Starr Gazing
   


Dr. Dan Starr
Retired Director of Athletics and Professor Emeritus of American History at Canisius College.
starr@canisius.edu

   

Anchors Away - At the Malls

Anchor stores are closing and malls are suffering overall. Many place blame on Amazon and other online retailers. Are they really villains?

Retail shopping in America is changing at an astronomical pace. Big department stores that anchor large, covered malls are cutting back or closing stores. Those suffering include Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney, and Bon-Ton. Smaller retail establishments have been affected too.

In the lifetime of our “in-between generation,” that is, those of us born between 1930 and 1946 falling between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, momentous changes have been witnessed. The old adage is so true: change is always with us. That is hardly a profound statement, simply an acknowledged fact. Still, changes in the status of the big stores that have dotted the American landscape for so long have been dramatic.

A brief background: John Wanamaker is said to have opened the first department store in America in Philadelphia shortly after the Civil War. Sears began its mail order catalogue business catering to rural America just a decade later. It was not until the 1920s that Sears opened big retail stores.

The downtowns of the country’s major cities came alive with department stores by the turn of the century (ca. 1900). They reached their peak in the years after World War II. Teenagers growing up in the 1950s will remember the scene well. Nick Longo and Tony Illos grew up on Buffalo’s West Side. They recall walking with their mothers from their homes to the department stores on Main Street. Clem Eckert and his friend, Dick Klug, did the same from the Humboldt area.

Indeed, people from throughout the city frequented the downtown stores and never more so than during the Christmas shopping season. Hengerer’s, J.N. Adam & Co., and AM&A’s were main destinations, along with Flint and Kent, Kleinhans, L.L. Berger’s, and Oppenheim Collins. The high end shops along fashionable Delaware Avenue, such as Mabel Danahy and Pitt Pettri, were also frequented.

In that same era, throughout the city, the main thoroughfares running through each neighborhood were lined with prosperous retail establishments, along with pharmacies, restaurants, and food stores. The Bailey/Kensington area was thriving as was the Grant/Connecticut axis on the West Side and the Ontario/Tonawanda section of Riverside. Delaware Avenue in Kenmore, Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, and Seneca/Abbott in South Buffalo also flourished. On the East Side, the Broadway/Fillmore area was virtually a second downtown with its Sattlers, Posmanteur’s, Kobacher’s, and the iconic Broadway Market. Busy neighborhoods and bustling downtowns defined America back then. All seemed well, but major changes were underway.

Suburbia boomed in the 1950s. The auto industry turned out millions of cars while governments financed the building and widening of roads. Shopping centers, or plazas as they were called in Buffalo, followed. The first ones were the University and the Sheridan, appearing around 1950. A few years later, the mammoth Thruway Plaza, boasting 100 stores, opened. Others soon appeared: Summit Park Mall, Southgate Plaza, Seneca Mall, and even a short lived one opened in Central Park behind Halls Bakery.

Invariably, a branch of downtown department stores were located in the plazas; AM&As, W.T. Grant, and Hens & Kelly were regulars. Usually one of the growing grocery store chains located a store there too, such as Loblaw’s, A&P, or Nu-Way. Soon, the plazas were siphoning off business from the neighborhood strips as well as downtown.

But in the midst of all this, Buffalo had a veritable rock of Gibraltar right smack in the middle of city: Sears and Roebuck, one of the country’s great retailers at the corner of Main and Jefferson! Sears had begun in rural America with its legendary mail order catalogue. That catalogue was like the Bible in farmhouses throughout America. It was larger than the local telephone book. I mentioned that to my granddaughter, Kate, who responded, “What’s a phone book?” So, I asked her, “What’s a smart phone?” Fair enough. Incidentally, Buffalo had a few popular catalogues that local customers patronized, such as Brand Names.

Sears was a big store with a big parking lot. Its location on principle arteries seemed to welcome shoppers from all parts of Western New York. The customers came for clothing, furniture, sporting goods, housewares, and especially for the reliable Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances.

Meanwhile, just as the shopping centers/strips and plazas were humming along, the covered megamall made its appearance. Locally, the mall era began with the Boulevard Mall on Niagara Falls Boulevard in 1962. A short time later, the Main Place Mall was erected downtown (an ill-conceived eyesore from the beginning). Others that graced our landscape included the Southgate, Summit, McKinley, and Eastern Hills (now largely used for golden agers getting in their daily walk). Finally, the gigantic and quite successful Galleria Mall appeared. The malls signaled the death knell for virtually all downtown shopping. Plazas were hurt too; neighborhood retailing vanished from most areas.

The malls needed anchor stores, branches of big chain department stores to anchor the mall at each of its extremities. Any given mall would have three or four anchors. Included might be JCPenney, Bon-Ton, Macy’s, Sears, Lord & Taylor, and the upscale Jenss. In between were countless smaller retail outlets from the tacky to the exclusive, including specialty shops, kiosks, and the fast food courts. There was a place for just about anything that could be sold.

Again, now, change is rearing its head. We read in the newspapers and see on the Internet that malls are losing business to Amazon and its spinoffs. Some malls have closed, some anchor stores are leaving the malls, and smaller outlets are not thriving. Sears (a.k.a. the Main Street Gibraltar) left its prime location in the middle of Buffalo years ago. Soon, drones will be dropping your packages on your doorstep. Shop online and you may never have to leave home again.

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