Younger residents living in Lorain would probably be surprised to find out that the industrial park currently located on the west side of Leavitt Road just north of Meister used to be home to the Lorain City Airport. They'd be equally surprised to know that the airport was replaced by
, a popular discount department store.
And fifty years ago this month, that store was getting ready to open.
I've written about Clarkins before, including this post about the opening of the Elyria store in 1971.
But today's post features an excellent article by Mark J. Price about the history of Clarkins and its humble beginning as a war surplus store. The article appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 20, 2021, and appears here courtesy of that publication. (I'd link to it but over the years, links are eventually broken, especially when they involve newspapers.)
Local history: Clarkins was king in Akron area before Kmart and Walmart
Mark J. Price
Akron Beacon Journal
Published December 20, 2021
You name it. Clarkins had it.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic jammed the streets in all directions. Nine police officers handled the flow of traffic to 300 parking spaces on the 5-acre site. Hundreds of shoppers lined up outside Akron’s new store.
More than 27,000 people arrived for the December 1961 opening of the Clarkins department store at 1465 S. Hawkins Ave. just north of Wooster-Hawkins Shopping Center.
The crowd was so large that guards had to be stationed at all doors to allow only a portion of the waiting masses to enter until other shoppers had exited the 12 checkout lanes. Radio stations issued bulletins for motorists to avoid the area.
The 53,000-square-foot store was more popular than its owners had anticipated. Never again would they build a Clarkins so small.
When older residents reminisce about Christmas shopping in Akron, they often mention going to O’Neil’s, Polsky’s, Yeager’s, Federman’s and other stores, but no trip down memory lane would be complete without a visit to Clarkins.
A surplus of business
It all began 75 years ago when Elza E. Hopkins (1921-2004), a mechanical engineer at Firestone, and his brother-in-law William W. Clark (1912-1995), a production worker at Goodrich, pooled their money in 1946 to open a store in an abandoned gas station at Grant and McCoy streets.
They stocked the 300-square-foot shop with $600 worth of Army surplus materials and called it the Surplus & Supply Co. After World War II, the federal government was eager to unload military surplus.
“I’m telling you, the mountains of stuff they have at these ordnance centers staggers you,” Hopkins once told the Beacon Journal. “Even after you see it, you don’t believe it.”
The Akron store sold canteens, shovels, sleeping bags, chisels, pup tents, knives … you name it. Especially popular among customers was military apparel such as jackets, boots and gloves.
Surplus & Supply initially had little organization. Hoppy Hopkins and Bill Clark dumped hand tools into bins. Customers had to pick out shoes from a barrel and clothes from a pile on the floor.
The government disposed of millions of screwdrivers, hand drills and pickaxes. Of considerably less interest was a massive quantity of athletic supporters.
“They’ve been trying to peddle them for months, but nobody seems interested,” Hopkins explained.
The store’s simple formula for success was to buy the best quality merchandise, price it to sell at the lowest possible discount price and then let the public know about it.
“Most of our customers would rather do business here because they have learned that we stand back of everything we sell,” Hopkins noted in 1948. “If you do business with an out-of-town concern, you cannot always be sure of quality. If everything does not work just right, it involves a lot of long-range correspondence and consequent aggravation.”
Business was good. Surplus & Supply soon leased a building in a former restaurant at 892 S. Main St. in Akron and opened an outlet in a former barbershop at 217 Cherry Ave. in Canton.
In 1954, Hopkins and Clark built an 11,000-square-foot store at 1466 S. Main St. near Archwood Avenue in Akron. The grand opening drew thousands of customers who purchased everything from fishing tackle to electric fans to house paint to garden hoses.
Five years later, it established a store in the University Plaza Shopping Center at 1600 S. Water St. in Kent and opened a warehouse at 285 Northeast Ave. in Tallmadge.
The company’s name no longer seemed to fit. By 1959, government surplus accounted for less than 30% of sales.
Origin of Clarkins name
Hopkins and Clark decided to rebrand their stores as Clarkins, a combination of their surnames.
“You Name It, Clarkins Has it,” the company advertised. “Almost Anything You Want to Buy — All Discount Priced.”
