Elkhart natives are still nostalgic about G.L. Perry’s, which opened its first store on Elkhart’s Main Street in 1939.
Elkhart resident Sue Ann Hampel, who stocked and weighed candy at G.L. Perry Variety Stores in high school, said the stores are part of city history.
“It’s an icon,” she said. “If G.L. Perry’s didn’t have it, they didn’t make it.”
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People tell stories about saving their allowances for trips to the candy counter or the basement full of toys. They would buy Nancy Drew books and beg their parents for pet goldfish and sit on Santa’s lap there at Christmastime.
But the variety stores that were magic to Elkhart County kids closed in the late 1990s for plain old real-world reasons.
The Elkhart-based chain dropped off the map after almost 60 years when it was nudged out of business by super centers like Wal-Mart and K-Mart. These “bulk box” stores could offer a wider selection at lower prices.
Eleanor Schrock worked as a toy buyer for G.L. Perry’s for 20 years and said the relatively small company just couldn’t compete with larger chains.
“We may have seemed big,” she said. “But in the scheme of things we really weren’t.”
When the company started, said former president Dick Stewart, manufacturers sold goods at scaled prices based on whether the buyer was a retail store, a wholesaler or an individual. G.L. Perry’s warehouse in Elkhart stored enough goods that the company could buy items at wholesale prices.
When bulk box stores started booming, manufacturers sold goods at a scale based on purchases’ volumes instead, and G.L. Perry’s relative size meant the company had to buy items at higher prices than stores like Wal-Mart, which bought in greater bulk.
At the company’s peak, Stewart said, G.L. Perry’s had 22 stores. Most were sold to other retailers in 1998 and 1999.
At least five G.L. Perry’s locations were bought out by Texas-based retailer Duckwall-Alco, Inc., in 1998, including the store at Easy Shopping Place in Elkhart and the one in Chicago-Pike Plaza in Goshen.
After that, two stores in Mishawaka and South Bend were bought out in early 1999.
That left one store in Niles, Mich., and a supply warehouse in Elkhart.
In 1999 Stewart said G.L. Perry’s would leave the variety store business soon. The company, which had been in business for almost 60 years, would get rid of the warehouse as soon as the Niles store was sold.
By 2000 G.L. Perry’s wasn’t in any Elkhart phone books. The iconic chain ended before the new millennium started.
Most of the stores were reopened under their new corporate owners’ names. These included the Goshen and Elkhart locations, both of which were renamed Alco Stores. The Goshen Alco was closed in January 2003. Store officials said the store wasn’t bringing in as much revenue as Alco’s other locations.
The end of G.L. Perry’s was the end of small variety stores in Elkhart County, said Elkhart historian Paul Thomas.
“First we lost all our dime stores, and Perry’s took the place of dime stores,” Thomas said. “When he closed, that was the end of the family-owned small businesses that served that purpose.”
Stewart said he and company founder G.L. Perry saw the chain’s end coming. By maintaining their regular discounts, the stores were losing money on every tube of toothpaste and lightbulb sold.
“We did so well for so many years, and you could just see it when it started going down,” he said. “I said to Mr. Perry, ‘If you can find somebody that can make this thing work, hire him.’”
But variety stores like Perry’s couldn’t afford to pay for goods in the same bulk as Wal-Mart and K-Mart. Stewart said the company folded while it was still ahead.
“We knew that was gonna happen,” he said. “And that’s just part of life.”