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Column: After 87 years, the sad ending of an era

WORTHINGTON — Harry Grier used to stand inside the front door of JCPenney’s store on Worthington’s 10th Street opposite the courthouse and shake hands with customers as they came in the store. Harry Grier was Penney’s manager in the 1930s, 1940s — oh, at least into the 1950s.

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It wasn’t required of managers to greet customers. That was just something Harry did. I think it gave many people a good feeling as they stepped into the store.

Penney’s wasn’t Worthington’s big downtown department store. By square feet I am not certain Penney’s was as big as Silverberg’s or Wolff’s or Habicht’s. The big store was Montgomery Ward, but of course Ward’s had everything from furniture to car tires. Penney’s had clothing and bedding. Sheets, pillow cases, towels. I think it was JCPenney that introduced January white sales to Worthington. Christmas was past and the ground was white — come to Penney’s and get a deal on bath towels.

I am thinking of JCPenney because Penney’s, which closes in Worthington this month, was Worthington’s oldest retailer. Penney’s came to town in 1927. Eighty-seven years ago. Think of that.

And think of this. A succession of managers and corporate directors guided Worthington’s JCPenney store profitably through the Great Depression and through World War II. Those were tough times for stores, but Penney’s hung in there. Part of this was men like Harry Grier standing at the front door greeting customers. And Merle Miller. I think Merle came right after Harry — I think Merle was the first manager of Penney’s new, expanded store next to the Grand Theatre on 10th Street.

I went into Penney’s one very snowy noon for some overshoes. Zipper overshoes. I was pulling on an old overshoe at work and the back tore open. I settled myself in a seat in Penney’s shoe department waiting for a clerk. Here came Merle. “What can I do for you?” Merle knelt on the floor in front of me and pulled on an overshoe. “It was made for you,” he said.

In my experience, Worthington’s big department stores and supermarkets today are managed by invisible people. At least I don’t see anyone I identify as a manager. They all may be women. Who knows?

Penney’s. Eighty-seven years. Worthington is larger by population than it ever has been. Unemployment is small. So what happened? Trace the problem to corporate headquarters. Worthington’s JCPenney store must have been the only department store in America that wasn’t facing on a street. Penney’s was hidden at the back of Northland Mall facing on a moat choked with weeds and reeds and cattails, accessible only via a broken, pothole-choked parking lot with an abandoned, crumbling Kmart as an anchor at one end and the old, abandoned Hy-Vee skeleton as anchor on the other end. You could drive around town daily, you could drive along Oxford Street daily, and not know there was a JCPenney store in Worthington. Out of sight, out of mind.

Business seemed not brisk for Penney’s. The guessing is JCP corporation, hobbled by want of insight, let a contract expire.

JCPenney abandoned Worthington after nearly a century. I won’t abandon JCPenney. JCP always had an inventory of quality merchandise. The socks on my feet just now came from Penney’s. So did my Dockers. If there is something I need, I can go to Penney’s online and order it. I won’t be spending as many dollars with JCP, however. When I walked through the store I would see one thing or another that I believed I should have. I found new slippers I wasn’t looking for at Christmas time. I won’t be making such unplanned purchases any longer.

Just as Northland Mall’s owner is Faceless Somebody in New York City who doesn’t even know what Worthington’s JCP looked like, so JCPenney’s corporate management is 900 miles away in Texas and doesn’t know what Worthington’s JCP location came to be.

Phil Swanson, who managed Penney’s in the last decade, told me Penney’s at Worthington still was a “store of destination.” JCP’s Worthington customers didn’t just happen by while walking through a mall. People made it a point to go to Penney’s.

Trouble is, such customers probably were fewer and fewer.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.