Sam's Bargain Town lights up the night for shoppers in Raytown, Missouri.

Grab your cash, climb into your tailfinned gas guzzler and head on down the highway past the A&P, Cities Service and Dog 'N Suds. We're going on a shopping trip back in time, to the great old discount department stores from a bygone era...long before the nation was wall-to-wall with Wal-MartŪ, K MartŪ and TargetŪ!


 

Variety stores, like this Kresge in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, were the forerunners of the modern discount department store. They both managed, despite several closings, to co-exist in the retail landscape for more than 30 years, but most variety stores--even the larger ones--saw sales decline with each passing decade and eventually closed their doors.

 

 

COME ON IN!

 

 

When the last 300 or so remaining Woolworth variety stores closed their doors forever in 1997, many regarded it as the end of a significant era in retail history. But for me, the saddest loss of all in terms of once-popular shopping destinations was that of the first-generation discount department stores which began springing up in selected areas as early as 1956--those 65,000 to 110,000 square foot shrines to inexpensive merchandise for the masses with interior walls painted aqua, salmon and dull yellow, with huge, gaudy signs in the midst of the parking lot which often had a large, red arrow pointing straight at the store and rows of neon tubing or flashing light bulbs.

To earlier generations raised solely on shopping trips to the "five and ten" or the traditional stately department store, these sprawling monsters were either a boon to thrifty one-stop shopping, or a garish monument to stuff that was "cheap" in every sense of the word, sold by inexperienced high school grads. But to MY generation, they were the stuff of baby boomer dreams. Shopper's World. Shopper's Fair. GEM (some locations called GEX). Atlantic Mills and Spartan, which later merged. Community Discount World. The Giant Store. Ardan. Arlan's. Gulf-Mart. French Market. Two Guys. T G & Y Family Centers (which grew out of T G & Y Variety Stores). White Front. Zayre. Zody's. All doing good business. All thriving and surviving. All making for much-anticipated destinations during a weekend drive around the metro area, at a time when the big car was more or less king of the road, and it cost less than five bucks to fill the tank.

Equally inexpensive was much of the merchandise which could be had at the discount stores of that era. Summer print dresses for around $4 or $5. Men's slacks for about the same price--no overpriced designer duds at these places. While these stores might not have been one's first choice from which to buy a TV or hi-fi console (the precursor to audio components), they attracted a lot of record buyers who grabbed all the latest hit LPs for two or three bucks a pop (a dollar more for stereo)--with much of that music making for a fitting soundtrack for this type of shopping spree, at that.

And then there were those toy departments--the Holy Grail for us '60s kids whenever our folks took us to stores of this type. My absolute favorite was the game section. Every year I looked forward to seeing what new titles would be added to the list, especially those brought out by the Ideal Toy Corporation, whose specialty was mostly "boardless" games with big plastic pieces, springs, marbles and steel balls, packed in boxes three to six inches deep. Many were designed by Marvin Glass, the Willy Wonka of game inventors, who together with Ideal is credited with unleashing Mouse Trap on an unsuspecting public back in 1963. Back then, it came in a 14 x 22-inch box and sold for less than $5 at most stores, as did its less-successful 1964 follow-up, Crazy Clock. Today's Milton Bradley version of Mouse Trap is priced around $15, comes in a smaller box about the size of Ideal's 1965 Fish Bait game, and doesn't even have the old plastic "bowling ball" anymore!

I also enjoyed seeing the newest editions of the "Concentration" home game. It was interesting to see what color scheme they'd use with the familiar graphics on the box cover each year. These were relatively inexpensive as well, and a good thing too, for I wound up having to get no less than four different editions during the '60s due to that roll of 59 (touted as 60) puzzles which I always found easy to memorize once I'd been through the roll.

Yes, those were great times, visiting the toy departments at the old discount stores during those sunny, less-inflationary years, even if you had to wait for Christmas to get some of those things (at least you could buy Plastigoop for your Mattel Thingmaker year-round). But those times weren't always great. Back in those days before game boxes were plastic-wrapped, some stores' game aisles displayed the dreaded "Do Not Open Boxes!" sign (one such store was Shopper's Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, where I got my first-ever look at Crazy Clock during a Friday night visit there with my aunt in the fall of 1964), when I preferred to take a look inside to see what the actual pieces looked like. I had no intention of getting the things out and playing with them, but some kids did. Even more dreaded was the possibility that, sign or not, some mean old manager passing by would spot a lad peering into a box he'd opened and lower the boom on the poor kid--and yes, I had a couple of encounters like that growing up.

