It happened on May 3 — not only here in Meriden, but also in Selma, Alabama; Rancho Cucamonga, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Leesburg and Port Richey, Florida; Muscatine, Iowa; Bloomingdale and Forsyth, Illinois; Marion and Warsaw, Indiana; Salisbury, Maryland; Marquette, Michigan; Worthington, Minnesota; Gautier and Natchez, Mississippi; Butte and Cut Bank, Montana; Kinston, North Carolina; Burlington and Phillipsburg, New Jersey; Wooster, Ohio; Exton, Hazleton and Washington, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Bristol and Norfolk, Virginia; and in Fond du Lac, Janesville, Rhinelander, Rice and Wausau, Wisconsin.
It was a sad day. Each town lost its J.C. Penney store that Saturday. Each of the stores had been a part of its community for decades, some for generations.
Emily Blumenreder started in 1972 at the new store in what then was called Meriden Square, where everyone “worked hard to help all the customers that walked through the doors,” she remembered in a recent letter to the editor of this newspaper.
“It was like a family,” said Josephine Otlowski. “You felt like the store was yours.”
It can’t have helped that the Meriden store, in particular, presented such a forbidding face to the outside world — looking more like a concrete bunker than a store, and with its empty display windows covered up. But there were also larger forces at work.
Robert Ott started with the Penney company in 1957, transferring from Ohio to Meriden in 1974. He saw plenty of changes over the years, both in management and marketing. One change that may have done more harm than good, he told a reporter recently, was going from sales promotions — which gave people “a feeling they got a deal” — to flat pricing. But by the time that policy was reversed, it may have been too late.
Floyd Ray told a reporter for the Cut Bank, Montana, Pioneer Press about the time James Cash Penney himself stopped in at the Cut Bank store. “Whenever Mr. Penney came to one of his stores, he always went to the shoe department and would sell a pair of shoes to a customer, showing the customers and the sales associates that he was no different than anyone else.”
“We got to select what the store would sell,” Ray said. “We knew what merchandise would work in this area, things like farm clothes and heavier coats, so we were able to make the choice on what our store would sell. It changed about 10 years before I retired to the store deciding for us what we would put on our shelves.”
“J.C. Penney was a good company to work for,” Ray said, “and I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of good people working for me. I am glad I had the opportunity to work for them.”
Bill Moxley spent 42 years with the company, starting part-time at a store in Missouri while still in high school. He told a reporter for the Janesville, Wisconsin, GazettExtra that he was “surprised and disappointed” when he heard that the Janesville store was closing. “I know how good a store it was.”
At the Missouri store, “There was no money on the floor,” he remembered. “You put money into a metal can and pulled a string for it to go upstairs, where they made change. Later, the system was updated with vacuum tubes.”
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Joseph Viertel said of his 39 years at the Janesville Penney’s. “We are losing a real spirit of the American way.” As for the Meriden Penney’s, Blumenreder said, “It was a family.”
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.