Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Thoughts, Some Old, Some New

Nothing says the start of a new year like…a reprise of a previous blog posting! I was inspired to repeat myself by an article in the New Year’s Day New York Times (“Grand Arcade Is Once Again a Sight All Can See”) about public tours of the magnificent lobby of the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/01/nyregion/off-limits-for-over-a-decade-lobby-of-woolworth-building-is-open-for-tours.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22}&_r=0). Thanks to my enterprising wife, I didn’t have to wait for a most fascinating tour of the lobby. She arranged a captivating 90 minute group viewing for three couples last April. 

So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote in August 2012, followed by some new thoughts as we embark on 2015:

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 8, 2012

An Empire Built on Nickels and Dimes  

Ever been inside the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway in lower Manhattan? During my early days reporting on the retail industry, I went there often to meet with executives of what at the time was one of the most diversified international retailers, though not one of the most successful. Today, all that remains of that empire are memories, folklore and just one enterprise, Foot Locker.

Today’s nostalgia is prompted by reports the top 30 floors of the 57-story, Cass Gilbert-designed landmark building have been bought, to be turned into high-priced condominiums (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/realestate/top-floors-of-woolworth-building-to-be-remade-as-luxury-apartments.html?_r=1&hpw). How ironic these multi-million dollar residences will sit atop a building paid for from the proceeds of a nickel and dime store chain. Frank W. Woolworth paid for his edifice in cash, $13.5 million, what today would be the equivalent of nearly $300 million. 

The neo-Gothic structure, tallest in the world when it opened in 1913, was never meant to be solely the province of the Woolworth Corporation. Its headquarters staff used just a few of the floors, 44, 45 and 46, as I faintly recall. Some of its divisions, including Kinney Shoe Corp. from which Foot Locker sprang, had offices elsewhere in Manhattan. 

I first entered the Woolworth Building in late 1978, as part of research for a January 1979 feature on the company’s 100th anniversary. The building was nicknamed the “cathedral of commerce” the day it opened. Like the Gothic churches of Europe, the lobby’s vaulted ceilings, mosaics and stained glass made one feel insignificant. See for yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WTM3_PAT_M_IN_NYC_0021.jpg  

It inspired awe. And wonder, not the wonder of reverence, but rather the wonder of consternation. How could any company that produced such magnificence sink to a level of mediocrity and even insignificance? How could its executives fail to recognize changes within the retail industry? 

To be sure, the variety-store oriented Woolworth brain trust had diversified, investing in discount stores (Woolco), specialty stores (Susie’s Casuals, Anderson-Little, Richman Bros., Kinney), off-price stores (*J. Brannam), and international divisions (Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, Great Britain). Without going into an exhaustive explanation of what went wrong with each, the short story is they all underachieved. They were either closed down or sold off, save Foot Locker. (After shuttering the variety stores, Woolworth changed its name to Venator Group, then Foot Locker.)

Here’s one example that encapsulates the mentality of what went wrong. As they had for decades during the heyday of the five and dime store era, everyone took their 30-minute lunch break at 12 noon sharp. Executives and secretaries. It was impossible to reach anyone there by phone during that half hour. Nor was it possible to reach anyone after 4:30 pm., even if you were calling from the West Coast. They all went home. 

Modern day retailing needs found no home at 233 Broadway. No doubt, the new homeowners atop the Woolworth tower can expect to have all their modern day housing needs fulfilled. 

New Year Thoughts: Now that the holiday gift-giving season is over, we have about 30 days of silence before we hear again one of the most obnoxious radio commercials ever transmitted, the voice of Rocky Moselle pitching the Star Register “gift that lasts a lifetime” for just $34.99. Next time he’ll be hawking his star-naming scheme as an eternally loving Valentine’s Day gift.

I’m amazed that people, real people, actually respond to this shpiel, but I guess the aphorism about a sucker being born every minute is right (FYI, P.T. Barnum did not say it; rather it is widely believed to have been uttered by David Hannum, a contemporary and competitor of Barnum the showman). 

Aside from envy (“why didn’t I think of such a money-making scam?”), the Star Registry has generated its fair share of criticism and, thankfully, some amusing parodies including this one from Derfmagazine.com:

NEW YORK - Rocky Moselle, Spokesman for the international Star Registry, reported this week star names for all of the stars in the universe were sold out during this busy Christmas shopping season. Because experts believed the star inventory in the universe was infinite, the company was shocked by this sudden inventory depletion. In response to this crisis, the International Star Registry has announced plans to launch a new venture entitled, “International Grain of Sand Registry” which will allow the same gullible customer base to purchase and copyright a name for a grain of sand somewhere on earth. Also being market tested is the, “International Blade of Grass Registry”. 


Enough Already: I’ve written about liberties scriptwriters take with my given name, using it for characters as varied as inept, funny policemen to docile family dogs. For my 65th birthday last March my sister sent me a birthday card with a picture of a cat on the front with the following message: “This is Murray. Murray loves to be treated, pampered and be the center of attention.” On the inside it said, “So on your birthday, eat, drink and be Murray.”

I had previously seen this card, as well as a Christmas card that portrayed a Jewish looking Santa Claus shrugging his shoulders and saying “Murray Christmas.” I actually bought hundreds of them and sent them out to business associates many years ago.

The latest “ecumenical” stab at my name came from the animated TV show, “How Murray Saved Christmas,” broadcast in early December. Just so I’d know what I was writing about I taped it and watched a few minutes at the front and back of the show. Ugh. Please, Hollywood, can’t you find another funny name?

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