Beaver County Memories – Discount and Department Stores Part 1.

‘Tis the season to shop, and in this edition of beaver county memories, we will take a stroll down some of the aisles of the stores of Christmas past, the department and discount stores that once dotted the landscape in beaver county, part one.  Beaver County memories is presented by St. Barnabas and heard every day on WBVP, WMBA and 99.3 F.M.

One of the most prominent shopping destinations around for the holiday season, and all year round for that matter, was Kaufmann’s in Rochester. Kaufmann’s was built around the time of the big renovation of the town and highway system in the nineteen sixties. This was the same time that also saw Ohio River Boulevard cut away through the same  neighborhood. Kaufmann’s was a giant shopping mecca long before big stores that we have today of similar size. It had undercover double level parking in one portion of its lot and took up both floors of the building that now has Giant Eagle in the lower floor, and up until a few years ago,the former Rochester K Mart occupied the upstairs portion.  A mammoth, lighted capital “K” with a gold circle around it was mounted on the outside of the building. It could be seen from many parts of the Beaver Valley back then and was a very familiar brand identifier. There was even a restaurant called the Tic Tock and a small meeting/banquet room in the store. Kaufmann’s moved to the Beaver Valley Mall in 1987 and occupied a space left vacant when Gimbels moved out. In 2005, The store’s parent company, May Department Stores, was acquired by Federated Department Stores and then another corporate merger led to the Store becoming a Macy’s in 2006. It remained that way until it closed in twenty seventeen.

Discount shopping in Beaver County meant a visit to Baden and a popular large discount store called Zayre’s, which opened in 1966 in the plaza located along Route 65 behind Pizza Hut.   Zayre’s was a traditional discount retailer where one could buy clothing, toys, sporting goods, records, books, health and beauty products, and much more.  It was a popular new model of shopping that had gained momentum all over the nation at that point in time. This new model was one that featured larger stores that, many times, were located in shopping plazas out in suburbia.  This new style of shopping also brought larger selections, a wider variety of product brands, and lower prices. This was in dramtic comparison to Zayre’s predecessors. These were stores who mainly were smaller independent merchants that carried just a few lines of any given product. Limited space typically that meant more exclusive and more expensive merchandise.  Obviously, the arrival of the larger stores with lower prices was welcomed with great enthusiasm. Establishments like Zayre’s took off like wild fire. They were a popular shopping alternative and did well for the next couple of decades. Zayre’s was purchased by a competitor in the low priced discount retailing arena, Ames Department Stores in 1988, and the Baden store was closed.  For a brief period of time, a few years later, Gabriel’s operated a store in that location. Later on in the mid nineties, there were a couple of Ames stores in Beaver County after they took over and opened up where two former Hills Department Stores had welcomed shoppers for years. The Ames Department Stores were located in The Green Garden Plaza and The Northern Lights Shopping Center..  

Zayre’s was part of a cool, little niche of retail stores that had their heyday from the late fifties up until the much larger shopping malls started becoming popular in the seventies. Even after the malls were open, these discount retail stores continued to survive for a while.  By comparison, a downtown merchant storefront might occupy ten thousand square feet of space, and have no off street parking. These new buildings that were sprouting up everywhere were usually around fifty to sixty thousand square feet and had their own parking lots. As we said earlier, It was an amazing new shopping trend and became very popular.  However, eventually, structures of that size became antiquated because they were hard to manage and inefficient. They were too big to specialize in any one thing, but too small to effectively compete with the super huge Big Box Stores that started appearing in Beaver County around 1990. On average, the super stores we have today are about three to four times the size of those first retailers that we are reminiscing about here. The Big Box mega centers had larger selections, lower pricing, longer hours, and bigger parking lots, among other things. The smaller smaller shopping destinations that did so well in the sixties and seventies couldn’t compete anymore. Ironically, tiny, specialty stores with a main street storefront could still offer an advantage and turn a profit against the new monster operations. The same was not true for the Zayre’s, Ames and other classic plaza style discount centers that were all the rage back when. Most shuddered their doors not long after stadium sized stores with equally big parking lots began to appear. 

Another one of the stores that embodied the newfangled discount retailer model like Zayre’s back in the day, was Jamesway.  Beaver County had a Jamesway store located in Big Beaver in the plaza that was famously destroyed by a tornado in May of 1985. Jamesway was founded in 1961 in Jamestown, NY and at one point in time operated over a hundred stores throughout the Northeast United States. Jamesway, and other places like it, offered discounted, lower priced merchandise from different brands than the typical lines of goods found at the more upscale, traditional department stores of that era like Sears or J.C. Penneys.  Consumers loved the options of the new department stores. They were big in comparison to their inner city predecessors, but small and quaint compared to what exists today. Thus, even the size of these stores set them apart.

Fisher’s Big Wheel was yet another popular discount retailer that was based in New Castle. At one point in time, Fisher’s Big Wheel operated dozens of stores throughout the Tri State Area primarily in the nineteen seventies and eighties. One of which was located along Junction Stretch between New Brighton and Rochester.  Again, it was another amazingly popular venue where people could buy everything from clothing, large appliances, bedding, furniture, jewelry, electronics, housewares and more in a store that was about the size of  the modern day chain drug store.

Oh my, I think I just heard the store manager announce a fifteen minute special on fishing rods over in the sporting goods section. While that’s another great example of the unique shopping ambiance created by some of the stores that we have reminisced about today, it is also true.  I’ve got to get out of here and wrap this up and hit the check out line for today’s Beaver County Memory. 

Don’t worry, there will be more stories about great shopping retailers in Beaver County like Hills, Murphy’s, Gee Bees, Woolworths and others in future installments of Beaver County Memories. 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.