The Wooster-Hawkins store, the fourth in the Clarkins chain, opened in 1961 a year before Kmart debuted in California and Walmart opened in Arkansas.
The next Clarkins store dwarfed its predecessors and became a template for those that followed. The 150,000-square-foot Clarkins Carrousel, the size of 3½ football fields, debuted Oct. 4, 1962, at 3200 Atlantic Blvd. NE in Canton near Harmont Avenue Northeast.
The gleaming new store had 62 departments and a “cartoon theater” so housewives could leave their children with an attendant while shopping. It even had a 25,000-square-foot supermarket.
“Here the shopper can park his car on the black-topped parking lot that covers 16 acres and do all his shopping inside in air conditioned comfort,” Clarkins advertised. “No walking in and out of 20 different stores.”
Consumers could fill their carts with claw hammers, candy bars, motor oil, tennis shoes, ground chuck, shock absorbers, record albums, blue jeans, baby beef liver, toy soldiers, television sets, cotton pajamas, fruit punch, model cars. You name it. Clarkins had it.
In Akron, the small outlet on South Main Street was renamed the Surplus Junk Store, later shortened to the Junk Store, whose orange, finned sign looked very much like a flying bomb to wide-eyed kids passing in cars. Bill Clark’s son, Denny, operated the store, which remained in business until 1989.
Akron stores purchased
In 1966, Unishops Inc. of New Jersey acquired Clarkins, exchanging 100,000 shares of stock, or the equivalent of $2.5 million, for the company’s assets. Hopkins continued to lead Clarkins as an autonomous unit as the chain enjoyed its greatest expansion.
Over the decade, the chain added locations at 3200 Arlington Road at Interstate 77 in Green (1967), Route 8 and Steels Corners Road in Northampton (1968) and 2905 Whipple Ave. NW in Jackson Township (1970).
“In the early days with four or five employees, we had few problems,” Hopkins told the Beacon Journal. “Today, with over a thousand employees, it is more complicated but I like it as it is today.”
It grew to a 12-store chain with new stores in Youngstown (1970), Euclid (1971), Bedford (1971), Elyria (1971), Brookpark (1971) and Lorain (1972).
Expansion came at a price. Embroiled in financial difficulties, Unishops filed for Chapter 11 protection in December 1973. Clarkins officials assured customers that operations would not be affected, but the chain closed its Wooster-Hawkins, Youngstown and Euclid locations at the end of the month, putting 300 people out of work.
Unishops emerged from bankruptcy and returned to profitability in 1975. A year later, Clarkins opened a store in Meadows Plaza at 1970 Lincoln Way E. in Massillon.
Herbert I. Wexler, president and chief executive of Unishops, hailed the “complete reincarnation” of the company.
“Where we were fighting then to keep the wolves from the door, now we’re cautiously expanding. And this has been a great morale booster for our employees,” Wexler told the Beacon Journal.
“You just don’t go from a $300 million a year volume to $100 million without a lot of people getting dropped off. Now that’s in the past. It’s a lot more fun to be opening stores instead of closing them, and a lot more profitable, too. We take pride in our accomplishment.”
In October 1979: Hopkins announced his retirement as president. Arthur Blackburn, a former Lafayette Radio Electronics Corp. executive, took over the reins in March 1980.
Signaling an investment in the future, Clarkins completed a $200,000 remodeling of the Arlington Road store in October 1980.
Six months later, the chain went belly up.
End of an era
Clarkins announced April 29, 1981, that it would shut down all 11 of its stores, throwing 1,050 people out of work.
A Unishops spokesman cited the “poor economic climate and the intensity of the competition” as reasons for closing. He said the New Jersey company decided to “redeploy its assets into other areas.”
The news was completely unexpected. Workers cried in store aisles.
The shelves emptied of products during clearance sales. One by one, the stores closed. Akron’s discount giant was gone.
Some of the buildings have been torn down over the past 40 years, but others continue to stand, housing such businesses as Target, Acme, Giant Eagle and Walmart.
You name it. They have it. But there will never be another Clarkins.
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.