You can’t set foot in a mall without hearing one of their names, but the stories behind the men and women who founded department stores aren’t often part of our food court conversations. Here’s a look back at Richard W. Sears, James Cash Penney and some of the other people behind the anchor stores.
Richard W. Sears inadvertently got his start from a botched delivery. When Sears was in his early 20s, he worked as a railroad station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, and he was on duty when a shipment of watches came in for the town’s jeweler. The jeweler hadn’t ordered the watches and refused to accept delivery, so Sears talked to the watch wholesaler and worked out an arrangement—Sears would buy the watches for $12 apiece and then sell them for whatever he could get.
Sears had such great luck peddling the watches to his coworkers and local farmers that he quickly gave up the railroad business and moved to Minneapolis to start the R.W. Sears Watch Company at the tender age of 22.
Alvah Roebuck entered the story after Sears established his watch company. Roebuck, a young watchmaker from Indiana, was searching for a job when he found an opening doing repairs for Sears’ upstart company. Roebuck went to work for Sears in 1887, and by 1893 their friendship had grown to the point where they incorporated a new business together: Sears, Roebuck, and Company.
So Roebuck got fabulously wealthy as a result of his first watchmaking job, then? Not quite. In 1895, Roebuck talked Sears into buying out his share of their company for just $20,000. Although Roebuck stayed with the company as an employee of its watch division, he never saw the big money Sears made. After Sears’ death, though, Roebuck had a great quip when people asked him if he regretted not having as much cash as his late partner: “He’s dead. Me, I never felt better.”
Rowland Hussey Macy played more of an active role in designing his company’s logo than most founders do. Before Macy, a Nantucket native, got into the dry goods business, he worked on a whaling ship that sailed off of the island. At some point during his whaling days, Macy got a red star tattooed on his hand, and the star later became his store’s logo when he opened his first New York shop in 1858.
The famous store was actually Macy’s fifth attempt at opening a shop after four failed tries near his Massachusetts home, and Macy’s shop only took in $11.06 on the day it opened its doors. However, by the end of his first year, Macy had pulled in over $90,000 and was firmly established as a popular New York shopping destination.
John W. Nordstrom began his life in Sweden as Johan Nordstrom. In 1887, a 16-year-old Nordstrom arrived in the United States with five bucks and no command of the English language. He spent 10 years working as a logger and miner in the Northwest before deciding to head to Alaska to look for gold in the Klondike. After two years of searching, Nordstrom finally made a strike.
Nordstrom sold his claim for $13,000 and returned to Seattle to invest his newfound loot. One of Nordstrom’s buddies in Alaska had been Carl Wallin, who owned a shoe repair shop in Seattle, and in 1901 the two friends opened the shoe store Wallin & Nordstrom. Over the next two decades, the pair built up a devoted following in Seattle, and the firm gradually expanded into the largest independent chain of shoe stores in the country. In 1963, the company started selling apparel as well, and the modern Nordstrom’s took off.
Herbert Marcus, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and A.L. Neiman might be the only people ever to lose money by founding a giant, successful department store. In 1907, Marcus, his sister, and his brother-in-law were business partners in a sales promotion business in Atlanta. Their firm was so successful that offers to buy it started rolling in, but there were only two deals the partners took seriously: an offer for $25,000 in cash, and a stake in an up-and-coming local soft-drink company.
The three partners conferred and decided they didn’t trust the “sugary soda pop business” and took the cash, which they then used to open their department store. The soda maker they snubbed, Coca-Cola, ended up doing pretty well for itself. Decades later, Herbert Marcus’ son Stanley became the CEO of Neiman-Marcus, and he often joked that the company was “founded on bad business judgment.”
If you ever find yourself desperately needing a hoop skirt, it might be worth checking your local Bloomingdale’s. After all, the wildly popular 19th-century garment gave the department store its start. In 1860, brothers Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale began selling hoop skirts at their Ladies’ Notions Shop on New York’s Lower East Side, and when these skirts flew off the brothers’ racks, they eventually decided to expand their store’s offerings. In 1872, they opened a revamped store, the East Side Bazaar, that offered all sorts of European duds they bought through a purchasing office in Paris.
James Cash Penney got his start as regular clerk in a dry goods store. In 1898, he began working for a small Colorado chain called the Golden Rule. In 1902, his bosses offered him an ownership stake in the company if Penney would move to tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming, and start a Golden Rule store there. Penney jumped at the offer. His store was so successful that by 1907, he was able to buy out the other two stores in the Golden Rule chain. By 1912, Penney had over 30 stores in the region, and he incorporated them all under a new name—the J.C. Penney Company.
Barney Pressman, founder of New York-based luxury chain Barneys, owed a lot of his success to his wife. When Pressman saw a small store in Manhattan going under in 1923, he wanted to buy it and open a clothing store of his own. There was a problem, though: he didn’t have the cash. When Pressman told his wife, Bertha, about this predicament, she slipped off her engagement ring and told him to pawn it. With the $500 Pressman got from hocking his wife’s diamond, he took over the failing store’s lease and bought 40 high-end suits, which were the original inventory when Barney’s Clothes opened its doors shortly thereafter.
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