HAMILTON, Ontario, July 26 -- When the doors closed at the last S.S. Kresge store, so did a long chapter in North American retailing. The Hamilton, Ontario, Kresge's, located about 50 miles west of Toronto, closed Wednesday. It was the last link in the variety store chain born 97 years ago in Memphis, Tenn. For nearly a century Kresge's, along with its chief competitors Woolworth's, G.C. Murphy and J.J Newberry, was a fixture on countless small town Main Streets and city centers. But time passed by the five-and-dime. The decline of the American variety store began with the introduction of large discount stores such as Kresge's own Kmart in the early 1960s. The sprawling suburban discount stores appealed to the flood of post- War Baby Boom families seeking their American dream in the nation's sparkling new subdivisions. Customers were drawn to stores touting the latest fashions and home furnishings, low prices, acres of free parking and a vast array of products. Almost as quickly as they were built, the suburban discount stores successfully lured shoppers away from Main Street and the older Kresge stores. 'The five-and-dime era has passed,' said Kmart Canada President Don Beaumont. 'Kmart was more in tune with how people were moving.' The company initially felt the two types of stores could coexist by filling different roles, but decided in the 1980s to begin phasing out the hundreds of Kresges stores that dotted North America for decades. Sebastian Spering Kresge was born in 1867 in Bald Mount, Pa.
The son of a Swiss German farmer, Kresge was 30 years old when he opened his first five and dime store in Memphis in 1897 with proceeds from a bee- keeping business. His partner, J.G. McCrorey, would later drop the 'e' from his surname and go on to found his own chain of five and dimes. Kresge was so successful in the U.S. he expanded his stores into Canada in 1929. When he died in 1966 his retail empire totaled 930 stores. But as Kmart's star was rising, Kresge's was falling fast. There were 450 Kresge's remaining in North America in 1976, the year before the retailer changed its name to Kmart Corp. Until late 1993 there were still 12 Kresge's stores open in Canada, but Kmart said they were not profitable. 'They got hit with two different concepts at once: the large discount department store and the super food and drug store,' said Doug Tigert, a professor of retailing at Babson College in Massachusetts. The Hamilton Kresge's was an urban showplace when it opened in 1930 to serve Ontario's steel-producing center. The concrete and glass block building featured marble stairs, terrazzo floors, two snack bars and a full-service cafeteria. On the eve of the store's closure, the sprawling second-floor kitchen, where dozens of employees cooked turkeys and baked cakes daily for generations of Kresge customers, was empty. 'Everyone is sad about the closing, especially the older people. They were regulars every morning for breakfast,' said manager Scott Weir. All that was left at the store the week before its closing was its skeletal sales staff, some of them 40-year veterans of Kresge's, and a few odds and ends for sale. The fixtures had been auctioned off and customers sorted through the remnants of store's eclectic stock: kitchenware, school supplies, holiday decorations and toys -- once the hallmark of all five and dimes -- heaped in piles. 'A lot of Kmart people started as Kresge's people and others remember their youth shopping at Kresge's,' said Beaumont. 'There's a lot nostalgia and culture there.'