When the news that JC Penney’s was closing 300 stores broke, I felt a sense of dread come over me. A couple clicks on my laptop and my suspicions were confirmed. “They are closing that Great Bend JC Penney’s store,” I remarked to my wife Lori who was in the kitchen. She looked over to me - “The store by the courthouse? How sad. Where will you get your underwear now?”
That was her frame of reference. Mine was much broader.
In an instant, my thoughts drifted back to an earlier, simpler time when we were the original free-range kids. And Penney’s was very much part of our playground.
Penney’s gave our town big-city credibility, starting with the name of the founder - James Cash Penney, a name that today would seem more fitting for a west coast rapper. His parents obviously had some sense that their son was destined for great things.
In the 70s, Penney’s was at the core of Great Bend’s economic lifeblood – joining it was Gibson’s Discount (aka Gibbies), Phillips Sporting Goods and Stone’s Bait Shop.
Gibbies piled it high and sold it cheap. Back then, nothing on the shelves was made in China – it was either Taiwan or Mexico. Gibbies also specialized in knives, guns, ammo and animal traps. If it could kill you by blunt trauma, or poison you slowly, Gibbies sold it. Adult supervision was optional, and we exercised all our options.
Phillips Sporting Goods, on the other hand, had rare, boutique, name-brand stuff, things you rarely bought but always wanted to inspect, like jock straps (all sizes), Rawlings baseballs, aluminum bats, authentic MLB baseball caps, things like that. If you needed oil for the baseball glove you carried everywhere, you had to see the Phillips brothers.
Stones had the exclusive on night crawlers, fat-head minnows and intelligence on what large bass and catfish were hitting.
But JC Penney’s had the cool things that were pricey but within reach. It had a unique sachet – like Target crossed with Trader Joes. It was upscale. But it wasn’t just a store. It was an amusement park. And it was part of a larger Golden Triangle that included the Keenan law firm across the street to the south, and the courthouse. In two hours you could maybe see a murder trial, try to crack Dad’s large black safe in the storage room, and then hit Penney’s to ride the escalator up and down, down and up.
The escalator was five-star can’t-miss attraction. This was a technological development unlike any other. To have stairs that disappeared and then reappeared below was jaw dropping. The funniest thing was to walk down the stairs going up and stay in one place. For full effect you needed an audience for this, and brothers Tim and Marty always obliged. If only we had selfie sticks back then my antics would have put me on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
At the dinner table the escalator garnered considerable discussion. “It’s technically a moving staircase,” Dad told us between puffs on his pipe. “Don’t go into the store without your mom because someone could get hurt. If your toes got caught in the metallic stairs they would be amputated.” We exchanged glances. THAT IS SO COOL!
Penney’s was also full service. You could get your hair done, get your ears pierced, have your tires changed, and get fitted for a suit by the one man who was always on site – Doyle Cook. But it carried specialized items as well. Its stock in trade was things that were high tech, played tricks with gravity, and trendy clothing items like Nero shirts, zipper boots and Dickie turtlenecks.
Penney’s sporting goods had novelty items. I remember the first time I saw the game Pong there. It was in the toy section on the north side of the building. The game involved an electronic dot that bounced up and down and you had to block it with a cursor. It sped up and became more difficult. It was like crack for kids.
Once they sold a contraption that blew air and made ping pong balls circulate continuously. It was mesmerizing. They had other red-hot items like clackers, yo-yos and Frisbees.
The restaurant was very popular. You could order large French fries and eat them while watching the escalator. The cinnamon rolls were epic. There was a time when KVGB would broadcast live from there on Saturday mornings.
Major Astro came to Penney’s one year. He was a phony astronaut on KARD-TV in Wichita. He sported a space suit likely made of converted bed sheets and a helmet that was probably made of cardboard. The guy was probably a car mechanic off the air, but on TV we considered him to be every bit the peer of John Glenn. We waited in a long line to meet him.
I still visit that store when I’m back in GB. I walk around and it’s nostalgic. I buy their Stafford brand underwear, T shirts and socks and remind myself again how lucky I was to have grown up in a Midwestern town – a Great Bend boy.