LIMA — In 1958, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli became Pope John XXIII, Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union, Elvis became a private in the U.S. Army and Sam Walton had not yet opened his first store.
The owners of the Lima Bargain Center, meanwhile, were expanding their operation at the corner of Breese Road and Dixie Highway for the fourth time.
“Five years ago a small block building served the purpose of housing the then new Lima Bargain Center,” the Lima Citizen wrote Oct. 17, 1958. “That was only the beginning.”
Actually, that was only the beginning. The Bargain Center would expand many more times after 1958 and find a way to compete with an influx of larger competitors for another 56 years in part, as the Citizen explained in its 1958 story, by offering everything “from talking birds to TV parts.”
That small block building was being put up by Bargain Center co-owners Herbert Roth and Marcus Ruben. Roth, The Lima News wrote July 12, 1953, “resigned from government service after 11 years as Air Force quality control representative at Lima Westinghouse to become owner-manager of the Lima Bargain Center.”
Ruben “had previously run a small store in Leipsic with his father, Benjamin Ruben,” the News wrote in a Feb. 23, 1997, story. “Mark Ruben says he moved to Lima with a vision of the future and what ‘seemed to be the trend’ in retailing.” Or, as Mark Ruben’s son, Ron Ruben, noted, “He was a forerunner of the discount stores. He looked ahead and pounced on it.”
That trend was touted in a Nov. 6, 1953, ad in the News explaining to shoppers they would find “no show windows” and “no fancy fixtures” at the Bargain Center. Low overhead, the ad promised, meant low prices.
Initially, the Bargain Center had no overhead. Scheduled to open Aug. 1, 1953, the opening was set back several times. An Aug. 19, 1953, ad in the News promised the store would open soon and offer “hardware and tools, houseware, gifts, toys, floor coverings, chinaware, clothing, notions, auto accessories, paint.” On Oct. 9, 1953, the store advertised that it had a truckload of anti-freeze at discount prices. “This merchandise was ordered with the expectation that our new building would be ready for us to occupy.”
The 6,500-square-foot Bargain Center finally was ready to occupy in November 1953, and, although shoppers did not find show windows or “fancy fixtures,” the owners made sure they had no trouble finding the store. “One of the biggest store signs in the local business area is adorning the Lima Bargain Center,” the News reported. “It’s a 10-by-70-foot job.” In the same story, Roth described the Bargain Center as “a sort of suburban department store.”
A week before Christmas, while promoting its large toy selection and boxes of Christmas cards for 58 cents, the Bargain Center made some unwanted history. “What is believed to be the first ‘fair trade’ court action in Allen County and one of the few in Ohio was filed yesterday in Common Pleas Court here,” the News reported Dec. 18, 1953. “The petition filed on behalf of Union Carbide & Carbon Corp., asks a temporary injunction to prohibit H.H. Roth, doing business as Lima Bargain Center, from selling Prestone anti-freeze at less than fair trade prices …”
Under state and federal law, the News explained, “manufacturers of trademarked competitively sold goods can set minimum (fair trade) retail prices.” The Bargain Center’s pre-opening October truckload anti-freeze sale apparently had been a little too good. The matter was settled by mutual agreement as the year ended.
In April 1956, co-owner Ruben became sole owner Ruben, buying out Roth. Roth, the News noted in a May 13, 1956, story, opened an appliance repair service at 232 E. Vine St.
Two and a half years later, Ruben found himself in court as one of the standard-bearers in a fight against “blue laws,” which, among other things, banned doing business on Sunday. “Sunday blue law enforcement was intensified here yesterday as charges by the Better Business Bureau were filed against three Lima businesses,” the News wrote Oct. 8, 1958. “Charged with violating the Sunday blue laws were: Clyde Evans Day and Night Market; Marcus Ruben, Lima Bargain Center; and Robert D. Griffin of Dean Griffin and Sons Furniture, East High Street Road.”
The three businesses plus 35 other members of the Lima Independent Merchants Association, formed in reaction to the crackdown, stayed open the following Sunday, prompting L.W. Mannon of the BBB to tell the News on Oct. 14, 1958, that “the remedy is not to disregard the law, but to take it off the books by legislation.” Griffin agreed. “Our ultimate aim is to either have the blue law re-written or removed completely from the Ohio law,” he told the News.
Although the last of Ohio’s non-alcohol blue laws — a ban on Sunday hunting — survived until 1998, the Lima case didn’t make it through October 1958. “Sunday ‘blue law’ violation charges against three Limaland businesses were dismissed today on order of Municipal Court Judge Carl M. Blank,” the News reported Oct. 24, 1958. On Nov. 6, 1958, the BBB, according to the News, called LIMA’s tactics “deplorable,” and then “called it quits in its running fight over Sunday ‘blue law’ sales.”
The Lima Bargain Center’s sales continued to grow and, in 1961, prompted Ruben to open a downtown store at 231 N. Main St. “The downtown branch will be located in the building formerly occupied by Neisner Bros. Variety store,” the Citizen reported Oct. 12, 1961. “The branch will be managed by Barry Ruben.” A son of the founder, Barry Ruben started full-time in 1960. He was joined in 1972 by the founder’s son-in-law, Harold Waronker. Another son, Ron Ruben, joined in 1992 after a career at larger retailers.
Although the downtown branch closed in early 1963, the original store continued to grow. “The current complex,” the News wrote Feb. 23, 1997, “known affectionately as the Shawnee Mall, includes the main store, the adjacent Lima Floor Covering Center and a warehouse. They comprise 65,000 square feet, 10 times the size of the original store.” By 1997, the Bargain Center had undergone 16 additions or expansions. “The business has flourished by continually adapting to the marketplace,” the News wrote.
The business also flourished, Waronker pointed out in a March 3, 2002, story in the News, because of its employees, who at one time numbered about 50. “We’re very fortunate; most of our employees do not turn over. They’ve been here 30 years and just keep maintaining relationships with our customers. Many of our customers come in and ask for employees by name.”
Two of those longtime employees, Jeff Coleman and Steve Coleman, took over management of the store in December 2003. Marcus Ruben, the store’s founder, stepped down in 1993. He died in October 2009 at the age of 92. Son Ron Ruben, who managed the floor covering center, retired in 2003. Barry Ruben, who for 25 years also was part owner of the Lima Locos baseball team, died at 71 in October 2012.
In November 2014, the Bargain Center was sold to Jeff and Eric Fritz and Andrew Mancinotti, who had been running the Ace Hardware Store in Delphos. It was reopened as Shawnee Ace Hardware.