MERIDEN — Back in 1972, Emily Blumenreder of Southington was a new bride from New York City who landed a job as a receptionist for JC Penney at Meriden Square, now called Westfield Meriden mall.
Blumenreder retired from JC Penney two years ago to pursue a career in fine jewelry, but she and her friends at the department store never lost touch.
“We cried together, laughed together, and worked hard to help all the customers that walked through the doors of JC Penney,” Blumenreder wrote recently in a letter to the editor. “When the doors close on Saturday, May 3, many people will be sad, but let’s be grateful for what we shared the past 42 years, because no one can take our wonderful memories away from us.”
Blumenreder gathered about a dozen retired JC Penney workers to the empty store Thursday as cashiers rang up the few remaining bargains.
“It’s sad,” said Fran Brunelli, whose first full-time job was in the payroll department in 1972. “I left, I came back. My kids worked here and it went on and on.”
The Meriden JC Penney was one of 33 stores nationwide, the only one in New England, scheduled to close its doors Saturday. After several lackluster sales quarters, corporate headquarters announced the store would close.
The approximately 100 mainly part-time employees were either offered jobs at other JC Penneys in Waterbury or West Hartford. Several Westfield retailers hired some of the employees, and others retired and accepted severance packages.
The group of retirees recalled pushing customers out the door at 11 p.m. during the last-minute Christmas shopping rush. They also remembered doing crowd control when the trucks delivered the Cabbage Patch dolls in their heyday. Those were the days before JC Penney stopped carrying toys, hardware and sporting goods.
“We would have a one-day sale and we would put out the table of merchandise and cover it the day before,” Brunelli said. “And the customers would always want to see what was underneath.”
They recalled the break room filled with pictures of new babies and children, scattered between the corporate notices about new policies.
“It was like a family,” said Josephine Otlowski of Middletown who started in the stockroom 1972. “You felt like the store was yours.”
Young mothers such as Mary Ellen Brechlin found the employee discount invaluable when raising her own family. She also welcomed the training she got on the sales floor.
“It was a great foundation for my own business,” Brechlin said.
Susan Clare was another employee who helped open the store. Clare worked in the salon and was honored for her service in 2007.
“Now I talk to everybody, anywhere,” Clare said.
At the store’s 35th anniversary party in 2007, store manager Steve Cason and employees decorated with 1972 fashions, wigs, photos, a disco ball. Cason joked about a leisure suit he might still have in his closet.
Clare recalled hurrying her smocked employees out of the salon during two bomb scares and once running to a nearby grocery store to buy bottled water to rinse out a customer’s coloring job.
Cathy Dominello was 16 years old when she was hired for the holidays in 1979 and worked her way up to merchandising. She left to raise a family but returned to the same familiar faces 20 years later.
“It was like I was back home,” she said.
But two years ago, things began to change, members of the group said. Hours were cut and shifted, more corporate policies went up on the board. Employees knew changes were coming and those who could retire, did.
The retired employees said they feel badly for the customers who preferred shopping at the Meriden store for certain items and doubt they will make the trip to Waterbury or West Hartford.
Robert Ott of Meriden began working for the JC Penney Co. in 1957. In 1974, he transferred from a store he opened in Akron, Ohio to Meriden, where he worked as operations manager, assistant sales manager and personnel manager. He finally retired in 1996.
According to Ott, several things hurt the company, least of which was the employees.
“They went outside the company and started bringing people in,” Ott said.
JC Penney’s founder James Cash Penney often told his employees that if they treated customers the way they would want to be treated the store would be successful. He also told employees if they worked hard, they would be promoted.
But by the time Ott retired, too many mid-level managers were leaving because there wasn’t any room for advancement. Too many management positions were being filled through the corporate offices or from outside companies, far removed from the employees and customers.
Another mistake the company made was flat-pricing or not giving customers the sense they were getting a bargain through sales promotions, Ott said.
“Over the decades, people had a feeling they got a deal,” Ott said. “They changed to one price.”
The retirees and recently displaced employees still get together every couple of years, the group members said.
“We made that store what it was,” Blumenreder said pointing to the front door. “It was a family.”