Still, an occasional setback such as this didn't affect my overall appreciation of the great old discount department stores. They were great places to spend a few bucks when a few bucks were all you had to spend. Sadly, 1973 marked the beginning of the end for most of them. Inflation was getting worse along with the nation's economic situation, the overall mood of America was growing less-optimistic, President Nixon and several of his associates had their troubles, and it seemed like each week brought news of yet another raw material that was suddenly in short supply. We went from Petula Clark singing the praises of going downtown where the neon lights are pretty, to Joni Mitchell's musical lament about "paving paradise and putting up a parking lot".

Shopper's Fair was one of the first to go after 1973 began. Atlantic and Spartan-Atlantic folded shortly afterward. So did White Front and their Topps division. And on it went through the decade. During the '80s and '90s, we even lost discount chains I thought would be around forever, such as Woolco (out of Woolworth), Venture (which began in 1970), and even T G & Y. With a handful of exceptions, it got to the point where only the hardiest chains were able to continue and grow. Events have decreed that virtually all of our future discount store purchases will be made at the Big Three Surviviors, Target, K Mart and Wal-Mart. All of them got their start in 1962...but the folks who backed them way back then probably never dreamed they'd one day have the lion's share of the nation's discount store landscape.

So before they're completely forgotten, here is a look back at a few of the great old discount department stores of days gone by...with one noteable exception, as you will see.

 

Shopper's Fair

Shopper's Fair as it looked in South Bend, Indiana, circa 1960. Des Moines, Iowa got one about the same time--but with a far-less appealing parking lot sign. At right: an advertising logo from the chain's early '70s waning days.

 

Here's a message I received from Vince Iuliano, who remembers the South Bend location:

There was a puppet show on at the time (1960) that was fairly popular in the midwest. It was called "The D D Donovan Show" and the main puppet was a puppet dog with floppy ears. Well, the show was so popular with kids that they actually had the puppet do the news at night. Instead of an anchorman , they'd have this puppet come on and "read" the weather and hard news . I kid you not . That went on into the 70's.
Anyway, one night the puppet made an appearance in the parking lot of Shopper's Fair. The crowd was enormous as we watched the puppets cavort from this makeshift wall high up in the air (well, i guess everything's high to a 2 or 3 year old.)


I also remember having my first picture taken in a little hut with Santa Claus that was hastily constructed in front of Shopper's Fair. Slush all around.


My mom bought me an Etch A Sketch , and green soldiers , and a Yogi Bear coloring book from THAT very Shopper's Fair. What 's exciting for me is that i've been back to South Bend looking for the store , only to find that it had been destroyed. YOURS was the first picture i've seen of it in 40 years. AND it was taken at a time when one of those cars in the picture, could very well have been my family's! What GREAT memories it evoked!! IF anyone else has any pics of the old Shopper's Fair , or Potawatamie Park , or any 1960's South Bend pictures, PLEASE forward them to me in JPG format . My address is Cybrsnoop1@aol.com.


And thanks again Dave, for sharing such a great website with the world. Now , please don't forget Shane's Circus, and Billy Blakes , and Floyd's Department Store, and Robert Hall, and ....

Ardan Catalog Showrooms


Just in time for Black Friday in November of 1966: one of Ardan's Pre-Christmas sale catalogs. Note the adorable Cheerful Tearful doll by Mattel and the elaborate-looking Polaroid camera on opposite sides at the bottom.


Adobe Photodeluxe enhancement gives these early '80s photos of the attractive building on Merle Hay Road in Des Moines a look back at its original 1963 heyday as an Ardan catalog showroom store. A bit of trivia: the sporty Dodge Omni 024 hatchback in the bottom picture belonged to me at the time.



I only knew Ardan as a Des Moines chain as a kid, but they had locations in other cities and states as well. They started in D. M. in the downtown area, and in 1963 that location was joined (and eventually replaced) by a sprawling, modern and very impressive unit next door to Merle Hay Mall, complete with its own supermarket.

Several interior shots of the Des Moines Merle Hay Road Ardan store circa 1965, taken from that year's big catalog.

(Special Thanks to Marty Kuhn for generously loaning me this, the 1966 Christmas catalog and the BH cover shown below)


Several years after the Merle Hay store opened, the Ardan name did a very unusual and bizarre disappearing-and-reappearing act in that location. In the late '60s (I think), the Kansas City-based Bellas Hess chain bought the place and the name became Bellas Hess--Ardan Division, with the Ardan reference in tiny lettering on the sign and the building. Then in 1974, a new catalog showroom opened in a separate addition to the left side of the building. It was called Prestige, but the layout, logo lettering and catalog design made it seem like Ardan was trying to sneak back in through the back door. The suspicion was fully realized a year or so later when the showroom's name was altered to read "Prestige Is Ardan". About the same time, Bellas Hess was closing all their units including the Des Moines store. In 1975, some local enterprenuers made a valiant attempt to establish a locally-owned discount store in the old BH location, called Plaza Family Savings Center, but it failed after a short time.

