J.C. Penney declared bankruptcy today, the latest in a string of retail bankruptcies including the Neiman Marcus Group, J. Crew, Stage Stores (Bealls, Goody’s) and others. More bankruptcies are sure to come, as retailers like Macy’s edge towards the brink. All these companies were suffering before the pandemic; the crisis is hastening their demise. Retail as we know it, will never be the same.
But it’s the Penney’s bankruptcy that hits me the hardest. Why? Well it’s not because I’m a loyal Penney’s shopper (although my wife claims my mother bought all my underwear there when I was a kid). In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was actually in a Penney’s store. And if Penney’s has a website, I never visited it.
No, the Penney’s bankruptcy hits me the hardest for one reason. When I was growing up, J.C. Penney was my father’s biggest client.
Here’s the background.
My father was the top salesman for Aristocrat Leather, a company that manufactured small leather goods – men’s and women’s wallets; women’s clutches, etc. With a name like “Aristocrat” you’d think this was one high-end outfit. And while the company did make some good quality leather goods that sold in the big department stores like Macy’s, B. Altman’s, Lord & Taylor and more (under the name “Elsa Scaparelli” as I recall), the money literally wasn’t in those wallets; it was in novelty goods. What are novelty goods in this business? Mickey and Minnie Mouse wallets; Davy Crocket wallets; Donald and Daisy Duck; Goofy and Pluto – you name it, my father’s company made it. I didn’t know it at the time but Aristocrat Leather was one of Disney’s biggest licensees. (In my defense, how would I, a pre-teen, even know what that meant?).
The novelty business was so important, my father traveled to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas…wherever there was a “Toy Show” where manufacturers would display their latest wares to eager retail merchandisers and buyers. In the ’50’s I think my father was the only person on either side of the family to ever travel in a commercial airliner (his favorite, and therefore mine, was the Lockheed Constellation – “The Connie” – which TWA flew. To this day, it is the most beautiful airplane ever to fly!).
My brothers and I always were excited when Dad made those Toy Show trips because we knew that when he came home, he’d bring some of the latest toys, electric trains and all the other things kids craved; it was a Toy Show tradition for salesmen to trade their latest items with one another. So, we got toys and other items displayed at the shows months before they ever appeared on retail shelves. I fondly remember one of those “things” to this day – I was the first kid in my neighborhood in Brooklyn to sport a Davy Crockett Coonskin hat! It was around 1954 and I was eight.
So, what does this all have to do with J.C. Penney’s bankruptcy?
I mentioned that Penney’s was my father’s biggest client. Now that you know the kinds of goods he sold, you have a better understanding why. But if Penney’s was the biggest, who else did he sell to? To the best of my recollection his client list, in order of size went like this;
- J.C. Penney
- Montgomery Ward
- J.J. Newbury
- S.S. Kresge
- W.T. Grant
Notice anything about this list?
Wards, Woolworth, Newbury and Grant are gone. Penney’s will be next. Kresge became Kmart, bought Sears, became the largest retailer in the country, then separated from Sears, and now is down to 47 stores. Both Sears and Kmart will be gone soon. And, when that happens, all my father’s clients will be gone. While many of us grew up shopping in some, or perhaps, all of these stores, to me they were like part of my life, part of my family. And it’s tough to lose family.
Note: It is tough to lose family. I lost my brother, Andrew, last month. He was 4-1/2 years younger than I, but old enough to take part in our father’s Toy Show largesse. While we never talked about it, I’m sure he also remembered the joy when Dad returned from those Toy Show trips with a valise full of goodies. This “Around the Block” is dedicated to his memory. May he rest in peace.