Weekly Feature

2018-07-12 / Editorial

Remember when Twin Fair was region’s retail giant?

Managing Editor

Forty-odd years ago, Western New York was home to a retail giant that was clearly ahead of its time: Twin Fair discount department stores.

These sprawling stores seemed to sell everything: clothing, footwear, bedding, furniture, jewelry, beauty products, electronics, paint, auto parts and housewares. Even vinyl records.

Twin Fair was incorporated on March 22, 1956, and the first store opened on Walden Avenue. By 1959, four stores were in operation and sales stood at $2.5 million. In 1962, the founders sold the company to Unexcelled Chemicals Corp. and also expanded the chain to include groceries.

The company continued to expand, opening an eighth store in 1967 on Seneca Street, along with stores in Connecticut and Ohio. By 1970, through expansion and acquisition, the chain grew to 37 stores, located primarily in New York and Ohio.

Living off Elmwood Avenue while attending Buffalo State College, my commute to the Twin Fair near Kenmore Avenue was as simple as simple could be. My previous retail experience had involved pumping gas, so when I was hired, I was assigned to the automotive department.

A lot of the work was done behind the counter, looking up spark plugs and windshield wiper blades for customers. The old-school cash register had actual keys to press and lacked the ability to tell you how much change to make on cash purchases. If someone used a credit card, we had to fumble through a seldom-updated booklet containing the account numbers that were invalid or reported stolen.

There was no such thing as “the chip.” The credit card was placed on a metal tray, and an overhead slide pressed it against the raised numbers on the card, making two copies by virtue of a sheet of carbon paper between them.

The Elmwood Avenue store had yet another drawing card: a snack bar. No big-box retailer’s version of it now even comes close. The cheeseburger and french fry combo was my favorite. Managers liked the snack bar because employees didn’t have to leave the store for a lunch or dinner break. It was a throwback to the old lunch counters of the ’50s and ’60s.

Betty Ann Dingman posted the following on the Facebook page titled Remembering Twin Fair Department Store: “Worked at 1st store, Walden Ave. in the Liquor Store. My sister started at original store, Walden Ave. in 1969. Have pay check stubs & name tag. Sister worked at Walden, Dunkirk, Camp Road, Seneca Street, Elmwood Ave. Made many friends. Hired by Gold Circle after buyout & learned so much about retail business.”

Joni Hensley Williams recalled that the original owners were Tony

Ragusa, Lou Battaglia, John Nasca and John Bona.

The Ohio stores were later sold to Meijer, which briefly converted them to a concept called Meijer Square. In 1978, they added Hens & Kelly to their portfolio. By the time of their acquisition by Federated Department Stores and subsequent merger into Gold Circle, the chain consisted of 14 stores in the Western New York market.

The Elmwood store was managed by the late Joe Militello. Ironically, I now work with his two sons, Joey and Mark. He was a great boss with a positive attitude. It probably didn’t hurt when another family member came in for a few cases of antifreeze every few months and I volunteered to help load his car.

Did I mention there was a two-case limit? (David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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