America’s retail past


Recently, I was searching for photos of abandoned amusement parks and other abandonments.  The WebUrbanist has many great photo galleries featuring abandoned buildings, towns and whole cities. You’d be amazed at how many 20th century cities are deserted.  This website is a tremendous find.  Go and check it out.  Anyway, I found a link to  Specifically, the link was for the mall that was demolished by the Blues Brothers in the 1980 film of the same name.  While on the deadmall site, I checked the Virginia entry and found several malls in the Richmond area that I remember visiting in my more youthful days.  Along the way, I found sites about retail chains I had forgotten about.  Wikipedia has a surprising amount of information on these long gone chains.  Some of them, like the Woolworth company, were quite large at one point and employed thousands of people.  Some merged with other companies and are still sort of around today while others did not meet such good fate.  Woolworth’s is a company that is still around, but not as Woolworth’s.  Today, they are known as the Foot Locker.  The transition from a ‘five and dime’ to a sports oriented retailer is pretty incredible.  Along the way, Woolworth’s also operated several other chains, the best known was probably Woolco.  Woolco was a major department store at one time.  I remember going there with my mother.  The Woolco we went to had a cafeteria and some of the best popcorn.  The Woolworth’s store also had a lunch counter.  I think I always had grilled cheese or a hot dog. Woolworth managed to stay around for over a hundred years and also had the distinction of building the worlds tallest building from 1913 to 1930, in New York City.  Another interesting note is that it’s international chains are still around and most still operate under the Woolworth name. Most notably in Great Britain.

Another store I have fond memories of, and totally forgot about, is GC Murphy.  Murphy’s was another ‘five and dime’ like Woolworth’s. The stores were small compared to other chains, but substantially bigger than many drug stores.  I think they also had lunch counters as well.  I remember the Murphy’s that we used to go in the now run-down Southside Plaza.  Back then, Southside Plaza was a bustling shopping center and rented at full capacity. Each Christmas, the whole shopping center participated in festivities that included a visit from Santa.  Murphy’s was at one end of the center and that’s where we would always go first.  The other side had a Safeway grocery store-which has not been in the Richmond area for nearly thirteen years.  I miss them too.  Murphy’s always had, in my opinion, the best toy section.  Oh, then there was the ‘penny candy’.  LOTS of candy. GC Murphy also operated Murphy’s Mart.  We had a couple in Richmond, but I honestly do not remember much about them.  I don’t think they were around long.  Sadly, GC Murphy sold out to Ames, which converted many of the larger stores to Ames (probably why I don’t recall the larger stores that much. I do remember-and liked-Ames.)  Ames itself went out of business later on.  Before going under, Ames sold off the old five and dime business to the McCrory company, which also went out of business.  Retail is tough.

Other chains I remember, and found information on, include:

  • Lafayette Radio (a Radio Shack wannabe)
  • Erol’s (the video rental business)
  • Phar Mor (a sad tale, it’s upper management embezzled the company out of business)
  • Eckerd Drug (split between Rite Aid and CVS)
  • Big Star (Colonial Stores) grocery (Big Star is another of my childhood memories.  My mother LOVED this place and they always had good sales.  My mother would go nuts here.  I remember one month, EVERYTHING she fixed had some kind of italian like sauce because it was on sale for some ridiculous price like ten for a dollar.  No wonder they went out of business.)

Richmond based stores that I remember include Miller and Rhoads, Thalhimers (Thalhimers was purchased by the May company and became Hecht’s and then Macy’s) , Heilig Meyers (once the largest furniture retailer in America), Golden Skillet (a few still survive.  Golden Skillet began as a chicken dish served at Thalhimers.)

One other distinct memory I have from that wonderful time are the old S&H Greenstamps.  For those who may not remember, the stamps were given out by participating retailers to consumers.  The amount of stamps given depended on how much they spent at the retailer.  You would fill up books and then could redeem the books for merchandise from the S&H catalog.  Murphy’s and Woolworth’s, if I recall correctly, gave out the stamps.  I remember my mother had lots of those books and stamps.  What I can’t remember is if she ever actually redeemed them for anything.  Probably not.

UPDATE: one of the web sites linked to above (the Colonial Stores/Big Star link) links to a site called Groceteria.  This site is full of interesting stories, facts and photos of grocery retailers of the past and present, mostly past.  Check it out at


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