This week, the New England retail world took yet another blow when Benny’s, a long-time fixture in Southern New England, announced it was closing its doors.
Arnold Bromberg, grandson of the founder, Benjamin Bromberg, sent out a press release stating that the store could no longer compete in the “new world of the internet”. The company said its closing was “strongly influenced by the changing face of retailing today and the dominance of online retailers like Amazon and others”.
What began as a tire stand in center city Providence in 1924 and expanded to over thirty stores in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, the iconic store with the red and white storefront will be out of business after the Christmas season.
Anyone who shopped at Benny’s knows that telltale smell upon entering its doors. What could best be described as a mix of tires, paint and oil, it was an unmistakable essence that added to the shopping experience.
Anything and everything could be found at Benny’s. Cruising its aisles, a shopper would find an eclectic mix of the practical and the eccentric. In fact, it’s been said that if Benny’s didn’t have it, you probably don’t need it.
Every Christmas season, Southern New England residents would be treated to Benny's television commercials featuring local school children.
Downtown Providence has seen its fair share of disappearing retailers for decades. The Westminster Arcade, opened in 1828 and was the first indoor shopping mall in America, battled retailers like Shepard’s, Cherry and Webb and Gladdings for market dominance in the capital city.
One by one the stores closed and in 1944 the Westminster Arcade was facing a wrecking ball until the Metropolitan Museum of Art intervened by calling the structure one of the “finest commercial buildings in the history of American architecture”. In 1976, it received National Landmark status and in 2013, was converted into retail space and studio apartments.
Unfortunately, our bordering states have not fared much better.
At one time in Connecticut, towns and cities boasted vibrant and bustling downtown retail shopping spaces. Stores like Woolworth’s and W.T. Grants were department stores extraordinaire. Selling everything from records to small animals and featuring a busy soda fountain that served burgers and fries to cap off a day of frantic spending, these stores were mainstays for everyday perusing and fast-paced holiday shopping.
But one store in the Nutmeg State was called the granddaddy of all the department giants and that was Howland-Hughes.
Located in downtown Waterbury, Howland-Hughes was an escape from reality. Their toy department boasted microscopes, bicycles and chemistry kits. Anatomy sets allowed budding young doctors to dissect frogs and fish in the comfort of their bedrooms.
During the Christmas season, their basement became Santa's workshop, complete with Donner, the talking reindeer. Kids lined up to see Old St. NIck or to carry on a conversation with the mechanical creature, spilling all their wants and wishes. This store was also known for their Christmas bags that were described as “so beautiful and decorative” that shoppers used them as packaging for gifts.
Howland-Hughes, like Benny’s, was an integral part of the community as they sponsored bake sales, student art competitions and neighborhood auctions. The store had a church day every November in which they donated 10% of a customer’s sale to the church of their choice. Unable to compete with the rise of Malls and outlet shops, the store closed its doors in 1996.
In Massachusetts, a Boston store started by a German-Jewish immigrant became a household name well into the 21st century. Filenes, opened in 1881, was a bargain shopper’s delight as the store specialized in the mark down formula that was confined to the basement annex and later became known as Filene’s Basement.
Again, it wasn’t just Filenes that made shopping great but other department stores like Jordan Marsh, R.H. Stern and R.H. White made the trip into Boston a memorable one. In 1930, Filene’s began popping up in malls throughout the country spread the name to all corners of America. But in 2006, Filene’s merged with Macy’s and the store disappeared from the retail scene.
Although the closing of these stores stirs pleasant childhood memories and nostalgic thoughts for many of us, there is also a human cost. With each shuttering of doors comes the real effect on real people who were employed by these retailers. In the case of Benny’s, 715 employees, half of whom are full time, will be losing their jobs and benefits that many thought would carry them into the future and perhaps into retirement.
Although the demise of Benny’s is certainly a sad situation for the employees affected and for those in Southern New England who continue to see the icons of the past disappear, it is indicative of a changing landscape for retirees.
Today, most retirement income will depend on the individual’s own resources. More and more retirees receive money from social security and employee sponsored savings plans but these sources are facing an uncertain future as most employers are cutting back on these benefits and the majority are no longer offering pension plans.
This spells trouble for those who do not have a retirement plan in place. In my next blog, I will discuss the uncertain future for current employee pension plans and how to begin planning now for a comfortable retirement.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.