix stores received. Not nearly as dramatic as the “winged” look, but very attractive nonetheless.
By the early 1970’s, the company’s new and remodeled stores featured only the word “Publix”, along with the famous “Where Shopping is a Pleasure” slogan. Interestingly, they made a slight attempt at modernization of this store (at Cleveland Plaza in Clearwater) by removing the “Market” signage and replacing it with three sets of mini-wings. Kind of gives the usually humble Publix a bit of swagger, don’t you think? Instead of “Publix Market”, you get “Publix, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh!” Strictly my interpretation, of course.
A wide view of the Midway Shopping Center in Largo, Florida, showing part of a Publix store (once again minus the “Market” and plus the “swagger”) among some hard-to-identify fellow tenants. One that’s not hard to identify is Cloth World, the “Wonder World of Fabric”, a chain that was bought out by Jo-Ann Fabrics in 1994.
Another deco classic, located at 6001 N. Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, once again virtually unchanged in appearance since its opening, which took place in February 1954. Again, the modern-day S&H signs are about the only new thing. Publix was The Sperry and Hutchinson Company’s largest and most loyal customer, a relationship that lasted some 35 years. In 1987, when the company began a two-year phaseout of S&H Green Stamps (more than a decade after most chains threw in the towel on stamps), it was a crushing blow from which S&H never really recovered.
One of the hallmarks of the early Publix-developed shopping centers was their way-cool neon signage, and the memorable “arrow” design of the early 60’s, shown here at the Venice Shopping Center (today the place would have to be called “The Merchants of Venice” or something equally imposing) was one of their favorites. These signs were built for Publix by Lane Neon Company of Lakeland. According to an article in Signs of the Times magazine, the yellow arrow measured “28 feet vertically from tip to tip”. All of these signs originally had a marquee board where the “Southeast Bank” sign is located on this one. I’m aware of the following locations, in addition to Venice, that featured this type of sign: Melbourne, Douglas, Indian Rocks, Southgate (New Port Richey) and Punta Gorda. The last two can be seen on this previous post.
The Searstown Shopping Center (later renamed Town Center) in Lakeland, Florida featured a Publix store with the “letterbox” variant sign. Martin Scorsese would not be pleased.
Another fine example of the classic mid-60’s winged Publix at the Tri-City Plaza in Largo, Florida, which opened in April 1966 with a ribbon cutting by “Donna Dehart, Miss Largo, Dorothy (Kitty) Carr, Miss Clearwater and Dorothy Argo, Miss St. Petersburg” according to a St. Petersburg Times article from the morning of the big day. Again, a modern, much larger, Spanish-style Publix has long since taken the place of this store.
“Something for everybody” or “back-and-forth through time” would be a good way to describe the scene in this photo of the Pine Hills Shopping Center (Orlando area, west of town), where at least three distinct architectural styles are represented in the space of about 150 feet. To the left of the Publix, on an unidentified store, we see a nice 50’s zig-zag awning. To the right, on the Firestone dealership, a set of 60’s Roman scalloped arches. What better way to tie them together than with some good old 70’s diagonal stained wood? Now let’s top it off with some turrets, the new look of the 80’s, to bring things up to date!
Saving the best for last, we present the pièce de résistance…a prime example of my new lifelong favorite style of architecture, which I refer to as “Jet-Age Antebellum.” Not much information to go on about this one, although Tim thinks it could possibly be a South Florida location, and may have originally been intended as a “Food World”, Publix’s short-lived discount food banner. If anyone can fill us in on this store, I’d be forever indebted. And if by some chance, hope against hope, it still exists as a Publix and looks like this, please send me a copy of the local “Homes For Sale” magazine, ‘cause I’m moving there!

