LIMA — “Good Neighbor Days” at Welles Family Department Store, Lima’s newest major retailer in its newest shopping center, offered nearly everything, including a kitchen sink, which would be given away along with a spider monkey, 10,000 lollipops and photographs taken by Miss Polaroid.
In the parking lot, a band played while the hardware and sports departments featured “demonstrations of weight-lifting, nail bending and spike bending,” according to a June 7, 1962, story in the Lima Citizen.
For nearly a dozen years, Welles, with Frank Seidenberg running the show nearly all that time, was a shopping staple in Lima. “Seidenberg established at Welles a program of community participation,” The Lima News wrote July 2, 1969, when it appeared Seidenberg would be leaving town (He did, but returned eight months later.). “He was responsible for donating money in an effort to save city bus service, support for various youth projects, fine arts, United Fund, Cancer Crusade and the Red Cross. He also instituted the annual July 4 celebration at Northland.”
He also tested lottery and blue laws, won numerous awards for his work in the community, and relentlessly promoted his store, giving away ponies, puppies and cars — and kitchen sinks and spider monkeys.
Seidenberg, a native of Massachusetts, arrived in Lima two years before Welles with 30 years of experience in retail. In 1959, he was named manager of the new Three Sisters clothing store at the corner of North Main and High streets, which was operated by Miller-Wohl, the same company which developed the Welles department stores.
At the time of Seidenberg’s arrival, Lima’s retail landscape was changing. On Nov. 27, 1960, the News reported construction soon would begin on a $3 million shopping center at the end of North Main Street, to be known as Northland Plaza. Several years earlier, Westgate Plaza had opened on Allentown Road west of Cable Road.
On Sept. 27, 1959, the News announced Seidenberg had been named manager of the Welles store which would open at Northland Plaza in a less than a month. “The discount department store will include a playland for youngsters, luncheonette and central checkout,” the News reported.
The Citizen noted on Oct. 15, 1961, that “the self-service store, which will employ more than 200, will have 80 departments, featuring everything from family apparel to monkeys … William Thornton, pet department supervisor, said a wide variety of pets will be sold, including monkeys, honey bears, anteaters and skunks (de-odorized).” Lima Mayor Clyde Welty cut the ribbon Oct. 19, 1961, opening the store to swarms of shoppers.
Miller-Wohl later would reveal the Northland Welles was a “test store.” Its success led to the opening of 11 other Welles stores, including, an outlet at the American Mall six years after the opening of the Northland store.
A month after the grand opening, as the Christmas shopping season started, Welles welcomed Santa Claus and thousands of youngsters, hoping, according to the Nov. 23, 1961, edition of the News, to grab one of the 5,000 ping-pong balls entitling them to “toys, theater tickets and plane rides” dropped from a plane on to the Northland parking lot. The store also gave away a 1962 Mercury Comet.
People flocked to Welles for a different reason in October 1962. Despite a “cease and desist” order, Seidenberg on Oct. 28, 1962, had gone ahead with a prize giveaway which some construed as violating the state’s law on business lotteries. He was arrested.
“To the disappointment of those gathered at the door to apparently watch the arrest, the store manager and sheriff shook hands,” the News wrote Oct. 29, 1961. “’He’s (the sheriff) doing his job and I’m doing mine,’ Seidenberg smilingly told those gathered around the door.” Other merchants, including local grocer Clyde Evans, had also tested the law and when the case against Evans eventually was dismissed, the case against Seidenberg also was dropped.
January 1963 found Seidenberg testifying against the “blue laws” which kept business from opening on Sunday. He told the state Legislature Americans’ shopping habits were changing. “He displayed pictures to prove his contentions that his store, located in Northland Plaza, caters to upward of 15,000 persons on a Sunday,” the News wrote Jan. 31, 1963. The “blue laws” eventually were struck down.
In early 1964, Seidenberg was helping in the fight to ensure Lima kept bus service as the Lima Transit Co. slid into bankruptcy. Seidenberg pledge $100 a day for 10 days to keep the buses running. “Seidenberg said his company will donate the $1,000 ‘for the good of all Limaland,’” the News reported its bus service.
“I don’t think city council or the taxpayers of the city of Lima should subsidize a private enterprise. It is the responsibility of the merchants … whether they want it or not,” Seidenberg told the News March 1, 1964.
Seidenberg backed his words with his wallet and, on April 30, 1964, the News reported that the “newly organized Lima Bus Co. launches operations Friday fortified by the sale of $1,000 in stock to Welles Department Store, Northland Plaza, and manager Frank Seidenberg.”
Not all Seidenberg’s endeavors were serious. When, in February 1963, 11 Welles’ employees decided to heed President John F. Kennedy’s call for Americans to get more active by going on a 50-mile hike, Seidenberg, who told the News his “biggest form of exercise is chewing a cigar,” agreed to go along — in his car. Three of the 11, including the only two women to attempt it, completed the hike, and Seidenberg treated them to a steak dinner at the Milano Club.
All the while, Welles continued its promotions and giveaways. In addition to cars, the store gave away ponies and, on one occasion, five puppies that were abandoned in the store. The person who guessed how quickly an eight-ton block of ice would melt, received a $100 shopping spree. For several years, Welles was the winning bidder on the grand champion hog at the county fair, which it turned into pork chops and donated to the county children’s home. For Father’s Day in 1963, 3,000 dads received locally produced R.G. Dun cigars.
In the mid-1960s, as the Lima and American malls were becoming reality and local retailers were feeling threatened, Seidenberg saw a bright future for Lima retail. “We’ll be bringing more and more shoppers to our city with these new stores and shopping complexes,” Seidenberg told the News on Nov. 21, 1965. “We recall there was talk when we came in. Actually 65 to 70 percent of our business came from out of town. New business!”
When Bailey’s Department Store, which opened in the American Mall in November 1966, closed the following February, Welles opened a second Lima store in the space in August 1967. Seidenberg was named area supervisor over both Lima stores.
In July 1969, Seidenberg was named operations manager for the Welles chain, which now numbered 12 stores, with a home office in Cleveland. Mayor Christian Morris proclaimed Frank Seidenberg Day in Lima and presented him with the keys to the city. Seidenberg returned to Lima and his former position in March 1970. “Due to a subsequent heart attack and the excessive travel required in his old position, Seidenberg said he had decided to return to his ‘hometown,’” the News wrote. He gave back the keys.
On Sept. 29, 1972, Miller-Wohl filed for bankrupty, citing losses of $3.3 million in six months. On Jan. 27, 1973, the Welles stores were acquired by King’s Department Stores of Newton, Massachusetts. Seidenberg went on to work for King’s and later headed operations for Allen Wholesale Company’s catalog showroom in Lima.
He died June 11, 1997, in Dallas, Texas.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.