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August 1st, 2001 Elizabeth Dye | Fashion
 

J. J. Newberry: A EULOGY

     
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Though no one seems to know exactly when, the Lloyd Center J.J. Newberry, Portland's last honest-to-goodness five-and-dime, will close its doors soon. Mr. Biehl, a veteran store employee who has worked for both Newberry and the F.W. Woolworth Co. for more than 20 years, says details of the store's closure are a mystery--even to him.

"They're not too free with the information," said Mr. Biehl, "and they just shipped in a bunch of stuff from 10 other stores."

The SALE signs on the windows have gone from 20 to 50 percent off, and we can guess what's next: The 70-percent-off free-for-all.

Newberry's demise has been long and lingering. Its parent company, McCrory Corp., closed 300 Newberry stores in 1997. One by one, the remaining outposts have shuttered their doors on hometown main streets across the land, like Portland's beloved downtown Newberry (1927-1996). Only a combination of mall proximity and inertia could've kept the Lloyd Center shop going this long (it opened in 1960).

So what does one find at Newberry? Ladies' foundations, cocoa butter, keychains, hangers, plastic pill sorters, weed killer, hairbrushes, ankle socks--the essential sundries of modern life on a limited budget. Plus, things you couldn't possibly need to put on your shopping list--a can-opener cozy, garlic shampoo, CD-shaped potpourri sachets. All in all, the inside of a five-and-dime is a puzzling and (sort of) sweet collage of American desire. It has always been the home of the impulse buy, the modest trinket, the afternoon errand for a spool of thread and a box of popcorn. And when Newberry goes, so will small-scale shopping.

But enough hearts and roses, let's dig into Newberry's inky heart. Should we mourn the loss of the old-time discount store? It may have been starved into extinction by the likes of Wal-Mart and Target, but five and dimes were the Wal-Marts of their day. They paved the way for the convenience-besotted, junk-enamored culture we now know so well. Sure, the inventory of your average Newberry rarely topped 1,000 items (compared to Wal-Mart's 50,000-plus), but they did tend to knit themselves into the fabric of downtown (while Wal-Marts prefer to set up shop on the outskirts).

Still, most of what Newberry sold was, well...crap. Soap and talcum gift sets, toys and pulp paperbacks, calico remnants, flimsy greeting cards. Asking "Did you get that at Newberry's?" was a derisive appraisal, somewhere along the lines of Kmart's "Blue Light Special." So wherefore the affection for the five-and-dime? Maybe America waxes nostalgic about Woolworth and Newberry because those were the first places a kid could walk into, allowance in hand, and walk out with a toy train or a training bra on her own. Reminisce about your first assertion of independent buying power. Didn't it happen at a Payless or a Newberry?

Mr. Biehl says the Newberry closedown sale has gone largely unpublicized because the store can't afford ad rates in local publications. And on the weekday afternoon I visited, customers were sparse, mostly lone lurkers sifting passionlessly through hilariously misprinted T-shirts ($2) and bottles of Dreams by Tabu ($8.95). There were some finds: bright-hued umbrellas for $2.50, knit gloves for $1.50, and sweaters with Dr. Seuss flaws (too-long sleeves, or one longer than the other).

Ultimately, Newberry is not junk of the lowest order. Junk of the lowest order is yet to come. According to Mr. Biehl, McCrory Corporation plans to reopen it as a Dollar Zone Store. "Same kind of thing, then?" I asked. "No," Biehl corrected. "We've got things in here that go for more than a dollar." The thought of Newberry's inventory being replaced by even chintzier, more disposable merchandise depressed me so much that I purchased steak-shaped vinyl dog toys (50 cents) and day-glo fishing tackle ($1.69), just to grab onto the last evidence of a higher standard. I wish I could have done more, but not even nostalgia makes some of this stuff buyable. As one elderly customer remarked to the checker (with regret in her voice?), "Well, you have a lot of interesting things in here, but I don't know whether I would use any of them."


The employee I quote, "Mr. Biehl," wanted to be known as Mr. Biehl. He introduced himself as Mr. Biehl. His name tag said Mr. Biehl.
 
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