So long, old friend: J.C. Penney has been in Kingsport since 1923

This column was going to be about Piccadilly Cafeteria. Then news broke Friday that J.C. Penney plans to close its Kingsport store. Piccadilly memories will have to wait. Age before carrot souffle.

Piccadilly may have beaten Penney’s to the Fort Henry Mall, having been among businesses there on opening day in 1976. But Penney’s beat Piccadilly to Kingsport by more than half a century. So, J.C. Penney this week, Piccadilly next week (it’s probably a two-parter anyway, with a couple of recipes).

Everything below is from articles or advertisements printed in the Times News.

The first grand opening of J.C. Penney Co., Inc. “A Nationwide Institution,” in Kingsport was Sept. 8, 1923. Location: 343 Broad St. An advertisement boasted, “Buying for our 475 stores assures the lowest prices. You pay less — get more!” But that pitch played second fiddle to the bolder copy at the top of the ad: “TOP-NOTCH VALUES at Bottom-Notch Prices That Appeal to Men, Women and Children!” 

Bargains advertised for opening day included silk dresses for fall ($19.95), men’s all-wool suits ($19.95), and boys’ two-knicker suits (Two Knickers with Every Suit!) “just in time for school!” ($6.90, $9.90 and $12.90, depending on fabric). Most amusing to me, the ad included a partial reprint of an article from the New York Times a month earlier describing J.C. Penney Co.’s purchase of 660,000 “union suits of athletic style” as “The Largest Purchase of Underwear Ever Made!”

They liked their capital letters and exclamation points back then!

I haven’t tracked down when the next move occurred, but six years later, in September 1929, an ad for J.C. Penney Co. put the store’s location at 151-153 Broad St. Men’s suits were still $19.75 — and in “the newest and smartest shades of the season” with “just the right amount of snap” thrown in for good measure.

Speaking of measure, knickers apparently had gone out of fashion for boys. The 1929 ad featured “2-pants ‘Prep’ suits” for $16.75. I can only surmise the price of men’s suits remained steady, but the cost of those “Prep” suits for boys had to cover that extra material needed to replace the knee-length knickers with full-length pants.

Penney’s next big move in Kingsport came in 1950. In mid February, the company opened a brand new store on the corner of Broad and Center streets. A map included in advertising reveals Penney’s second location in Kingsport had been next door to the State Theater.

The new store was three times bigger than the old location, with 28,000 square feet of selling space. The remnants of its original bone structure still make the building stand out, despite its state of disrepair: “A decorative, circular tower of blue tinted glass is set into the corner of the building and framed by two vertical Penney’s signs (as a young boy, I learned the heavily draped third floor of this curved, windowed tower was alterations, where I’d watch my mother stand on a  stool as the hem of a dress would be pinned to suit her). An 89-foot curved show window at the corner of the building extends from the store’s Broad Street entrance to its entrance on Center Street.” Another show window ran 33 feet along the Center Street side of the new store. Two flagpoles flanked each street-facing side of the store.

It boasted two operator-attended elevators, a candy shop (my favorite part of the store as a kid), and was one of 21 J.C. Penney stores in Tennessee — and among 1,600 nationwide. By the time I was in middle school, my wallet most often as not contained my father’s J.C. Penney charge card. So I was surprised to read that in 1950 Penney’s was still proudly “cash-and-carry” only, but did tout its “lay-away” plan as an alternative to charge accounts.

A weird feature: the store’s roof was intentionally covered with six inches of water “to help keep out heat in the summer and cold in the winter.”

An even weirder (at least to me) side note: the chain’s founder, J.C. Penney himself, was reported to have been visiting the Bristol J.C. Penney Co. store the day the new Kingsport store opened. But he didn’t have time to make the journey to Kingsport. After spending the day in the Bristol store, he was scheduled to deliver the key address to a meeting that night of the Bristol Preaching Mission.

By the way, between 1929 and 1950, the price of men’s suits increased to $45. Candy Shop (I always heard it called the candy counter) included: tangy, sugar-coated orange slices, two pounds for 31 cents; cashew tidbits, 49 cents a pound; bridge mix, 49 cents a pound; and iced coconut bon bons, 39 cents a pound.

Mom and Dad were married in 1955. Mom remembers Dad dropping her off downtown to shop and when she was finished, waiting outside Penney’s in cold weather because the store’s overhang included a heater.

In 1959, the store underwent a substantial update.

In 1971, a developer purchased the Church Circle parking lot from the city after presenting plans for a new Penney’s and a Hyatt hotel. Penney’s corporate office denied any plans to relocate, stating the chain’s national building plan, scheduled through 1975, included no mention of a new store in Kingsport.

On Halloween 1975 the announcement came: Penney’s would move out of downtown to the then-under-construction Fort Henry Mall. But it wouldn’t open as an original tenant. Plans were to open in 1977 with a J.C. Penney that would include an automotive center, a hair salon, and ... a snack bar. I don’t remember a snack bar. I do remember the hair salon and auto center, because our family friend Shirley Rowland left her position as manager of the Salon Dior to go open the new J.C. Penney salon and an extra perk was the employee discount, including at the auto center.

J.C. Penney opened at the Fort Henry Mall on Feb. 23, 1977. At 43 years, the company’s fourth location in Kingsport by far lasted the longest.

Its arrival brought the total number of businesses in the nearly year-old mall to 69, and it brought the number of “major department stores” at the mall to four (the others were Sears, Parks-Belk, and Miller’s).

Next week: Piccadilly, one of the longest-operating restaurants in Kingsport.