Roy Mercon, photo
ST. ALBANS CITY — On Sept. 21, 1928, J.C. Penney Company opened its doors in St. Albans vowing not only to bring quality service and low prices to its customers, but also to support the community.
“We will endeavor in every way that we can to add what goods we can to every local program for advancement which may be put into effect by local organizations or groups of businessmen,” the company announced.
The first Penney’s here employed 15 clerks in a storefront 50 feet wide and boasting 6,000 square feet of sales space, including a balcony area.
Indeed, the company proclaimed, the store, first located at 64-66 North Main St., would be run as though Mr. Penney himself were in charge.
Now, after 87 years, which included its move to the shopping center 40 years ago, JCPenney is closing Saturday.
The store in the St. Albans Shopping Plaza, the last remaining department store downtown, was nearly bereft of merchandise, but not customers Friday morning. There were about seven employees present.
To the left of the front doors was a small collection of men’s clothing and to the right an even smaller selection of women’s clothes. The rest of the store was empty, with fixtures packed for shipping along the back wall. Deep cuts in prices over the past few weeks had laid the floor space bare.
Perched on one of the fixtures was Penny St. Pierre, a 33-year employee of the company.
“As it’s getting emptier, it feels more like a ghost town,” she said.
Plenty of men have run the company since the time of Mr. Penney, when it was a company policy not to have sales and one day bargains. The changes in the corporation’s approach are evident in the treatment of St. Pierre and the other employees. Despite assuring the public employees would be offered jobs at the South Burlington store, the company hadn’t yet followed through on that promise. On Friday it appeared that when the store closes and the final items are shipped out, the 30 employees would be without jobs.
“It was a nice company to work for back in the day,” added St. Pierre.
Each CEO has tried to make his imprint on the company. “There was a lot of hits and misses,” said St. Pierre. For example, one of the store’s recent managers, the late George Furman, wasn’t sent any girls winter coats his first winter managing the store.
There was a time when stores ordered their own merchandize, purchasing those items local staff believed would sell. But those days were long gone even before the store closed its doors.
Despite the changes, the St. Albans store was always profitable, according to current and former employees, but the company has declined to answer questions about a business strategy that includes the closing of profitable stores.
Wall Street apparently approves, however. The company’s stock price increased 7.4 percent after the company announced it expected sales at the remaining stores to increase three percent this quarter.
St. Pierre observed that with the wave of store closures this spring, the only remaining stores will be those in malls, such as the South Burlington store located in the University Square Mall.
St. Pierre, for one, isn’t convinced Franklin County customers will make a 30-mile trip to a mall in Chittenden County just to shop at a JCPenney. “You’ve got a lot of older people,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to travel.”
“They’re said,” St. Pierre said of the store’s customers. “They’re sad to see it go.”
One of those regular customers is Amy Greenia, whose parents Marge and Larry Cummings, own Amy’s Gift Shop in the St. Albans Shopping Plaza. She and her family were all regular customers.
“Nobody’s really happy about it,” said Greenia.
In addition to losing a favorite store, Greenia is also worried about losing her own customers. “We share a lot of the same customers,” she said. “It’s a big draw.”
For St. Pierre there is an upside—the chance to try something new. “I’m a little excited because I’ve been working here for so long and it’s time for a change,” she said. “I’m going to miss my co-workers more than anything. We always had good people to work with.”
The fate of the building is still being negotiated, according to Marty Manahan, the city’s director of business development. Manahan said the landlord is negotiating with possible tenants, but had no additional details.
“This is definitely a heartbreaking day for our community,” Manahan said of the store’s closure. “JCPenney’s has been an anchor in our downtown for generations, offering quality products and good jobs.”
“Our community has been a loyal patron and friend to the local JCPenney over the years. I understand this store has always performed well, unfortunately it no longer fit into the mold that their corporate leadership is looking for,” he added.