Beaver County Memories – Discount and Department Stores Part 2.

‘Tis the season to shop, and in this edition of Beaver County Memories, we will take a stroll down a few more of the aisles of the stores of Christmas past, the department and discount stores that once dotted the landscape in Beaver County in this second edition of the look back of some classic retailers in the area.  Beaver County Memories is presented by St. Barnabas and heard every day on WBVP, WMBA and 99.3 F.M.

The next retailer that we are going to visit in our tour was founded in nineteen fifty seven and headquartered in Canton, Massachusetts. The chain operated two stores in Beaver County that closed in nineteen ninety nine when the company was sold. In the late eighties they ran television commercials around this time of year boasting that this store was “where the toys are”.  Can you guess it yet? Well, let’s cut the suspense, grab a cart and head into Hills Department Store. One of the marks of a popular destination, that created a great deal of fond memories, is the phenomenon of former customers and employees who create and maintain social media pages to share photos, stories and memories long after the place has been closed. Such is the case with Hills Departments Stores.  The two local Hills Department Stores were located Green Garden Plaza in Hopewell Township and Northern Lights Shopping Center in Baden. Even though those two stores closed twenty years ago, there are flourishing social media pages with ongoing, current activity and fairly large fan bases of people sharing memories of their visits to the stores in Beaver County. Hills was so popular, that it wasn’t uncommon to see people wearing tee shirts and other apparel blazoned with the very recognizable Hills script logo.  Hills Department Stores featured a snack bar with buttered popcorn and hot dogs that made such a positive impression on shoppers that even today, people discuss their visits to Hill’s and the snack counter in the rear of the store like a cherished family vacation, or a trip to a national monument. 

Another store that was known for their lunch counter was Woolworth’s.  The F.W. Woolworth Company is one of the older stores that was still around and thriving during the big department and discount store heydey that began in the nineteen fifties.  The store that we came to know as Woolworth’s originally started as Woolworth’s Great Five Cents Store in Utica, New York in eighteen seventy nine. Even though the original store failed, the concept proved to be a good one, and soon other stores were opened by Frank Winfield Woolworth, along with his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth.  The duo of brothers made a fortune selling five and ten cent items. They did so well, as a matter of fact, that by nineteen ten, Frank Woolworth began plans to build a skyscraper in New York City to serve as the company headquarters. The iconic structure is still a common well known landmark. Upon completion, The Woolworth Building was also the tallest building in the world at that time. Much like Hills Department stores, Woolworth Five and Ten was well known for their in store eateries. In fact, the Woolworth lunch counter became a symbol of the civil rights movement in 1960 when a group of African American students held sit ins and boycotts for a period of six months after initially being refused service at a store in Greensboro, North Carolina. That location is now a civil rights museum, and a section of the now famous lunch counter from those historic days is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.  In 1962, F.W. Woolworth opened up a group of single floor large discount stores known by the name of Woolworth’s. Locally, towns like Beaver Falls and Aliquippa had Woolworth Five and Ten stores on their main streets in the nineteen sixties. In 1970, with the opening of the Beaver Valley Mall, a large Woolworth’s discount department store was located near the center of the concourse not far from where its current corporate manifestation, Foot Locker, operates even to this day. Some of those initial stores went by the name of Woolco. The switch to footwear started in the eighties when Woolworth’s began to experience declining sales in general, but their sporting goods departments seemed to buck the trend and continued to perform well. Woolworth’s had already diversified and began operating Kinney Shoes along with Foot Locker stores in the mid nineteen seventies, so the conversion over to focus on the sporting goods and apparel division was a natural transition. Woolworth’s closed its discount and department stores in 1997.

Woolworth’s storefront as viewed from the main concourse in the Beaver Valley Mall around 1981.

The five and dime concept started by Frank Woolworth in upstate New York was a popular one and as with many great ideas, began to be imitated by others. George Clinton Murphy opened a similar type of store in nearby McKeesport, Pennsylvania in nineteen oh six called G.C. Murphy Company. The popular five and dime and variety stores were common in the main streets all over America and at their peak in nineteen seventy six, the company operated over five hundred stores. Locally,  G.C. Murphy Co. stores could be found in Ambridge, Aliquippa, Beaver, Beaver Falls and Rochester. The stores were affectionately known as “The five and Ten” or “Murphy’s Five and Ten”. They were located in old fashioned main street storefronts that conjure up fond memories of days gone by. G.C. Murphy Company was bought by Ames Department Stores in nineteen eighty five, and many of the stores were closed at that stage of the game. In New Brighton, an independent five and ten variety store operated with great success for many years by Paul and Mary Jane Pisano.  Brighton Five and Ten took up two storefront spaces along third Avenue in New Brighton. In addition to the typical variety, convenience items and household supplies, Brighton Five and Ten was also a True Value Hardware store. Much like Murphy’s, Brighton Five and Ten was part store, and part community gathering place. Brighton Five and Ten closed its doors around two thousand, but the positive memories linger on.

In the modern day, one of the most highly visited retail locations in Beaver County would probably be Wal Mart in Center Township.  Thousands of people continue to go there daily, but the tradition of shopping on the hillside along route eighteen heading up out of downtown Monaca began many decades ago when Glosser Brothers from Johnstown, Pennsylvania opened  a Gee Bee discount store at that location. The plaza was even known back then as Gee Bee plaza. Gee Bee’s was a department store that featured heavily discounted clothing and accessories and at one point in time, operated around thirty stores throughout the Tri-state area. Most of the locations were in suburban shopping plazas.  Up through it’s closing in the late eighties, Gee Bee’s was a favorite shopping destination and created many holiday shopping memories for Beaver County residents.

The stores might be gone, but unlike their merchandise, you cannot discount the special place that they occupy in our hearts and in our memories.  This has been part two of a look back on the department and discount stores as part of the Beaver County Memories Series. Tune in every day for another edition of Beaver County Memories presented by St. Barnabas on Beaver County Radio, WBVP, WMBA and 99.3 F.M.