Columns

JCPenney closing stirs memories of first job 2015.04.15

     By RICH FOLEY

The JCPenney store at the Adrian Mall closed last Friday after 44 years at that location. Other stores might have had a 44 percent off sale to mark such an anniversary. Instead, Penney’s had a 75 percent off sale, then closed the store permanently.

 Before the mall store opened, the retail chain was a fixture in downtown Adrian in the building now occupied by the city library. I remember many trips there as a child for school clothes, Christmas gift shopping and best of all, visiting Santa Claus. The mall store, however, is better remembered as my first real job.

By 1973, JCPenney had reached its all-time peak number of locations with a total of 2,053 stores (the current total is about 1,000). Then the oil crisis hit, and during the 1974 recession, the company’s stock price fell by two-thirds. If things weren’t already bad enough for Penney’s, they compounded their problems by hiring me. 

A college freshman at the time, I was hired to work two days a week in the catalog department. I added to my education by learning that the initials in J. C. Penney stood for James Cash and that the first Penney’s store was in the small Wyoming town of Kemmerer.

My job was to help unload the daily  truck which dropped off catalog purchases, stock the packages in their proper locations and if time permitted, help the other department employees call customers with the news that their purchases had arrived.

There were sometimes a few packages that customers requested be mailed to them rather than be held for pickup. It was my job to take those to the post office. The first few times, I just loaded up my Plymouth and ran the errand. Then one day, a well-dressed older man walked up and asked what I was doing.

It turned out he was the store manager, whom I had never met as I had been hired by one of his assistants. Upon learning of my mission, he said I shouldn’t be using my own car for Penney’s business. He pulled out a set of car keys, pointed out a nearly new Pontiac station wagon in the employee lot, and said to use it whenever I had to make the post office run.

It was kind of fun being able to commandeer Mr. Gray’s car to do my business, but a bit intimidating, too, as it was as big as a yacht. What if I wrecked the store manager’s car? I was happier when he wasn’t available as I got to use a Chevy Chevelle belonging to the assistant manager who had hired me. That was a bit more my style.

One day, I was moving some packages and accidentally knocked a figurine off the top of a filing cabinet. It shattered upon hitting the floor. Surprisingly, that temporarily made me the hero of most of the department. I was told that returned or slightly damaged items were marked down and sold, with employees getting first dibs. Our department manager was famous for scarfing up bargains and was  itching to buy the figurine. I denied her that purchase, which pleased everyone but her.

Unfortunately, the recession that started Penney’s slow downfall caught up with me and I was laid off after the Christmas season. And so ended my career in retail.

When news of the Adrian store’s closing became public earlier this year, I decided I needed to pay a final visit and pick up an appropriate souvenir. I had a chance to stop in a week before the last day.

Although prices were only marked down  by 50 percent at that point, there wasn’t much of a selection of merchandise to choose from. I turned my attention to the store fixtures. There were quite a few chairs, but none to fit my budget. And then there were the mannequins….

Gathered closely together in one group were 20 or 25 female mannequins. All of them were headless. All of them were footless. And if that wasn’t enough to complete the surreal scene, all of them were utterly, completely and totally nude. 

Originally $150 each, the mannequins had been reduced to $100. I wondered if they originally came equipped with heads and feet, not to mention clothes. Did previous customers with various fetishes buy only the parts that appealed to them? 

I left without any purchases, then later thought I should have taken a photo of the mannequins as a small keepsake. I planned to stop in last week to see if they were still there, but regrettably didn’t make it. It doesn’t really matter. Despite how hard I try, I can’t get that image out of my head. Nor will I ever forget my time at Penney’s.