Friday, August 31, 2012

Comprehensive book details Murphy's - a storied retailer from a bygone age

G.C. Murphy Co. was once a go-to store for just about anything in State College, Pa., where I grew up.

Also prominent in town at this time were independent retailers O.W. Houts and Son and Danks Department Store. This predates the rise of Walmart, which after all three of these stores' demises opened not just one, but two super stores in town.

The long list of former Murphy's locations includes many stores in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio ... and on and on.

The Murphy's in State College looked a bit like the store on the cover, at left, of "For the Love of Murphy's: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer," by Jason Togyer (2008, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 292 pp., $37.95). It was a large, popular and centrally located five-and-dime store on Allen Street, featuring rows and rows of merchandise including clothing, candies and housewares and complete with a long lunch counter flanked by a tidy row of stools.

The Murphy's closed when I was a girl, making way for more modern shops and eventually chain stores in the well-patronized downtown that serves State College residents and the 40,000 or so Penn State students that live in town and on campus.

Having patronized that downtown State College store during my formative years, I never realized Murphy's was such an empire - one that stretched far beyond Happy Valley and the Alleghenies. I also didn't realize the chain was ultimately acquired by Ames - a chain of discount stores that went out of business in 2002.

By that time the Murphy's store I visited with my mom as a child was long gone. The site of the former Murphy's in the popular downtown business district has been occupied by a number of retailers since then. The original Allen Street site was developed into an Eddie Bauer Store and a Chili's Bar and Grill (where I waitressed in my latter years as a Penn State student). The Eddie Bauer store has since been replaced by an expanded local outfitter and ski shop Appalachian Outdoors.

In his comprehensive and well-designed book, author Jason Togyer has penned a well-researched and well-written account of the G.C. Murphy Co. chain. The research for the book was published with the assistance of a grant from the G.C. Murphy Company Foundation - a nonprofit entity which still exists and administers grants.

"For the Love of Murphy's: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer"
is a handsome, coffee-table sized book that gives a complete account of the company that originated in McKeesport, Pa. The cover incidentally won the 2009 AAUP Book Jacket Award.

While the book contains no photos from the State College or neighboring Bellefonte G.C. Murphy Co. stores, it does feature 72 black-and-white photos from many of the other Pennsylvania stores - mainly McKeesport and downtown Pittsburgh sites.

The photos accent Togyer's highly readable and enjoyable account of the family-run business that thrived for many decades in small-town America.

Book summary (from the publisher):

Five-and-ten stores were immensely popular during the middle of the twentieth century, selling cheap, dependable goods to people from all walks of life. Now the product of a bygone era, these stores were revolutionary in their time, but few today appreciate how important they were in creating our present-day consumer culture. In this sensitive yet honest look at one of the best-known chains of five-and-tens, Jason Togyer traces the history of the G. C. Murphy Company, headquartered in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

Though not the largest chain, nor the first, Murphy’s is remembered today as a commercial trailblazer — a corporation run with honesty and integrity, and, at its peak, a retailer whose more than five hundred stores managed to outsell those of the giant F. W. Woolworth Company by a factor of three to one. Making extensive use of both the company archives and anecdotes from former employees and customers, McKeesport native Togyer re-creates with outstanding detail the world in which the G. C. Murphy Company emerged; its survival and growth during the Great Depression; its response to a strained economy during World War II; its fight against rapidly expanding competitors, such as Kmart; its struggle and recovery in the 1970s; and its unsuccessful battle to stave off Wall Street raiders in the 1980s.

Though modern-day shoppers may not know the Murphy name, they know its legacy. From its adventurous selling tactics to its strict code of corporate ethics, the G. C. Murphy Company should be remembered not as a dusty relic, but as a pioneer in the American business world.

Visit the book's page on the Penn State University Press site.

Click here for the G.C. Murphy's Memories website, which lists store locations.

About the author:

Jason Togyer is managing editor of The Link, the magazine of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

View a video of Togyer speaking with History Center Director of Publications Brian Butko about the book here.

Special thanks to Penn State University Press for providing a review copy of Togyer's book.

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