Then it was announced that the camera, sporting goods and toy departments which had been associated with Ardan and the two subsequent replacements would be spun-off into separate stores on the opposite side of the street--in a former Topps building--and the Minnesota-based Goldfine's chain would move into the building vacated by PFSC come 1976. During all this confusion, Prestige Is Ardan became simply Ardan again. Goldfine's later went belly-up, and near the end of the decade, K Mart took over the building...and even they didn't last there for some reason. Today there's not even a discount store in that building, probably because too many people thought all those failures meant none would work in that area. Target should have opened a store there and proved them wrong (today, there is a Target store on Merle Hay Road--as an anchor of Merle Hay Mall). As for Ardan, they closed all their showrooms in 1986.


Click on this 1970 Bellas Hess Ardan cover to go to a page featuring a supersize version of the department collage shown above, plus two shots of vintage TVs they used to sell (thanks again, Marty!)

 

This Sam's Bargain Town on Truman Road in Kansas City was perhaps the oldest of four such stores located around the area as far back as the mid-'50s.

 

More Sam's signage from the same location on Truman Road. Note the shadow-obscured sign on the corner of the building in the background with the store's name on it.

 

Interior shots of Sam's Bargain Town on Truman Road.


 

Here's another Sam's K.C. location, this one in Raytown. Scroll to the top of this page to see a nighttime shot of the sign.

 

Here's another sign that accompanied the Raytown unit, featuring a wonderfully-nostalgic trademark of yesteryear's discount stores: the store's name spelled out in individual blocks, each one on it's own separate pole and laid out in staggered fashion. A similar type of display was used by the old Spartan-Atlantic chain, which also had a couple of Kansas City stores.

Click on this thumbnail to check out a 1965 Christmas newspaper ad for Sam's: 

Zayre

One of the first-generation Zayre stores was this one in a Bangor, Maine shopping plaza, seen close-up underneath. Next to it is a shot of a similar store missing its "E", courtesy of Shaun Qualdieri (thanks). Pictured at bottom is a later-built Zayre in Dubuque, Iowa.



Here is yet another vintage Zayre, complete with its Auto Center, courtesy of Brett (thanks)


This final Zayre pic was donated by an unknown visitor to the site.

Zayre was one of the first major discount chains, having opened their first location around 1956, same as Sam's above. Having lived in the midwest all my life, I was unfamiliar with Zayre, which was pretty big in the east and the New England states. They did have one Iowa location, in Dubuque, which I visited in 1982. When they folded, many locations were replaced by Ames Discount Stores, which began as a chain in 1958 and has now closed all remaining units after a troubled period of trying to stay alive as the fourth-largest discount chain behind K Mart.


A Chicago-area Turn-Style, circa the late 1960s. This was the discount department store chain owned by Osco Drug.

(Courtesy of Mark Garast)

 


Kuhn's-Big K (not to be confused with the current Big K-Mart trend) used to be dominant in the Southeast with 106 stores. Then came their last big sale in 1981...to Wal-Mart.

 

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This Miracle Mart store in Peoria, Illinois--which tends to look more like an airplane hangar--was already closed and boarded up by the time I paid my first visit to the city back in 1988.

 

GEM Membership Department Stores

This St. Louis, Missouri GEM store opened in 1958. Another St. Louis store opened two years later.

Acknowlegement for above picture coming soon.

 

In 1967 at the age of 12, I drew this "artist's rendering" of the GEM membership department store in the Kansas City area. The sign toward the center reads, "GEM has filled over 12 million prescriptions...there MUST be a reason!"

 

GEM, which was an acronym for Government Employees Mart, started in 1956 and was something of the Sam's Club of its day. It was a members-only discount department store, open exclusively to active or retired members of the armed forces, as well as those who worked for the government or under government contract. GEM was conceived as a means of "raising the living standard" of families living on a fixed income, and their prices were noticably lower that those at other discount stores. My father had one of their membership cards, and we all went to the Kansas City location together on an occasional weekend. We still have the Wham-O Shoop-Shoop Hula Hoop we bought there in 1967. While on a vacation that same year, we passed another such store in another state, called GEX. The signage used for GEM was as huge as the stores themselves. I'll never forget those letters on the K. C. building--they must have been at least 20 feet high! As a descendant of a member of the armed forces, I might have been able to get into the Omaha, Nebraska location were it still around today. Unfortunately, the chain was a victim of the 1973 discount store economic shakeout.

