Wednesday, September 13, 2023

San Diego Memories

Have you ever had a possum scamper across your walking path in the hour before midnight?

I have and it spooked me, I am not ashamed to admit. It happened back in 1981 at the Town and Country Resort in San Diego where the discount store industry association was holding its annual executive conference. A short time before the surprisingly nimble and speedy possum startled me I had been schmoozing with the heads of retail chains like Jamesway, Fisher’s Big Wheel, and Zayre, companies no longer in existence, many victims of the retail juggernaut founded by the man who asked me the following: “What did I think of  Price Club?” 

Sam Walton wanted my opinion. One of Sam’s most endearing and egalitarian qualities was his pursuit of knowledge from any and all sources. As editor of Chain Store Age, a magazine he read, he thought I could possibly enlighten him about Price Club, the six-year-old San Diego-based warehouse wholesale club concept developed by Sol Price, a legendary retail entrepreneur. (Price Club eventually merged with Seattle-based Costco.) 

Sam Walton was looking for another vehicle to complement his Walmart discount stores. Price Club intrigued him. 

There were no Price Clubs or any other warehouse wholesale clubs in the east, so I had to sheepishly admit to Sam I had no first hand thoughts about Price Club. Sam, on the other hand, said he was intrigued by the concept. 

I made a point of sneaking into the members’ only Price Club on Morena Boulevard the next day. Ever since Costco opened in the New York area I’ve been an enthusiastic Costco shopper. 

Sam, meanwhile, wasted little time developing his knockoff. Sam’ Club opened two years later. For the last fiscal year ended January 31, 2023, Sam’s Clubs had $84.3 billion in sales from 600 U.S. locations. They produced an operating profit of $1.964 billion. 

Second Time, Baby On Board: My reminiscences about San Diego were prompted by the Sunday wedding of my sister’s daughter Lauren to Ofir in La Jolla just north of San Diego. 

Gilda and I first visited San Diego on vacation in 1978 while she was eight months pregnant with our first born. We returned the following year to attend the annual meeting of the Association of General Merchandise Chains representing companies like Woolworth, TG&Y, and Sprouse-Reitz. 

San Diego proper actually was not the locale of the conference. It was held at the Hotel del Coronado on nearby Coronado Island. A landmark all-wooden hotel opened in 1888, the Del was prominently featured in the classic comedy “Some Like It Hot.”

Every morning while I was conventioneering Gilda and not yet one-year-old Dan would enjoy breakfast on our room’s balcony. On the adjacent balcony a senior couple struck up a conversation. Turned out they were Trudy and Dick Groberg, Dick being newly named the vice president/group publications director of Chain Store Age. Obviously, he approved of spousal attendees at industry conferences. But did his liberalism extend to infants?  

I need not have worried. Gilda and Dan charmed the Grobergs at that conference and subsequent industry gatherings. As to the merits of her attendance at conferences, Gilda more than earned her presence. Over the years Gilda induced more industry contacts for me than I could have managed on my own. 

Third Time, Jewish Geography: A side benefit advertisers in Chain Store Age could access was a market presentation I provided at no charge. That’s how I came to be at the San Diego headquarters of Washington Inventory Service speaking to half a dozen or so executives. I spoke and answered questions for about an hour. 

That evening, responding to how his day went, John Pryor, told his wife Pat Launer he sat through a presentation from someone from New York. Who was he?, she asked. 

Just because you are from New York does not mean you know everyone from there, he replied. She persisted. He very reluctantly said my name which prompted enthusiastic screams from Pat as we had spent six years together at Camp Columbia in Elizaville, NY. 

Pat Launer was a force of nature at camp, a leading lady member of the Columbia Players acting group that staged Saturday night musicals for the staff every other week. Pat turned love of theater into a major part of her working life. She retired last year after 40 years as a theater critic. But she has done so much more, as you can discover by linking to her retirement message:

Pat’s first husband, Dana Launer, shared her enthusiasm for the footlights at Camp Columbia. He opted to work on camp maintenance rather than as a counselor. He’d drive around in the camp owner’s red Jeep, from one fix-it operation to another.

“Operation” was a fitting word, as Dana became a surgeon, specializing in colon and rectal surgery. Dana served two years as chief of staff of Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego. Dana passed away in 2010