Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Bought It At Polk Bros.

When I took this book to the counter at Half Price Books in Highland Park, the clerk's face lit up. "Oh, I remember when this book came in," he said. "I loved Polk Bros.!" I told him that two of my aunts had worked there, and one had met her husband there. "Well, I'm glad this book is going to a good home!"

I Bought It At Polk Bros. by Ann Paden is the classic tale of the children of immigrants working hard and succeeding in America. Sol Polk (nee Pokovitch), his five brothers, and his sister built a retail empire that once dominated appliance, furniture, and electronics sales in Chicagoland.

They did it by moving high volumes of name-brand merchandise at low prices. That doesn't sound like a big deal today, but Polk Bros. revolutionized the appliance industry in many ways. When they started out, most stores carried only one or two name brands, and the list price was unshakable. In fact, many manufacturers were reluctant to deal with the Polks because they didn't want their brands to be cheapened by discounting. Most manufacturers eventually changed their minds once they saw how quickly the skilled Polk Bros. salesmen turned over inventory.

Promotions were another key to Polk Bros.' success. Many Chicagoans remember the thousands of lighted, plastic "Jolly Super Santa Claus" lawn ornaments from Polk Bros., but that was only one of many premium or giveaway offers contrived to bring people into the stores. They gave away crates of fruit, circus tickets, and just about anything else they could think of. The book begins with Polk Bros.' 20th anniversary party: they bought out Chicago Stadium for a night, gave away tickets to customers, and treated them to a live broadcast of Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" followed by an Ice Capades show.

I learned a lot about retail history from this book. For example, in the 1930s the utility companies used to sell appliances to encourage people to use more electricity and natural gas. Before he opened his first store, Sol Polk sold electric irons door-to-door for Commonwealth Edison.

Polk Bros. deserves special credit for what I call "going out of business with honor." They ceased retail operations in 1992 because their stores were losing money, but they made this decision from a position where they could still pay their employees (including severance) and suppliers. The company never went bankrupt. One could cite many reasons for Polk Bros.' demise, including a changing market with greater competition, antiquated information systems that would have been costly to update, a devastating warehouse fire in 1987, and the death of founder Sol Polk (preceded by his brothers). The company's remaining assets were transferred to the Polk Bros. Foundation, which is still granting millions of dollars (nearly $24 million in 2007) to Chicago social service, education, culture, and health organizations.

Paden discusses such unpleasantries as the stress on the family caused by the brothers' insane work schedule, but the book is generally positive and celebratory. Since it is copyrighted by the Polk Bros. Foundation, I can't help wondering whether that influenced how certain events were covered. The photo section is entertaining but too brief, and I would have liked to see examples of the advertising that the author describes.

I Bought It At Polk Bros. follows a prominent retailer in a rapidly changing consumer environment. I would recommend it to someone interested in 20th century Chicago or retail history, or even anyone who wonders about the source of that Jolly Super Santa Claus in the attic.

Current tally: 19 books finished, 18 books acquired

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