 

Wow, GEM even sold cars! Talk about one-stop shopping...

A rare photo of a membership card from GEX, one of GEM's cousins, along with a close-up view of the smaller print.

(Courtesy of Jim Sutton)


Thanks to Alan Stephenson for these scans of another GEX Membership Card.



International Super Stores opened a couple of units in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, similar to this one, in 1965. Two years later, they became Treasure City stores (see below).

 

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Treasure City in Lincoln, Nebraska. Omaha had one of these as well; each had previously been an International Super Store.

 

Katz Drug Stores

Although this striking Katz store in Roeland Park, Kansas opened long before the 1960s began, I vividly remember paying many more visits to this unit than any other, as it was the closest one to us.

(Courtesy of Joyce White)


Here is a later Katz store which opened on Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, Kansas. Many features distinguish it from the others that were around: two floors of merchandise, an impressively modern exterior design...and doesn't that sign look like it's about to come crashing down on those three cars directly below it?

Well, actually, I received a message some time ago that the sign was not really perched up there by one corner. Rather, it was a short distance away from the store on pylons; it appears where it does here simply to get it in the same shot as the store...evidently, Photoshop strikes again!

 

Shop and save, it's so easy
When you shop at K-A-T-Z
That's......Katz!


Radio stations in Kansas City, Missouri used to hum with that jingle. Small wonder, for Kansas City was the home of Katz. But they also had a few locations in St. Joseph, Missouri and Des Moines, Iowa. While they weren't exactly a discount department store chain, they were considerably bigger than the average neighborhood drug store. One K.C. location on Metcalf Avenue actually had two floors. That's the one pictured just above this paragraph, and I urge those readers concerned to click on it for an urgent message! In the early 1970s their product inventory had increased to include first-generation Sony Trinitron color TV sets; it was about that time that the chain adopted a new advertising tagline, "The Everything Store". But about a couple of years later, the Katz name disappeared and all locations became Skaggs Drug Centers. Then in 1986, the Skaggs name vanished and they all began operating as Osco Drug Stores, as the surviving units continued to until just recently, when most of them were taken over by the CVS Pharmacy chain.


If this didn't get women to become regular Katz customers back in the day, nothing would.

 

*Skaggs vanished from Des Moines a lot sooner than 1986. In 1973, around the same time many older discount stores started falling like ninepins, a fire completely gutted the Skaggs store in Park Fair Shopping Center (which opened as Katz in 1957, along with the center's other stores). This left Des Moines with just one other Skaggs location, and the company decided to close that one rather than rebuild the other. With their departure from the capital city, Skaggs was represented in Iowa by only a single store in Council Bluffs until the name change to Osco, which has since departed from Council Bluffs as well. After extensive remodeling inside and out, it's now a Hy-Vee Drugstore.



Shopper's World

A great old-time sign points the way in to the Shopper's World in Highland, Indiana (Courtesy of Eric Vedowski)

(The above picture comes from Dave Aldrich's Pleasant Family Shopping, a FIRST-RATE site with even more great old store photos, and I can't recommend enough that you check it out!)

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Des Moines Shoppers World pictures are hard to find; here are two units that opened later: a Chicago store in color, and a San Antonio unit which opened in 1966.


Two locations opened in Des Moines, Iowa during 1959 or maybe 1960, and they were the very first discount department stores I'd ever been to. They didn't stick around very long however, having closed around 1962 or 1963. They did stay longer in other states. Look again at the color picture of the Chicago store with that HUGE turnout. That was back in 1962. Two years later, I can just see a toy department shelf stacked high with freshly-cranked-out Crazy Clock games by Ideal and the first wave of 82-channel TV sets sharing space with the last gasp of 12-channel sets.

The name was later changed to Alden's Shopper's World (unless this was a whole different chain), one being in St. Joseph, Missouri. In one of the fastest name changes in retail history, that unit became Community Discount World in a mere matter of weeks effective January 1967. By the time I saw it, it was a Half-Price Store, and now that's gone.


