PENDLETON, Ore. — Michelle Mizerka-Peters’ office is a Spartan affair, devoid of leather couches, plush carpet or any other hint of ostentatiousness. With yellowing tile floors and basic furniture, the biggest perk of the century-old office is an expansive, birds-eye view of the general manager’s domain — the sprawling main floor of the Pendleton J.C. Penney store — through a wide, glass-free window.
These days, the view is a bit jarring.
On a recent day, she looked down at a dozen or so customers who roamed the floor. Above the browsing patrons hung bright going-out-of-business signs.
“Nothing Held Back. Everything Must Go. Store Closing.”
The sound of laughter between clerk and customer wafted upstairs as the cashier rang up a shirt at a fraction of its original price.
The store, the 26th branch opened by the company, will soon shut its doors, along with 137 other branches around the country.
In Mizerka-Peters’ office, a portrait of founder James Cash Penney leans against the wall. The manager recently took the picture down to box up and mail to company headquarters. Wearing a bowtie and a snowy white mustache, Penney looks contemplative in the black-and-white photo. Penney launched the mega-chain with two partners whom he eventually bought out.
The Pendleton store is the oldest in its original location.
“We were in the first wave of J.C. Penney stores. We’ve been here for 106 years,” Mizerka-Peters said. “We haven’t moved.”
A 1911 advertisement in the East Oregonian gives a glimpse of the prices at the Golden Rule Store, as it was called then. Bib overalls cost 25 cents and a wool serge suit, $14.72. Horsehide gloves cost 98 cents. Besides clothing, the store also sold dress goods and notions. Competitors at the time included The Peoples Warehouse, The Greater Alexander Department Store, Workingmen’s Clothing Company, F.E. Livengood & Company, the Wohlenberg Department Store, Bond Brothers, The Hub and H.H. Wessel.
In the early days of J.C. Penney’s, customers often traveled to town on horses, which were tethered to rings just outside the store.
Inside, things were different than these days of high-speed internet. In the mid-1900s, sales transactions traveled from the floor to the mezzanine via a canister pulled by wire and pulley.
“They put the transaction slip and cash into a metal tube and it shot up to the office,” Mizerka-Peters said. “The cashier would make change and send it back down.”
Mizerka-Peters has worked for the J.C. Penney Company for 25 years, the last two in Pendleton. When she first interviewed with the company, she had planned to finish college and launch a career as a geologist. Then she married a Marine and moved to California. Needing temporary work before returning to school, she applied for a job at her local J.C. Penney store. She discovered that “retail is in my blood.”
“I loved it,” Mizerka-Peters said.
Her career took her to Wisconsin and North Bend before she finally became general manager at Pendleton and La Grande stores. For the moment, while focusing on liquidation, she is burying any feelings about the closure. Her customers, however, aren’t holding back.
“They’re sad about it,” Mizerka-Peters said.
The saddest are likely former employees such as Nora Pointer and Suzie Fortier. The two Pendleton retirees worked a combined 60 years at J.C. Penney starting in the 1970s and 1980s. At the announcement of the store closing, Pointer said, “I was absolutely shocked. Our store has shown good sales over the years and survived a lot of cuts.”
Fortier said she felt like crying after learning of the closure of the place she spent so many hours.
“I just loved the people — I miss the customers so much,” she said. “Everyone shopped there and it seemed like everyone worked at Penney’s at some point.”
The basic layout of the J.C. Penney store on Pendleton’s Main Street hasn’t changed in 106 years, though some departments have come and gone. The basement once housed fabric, patterns and notions. In the rear of the main floor, employees manning a catalog desk once helped people order items from the massive J.C. Penney catalog, which contained wedding dresses, sewing machines, appliances and furniture and myriad other merchandise.
“The store was geared toward the working person,” Pointer said. “There was a lot of farm and ranch clothing — jeans and heavy shirts.”
Fortier worked first in lingerie, then men’s and home d?cor departments. She rang up sales on a cash register a few generations removed from today’s computerized version. She ran credit sales by putting a triplicate sales slip into a flatbed credit card imprinter and running the slider back and forth. She wrapped purchases in brown paper secured by tape.
Pointer worked upstairs in the office where she first ran a 10-key adding machine. She hand-typed invoices, paid bills, did payroll. Her children often came to the store after school and did their homework in the break room.
“Penney’s was their second home,” Pointer said.
J.C. Penney touched three generations of Cori Applegate’s family. Applegate, who teaches eighth-grade language arts in Hermiston, remembers spending time with her grandmother, Juanita Applegate, as she worked in the yardage department. In addition, Applegate’s mother sewed drapes for the store and her father worked part-time as a clerk for a short time.
At the store, Applegate remembers having lunch with her grandma in the employee break room and being free to explore the store, including a warehouse area near the fabric department.
When Applegate’s grandmother died in 2003, Applegate inherited a necklace her grandma had received at 15 years. Hanging from a chain is a ruler and three diamond chips, one for each five years served.
“I wear it with pride,” Applegate said.
Applegate also has the ring with five diamonds that her grandmother received after 25 years.
One wonders what Mr. Penney might be thinking right now as the company he founded shrinks down further from its peak of 2,053 in the mid-’70s to half that number today. According to Dean Hales, curator of the J.C. Penney Museum in Penney’s hometown of Hamilton, Miss., Penney wasn’t the type of guy to get hung up on his breadth of holdings.
“If you ran into him on the street, you wouldn’t have known he had a dime,” Hales said.
Hales said he knew Penney since Hales was a boy. He bought Penney’s 1947 Cadillac and attended the department store tycoon’s funeral after Penney’s death in 1971. Hales now oversees the museum that contains a wax tuxedo-clad sculpture of Penney, his office furniture and his Masonic sword, among other memorabilia.
The Pendleton store will become a memory on July 31 when the doors close for good. Mizerka-Peters will especially miss the employees.
“They are hard workers and so positive,” she said. “We have built some positive relationships at this store. We are family.”