Thanks to Edric Floyd for identifying the location of this Publix store, at 100 West El Camino Real in Boca Raton, Florida. The building still exists as a Fresh Market, and while some changes have been made to it, some of the store's distinctive features (not the wings, of course) can still be seen. Since it's no longer a Publix, guess I won't be a Florida resident anytime soon!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March 1, 1962 - The First Kmart Opens

Today marks a key milestone in retailing history – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Kmart store, in Garden City, Michigan, pictured above shortly after its opening in a photo from “The S.S. Kresge Story”, a 1979 book by the company founder’s son, Stanley S. Kresge. This store still exists, albeit in extensively remodeled form.

By any measure, 1962 was the Year of the Discount Store. Two months later, on May 1, the first Target store opened in Roseville, Minnesota, and two months after that, on July 2, came the first Walmart in Rogers, Arkansas. Thus the stage was set for a key part of the retail drama that continues to play out today.

Others were launched that year as well, among them Big K, a Nashville-based chain that gained a decent foothold in the Mid-South before being absorbed by Wal-Mart in 1981. And of course there was Woolco, the discount division of F.W. Woolworth, which might have enjoyed Kmart-like success had Woolworth been willing to burn the ships the way the S.S. Kresge Company was.

The troubles of their last twenty years or so have made it increasingly hard to remember when the phrase “Kmart-like success” was a compliment of the highest order, but from the chain’s earliest years through the 1980’s, it most certainly was. For decades, while fellow ’62 travelers Target and Walmart remained barely known outside of their home turf, Kmart smashed sales records nationwide, and communities far and wide clamored for a new Kmart store in their neck of the woods. They turned the retail world upside down, ultimately toppling the thought-to-be unassailable Sears, Roebuck and Co. from its number-one retailer perch in 1986. Now, sadly, the two retailers commiserate under the same ownership, like two old vaudeville performers searching for an audience in the television age.

Yet what a fascinating business story it was (one I attempted to cover in a series of posts here a few years ago), right from its inception in the late 1950’s, when the brilliant Kresge manager Harry Cunningham set out to explore new business directions for the company. Kresge was early to key in on the coming decline of the “old five and ten”, and upon Cunningham’s visits to some of the early discounters (the New England area “mill stores” in particular), a new direction was set. To their credit, Kresge (meaning Cunningham and his team, with the blessing of 90-plus year old S.S. Kresge himself) pursued the Kmart program relentlessly, despite criticism, as if the company’s future depended on it - which it did.

In a multitude of ways, from large concepts to small details, Kmart served as the model for Walmart, and Sam Walton was always quick to credit Cunningham’s genius in the formation of his own company. In later years it became a mutual admiration society, with the then-retired Cunningham heaping praise on Walmart’s accomplishments while comparing his old company’s latter day performance to them in an unflattering light. Ironically, both men passed away in 1992. Twenty years later, of course, Kmart struggles for its very existence, while its “pupil”, so to speak, is the largest retailer (and second largest company) in the world.

But oh, what memories it holds for so many of us – the “Bluelight mobile unit”, a little cart with a pole-mounted flashing blue light, which seemed to make an appearance nearly every time we shopped there. (“C’mon Dad, they’re selling vacuum cleaners for 20% off!”) The Icees, the hideously painted cafeterias, the little gold, red and aqua shields on Kmart store-branded products. The yellow “Key” department price stickers and the “Remember – TYFSAK” stickers on the cash registers. And for me, my Grandmother’s “Focal” brand camera case, from which she would whip out the Kodak 126 Instamatic and Sylvania flashcubes (before my Dad bought her a Polaroid OneStep SX-70 sometime in the mid-70’s) at the slightest prompting.

So if you would, allow me to suggest this – if you live near a Kmart, why not run over there this evening and buy something, and while you’re at it, wish the checker a “Happy 50th Anniversary”? They probably won’t have a clue what you’re talking about (it’s gone unobserved on the Kmart website) (Note 3/20/12: I've since learned that Kmart did feature a post with the photo above on their Facebook page that day. History survives!), but you’ll feel good about it. If I still had one near me, I would!