Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Zayre was Pittsfield's First 'big box' Store

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I remember when Zayre first opened in Pittsfield back in 1959. I had never been in such a big store with so much merchandise on display on one floor.

It was probably Pittsfield's first real "big box" store. What also really impressed me was what I thought was the longest escalator ever. It was actually between two stores, Zayre and Adams Market.

Although everyone called it Zayres, the real name was Zayre. I always wondered if the store was named for a person or family. Zayre was my rite of passage as a young teen, from toys to sporting goods. Eventually the company opened stores in Great Barrington and North Adams. They were around long before Walmart and other box store chains entered the Berkshires. Zayre was also the first local major retailer to defy the Massachusetts Blue Laws in 1976 by opening on Sunday.

As a youngster, I didn't realize that Zayre actually had a presence in Pittsfield over a decade before it opened on Dalton Avenue. Two brothers, Max and Morris Feldberg, immigrants from Russia, started the New England Trading Company in Boston in 1919. This firm was hosiery and underwear supplier to retail stores. With success in the business, the Feldbergs themselves started a chain of retail stores in 1929 called the Bell Hosiery Shops. In just a few years the name was shortened to Bell Shops and expanded into a full line of women's clothes. By the end of WWII they had 30 stores in New England and doubled that amount by buying the Nugent headquartered in New York City. The Bell Shops in Pittsfield opened in 1947 at 209-215 North St. (where the Ad-Lib Building is located) while its "sister store," Nugents, was at 155-157 North St. (in a building where haberdasher, Steven Valenti is located). As up-and-coming mill outlet stores entered the picture in the mid 1950s, smaller main drag stores like the Bell Shops and Nugent's saw sales decline. Rather than seek abandoned mills for outlets, the Feldbergs' company, now led by their sons, built a brand new discount store in Hyannis in 1956 and named it Zayre. The store was an instant success.

During the early 1970s the company started the TJ Maxx chain and in 1984 opened the BJ's Wholesale Clubs. In the mid 1980s the growing parent company also acquired major retailers in California and the Midwest. Despite their initial successes and new acquisitions, the owners could not adapt Zayre to the changing times and ended up filing this chain for bankruptcy in 1988. Zayre sold 400 stores to its competitor, Ames, which also had a Berkshires presence. Ames' acquisition of Zayre doubled its number of company stores, but ultimately it too failed and ceased operations in 2002. Zayre's remaining brands were reorganized under the umbrella of a corporation named TJX. BJs was later spun off but TJX flourished and has owned and operated retail stores such as TJ Maxx, Marshall's, A J Wright, HomeGoods, Winners, Home Sense and Sierra Trading Post.

By the way, I heard a story of how Zayre got its name. Allegedly the Feldbergs, raised with the Yiddish language, originally named the company, "Zayre Gut," (pronounced Goot) which means "very good" in Yiddish. The story goes that the brothers did not have enough money to pay for a sign on that first store that included both words, so they just used the first word "ZAYRE." They had every intention of adding the "GUT." But once customers became familiar with the branding of "ZAYRE," the owners feared that adding the second half of the name would be confusing. And also if mispronounced, why would the store add "gut" to its name? There are variations of this story, but the gist is that the name came from the Yiddish expression. And to think they had the biggest escalator in Pittsfield! Zayre Gut!

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.

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