Late in 1997, a game collector friend of mine showed me a very interesting recent addition to his collection: a beautifully-preserved, never-played copy of a hard-to-find game put out by Ideal in 1966, Baby Sitter. It came from the New Jersey estate of a man who during the '60s shopped for games at various stores and recorded the purchase statistics on the inside of the box lids where the instructions were often printed. The info accompanying the Baby Sitter game revealed that it was purchased at Alden's Shopper's World in Paramus, N. J., in 1967. How I would have loved to be in his shoes that day.

 

 

Cook's

At the present moment I have no pictures of the actual store, but for now, here are a pair of art renderings of the parking lot sign as it was seen by day and at night.


This discount store/supermarket had the distinction of being the very last discount store to open in our immediate neighborhood before the 1960s came to an end; it opened around August or September of 1969 and it earned our regular patronage during the last three years we lived there. Two of them had opened in the K. C. area, ours being in Roeland Park, Kansas, near a large Katz drug store we always went to (see first Katz picture above). Both had great signs; the one accompanying Cook's had the store's name in tall white letters on a sign with a green background mounted on three tall poles. At night the white letters were lit up, but not the green background. Instead, the sign's border was outlined in red neon, giving the illusion of a black background--very cool. Among the items purchased there which I still have: a Remco Frustration Ball game, a green vinyl-and-fabric zippered suitcase I haven't used for some time, and a copy of the Three Dog Night LP, "Golden Bisquits".


Like Spartan-Atlantic, Cook's called it quits a year or two after we left the area for good. The grocery section was taken over first by Kroger, then Price Chopper. Venture, which we saw open in Overland Park in 1971, took up the department store space in 1974. It stayed in the area until Venture closed all its remaining stores in 1998, and for a long time thereafter, the Venture signage was still up on the mostly empty building. It has now been remodeled into a larger Price Chopper (in the old Cook's-Venture space) and a Lowe's Home Improvement Center (partially in the old Kroger-Price Chopper space).

 

Skagway: A rare independent survivor

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Two shots of the great-looking sign--by day and by night--on the original Five Points Skagway store in Grand Island, Nebraska, built in 1959 and still operating today...although the sign has, alas, been replaced.

 

The Five Points Skagway in Grand Island is reportedly the last of the independently-owned discount stores, having survived at least 40 years of change, closings and takeovers. Established in 1959, it was originally a unique mix of grocery, appliances, electronics and regular discount store merchandise, and the first time I'd seen it around the mid-1980s, it appeared to be virtually unchanged, both inside and out. The sign on the outside of the building was particularly impressive: big letters on separate red ovals, lit up at night in red neon, as the above picture illustrates. How they kept it going that long is certainly a mystery to me, as is how much longer it can last. Sadly, as I discovered during my last visit there in August of 2000, part of the challenge in keeping a 40 year-old non-corporate discount store such as this alive involved an occasional facelift, and in 1999 the business underwent a thorough remodeling, which included the dismantling of the older sign. The store's new sign--as well as the new paint job on the building exterior--is depressingly nondescript. Also, the separate building that once housed the TV and appliance section now deals exclusively with video rentals. But Skagway genuinely deserves some level of respect for having this much staying power.


Another Skagway location wasn't nearly as fortunate. Built in Omaha in 1964 at 72nd & "L" Street, it closed perhaps sometime in the '70s and reopened--with only a slight name change--as a Skaggs Family Center. Skaggs was a growing drug store chain with units of varying size...and this Omaha location was certainly one of their biggest, so much so that they had to add on that "Family Center" tag to set it apart from the city's smaller stores. Even when Skaggs' parent company, American Stores, re-signed them as Osco Drug stores several years ago, this huge "L" Street location kept a considerable amount of its nostalgic ambience. But though Osco contnues to thrive today, they decided to vacate the old, spacious store that had once been Skagway. Incidentally, Skagway was not in any way related to Skaggs.

Later occupying the building was a furniture store now out of business itself; it was still a kick to go there and see the same arched ceiling with the same lights hanging from it, just as it looked when Skagway first opened.


One final note regarding Skagway's ongoing presence in Grand Island: a second location was opened in the city a while back, in a former K Mart which had relocated. Convenience--as well as a reaffirmance of Skagway as a trusted, local "brand name"--were likely the deciding factors here. But for me, the Five Points location carries the true, nostalgic appeal that can only be generated by a store that has been around as long as it has. It may have undergone a total facelift, but at least it's still in the same location. One employee told me they had once thought of totally relocating it--which, to their credit, they didn't.

To read more about the history of Skagway--including a photo of the Omaha location on opening day--click here to go to their official site.

 

Various shots of Omaha's ex-Skagway. The upper left picture was taken when it was Osco and about to close; the other three were taken while it was still a Skaggs Family Center.




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