To those of us who grew up in the Northeast, Ames was Wal-Mart before there was such a thing. Ames was many things, but they weren’t glamorous: their stores were big emporiums with long rows of flourescent lights that sold plastic jelly shoes, cheap plastic bins for storing random stuff, and fiberboard furniture. But unlike Target, Wal-Mart, or even veritable old names like Caldor and Bradlees, Ames was ubiquitous. Every decent-sized town in New England had an Ames.
Ames’ history is a somewhat long and sad tale of a regional discounter that tried to stand up to Wal-Mart and other national chains. Ames began in 1958 out of a warehouse in Southbridge, Massachusetts as a store that attempted to bring department store goods to rural areas affordably. In their early days and even through the 1980s, Ames was located primarily in rural northeastern towns. Unfortunately Ames’ overzealousness was their undoing. A disastrous acquisition of faltering giant Zayre in 1988 caused Ames to go bankrupt and close many of their stores, and they spent much of the 1990s regaining their footing. By the late 1990s, Ames was finally again on solid ground. Unfortunately, Ames was also keenly aware of the march of strong competitors like Wal-Mart and Target and how many of their peers, notably Caldor and Bradlees but also Ann & Hope and Apex, were dying off quickly. Instead of making many much-needed re-investments into their aging stores, Ames acquired Hill’s department stores, giving them 467 stores stretching from Maine to Chicago. It was a risky, defensive decision that was an 11th hour attempt to build the kind of volume to fight Wal-Mart. Unfortunately Ames had not learned from their inability to absorb Zayre more than a decade earlier, and this second disastrous acquisition would sink the chain. Ames filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in August 2001 and announced they would be going out of business forever exactly a year later, in August 2002.
At the time of their death, Ames was the fourth largest discount department store chain in the United States. Because many of their stores were in rural areas or lower-tier plazas or strips–and because their stores varied wildly in size or quality–many of them remain vacant today. The occasion for this post is the return of the excellent Ames Fan Club Website, created and maintained by Chris Fontaine, a native of Dudley, Mass., not far from Ames’ birthplace of Southbridge. Fontaine’s ambitious mission is to try and visit every former Ames site and document it in photographs to create a comprehensive historical archive of the defunct retailer. There’s also a wealth of great other stuff, including some hilarious employee training videos (my favorite is a teambuilding video produced by the Glenmont, NY store wherein a young employee treats her coworkers to a rendition of “Amazing Ames” sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace”) and photos of the chain’s planogram building near their former headquarters in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. Due to server issues, the Ames Fan Club had been offline for several months, since before Labelscar even launched. Since we at Labelscar (or me, at least) are big fans of the fallen discounter, and we’re glad to see that the Ames Fan Club is back.
I’ve included some uncredited, undated (2001-2002ish?) photos of the former Ames store in my hometown of Middletown, Rhode Island. The building has since been razed, and is now home of a Home Depot store that’s set further back on the lot. The original site of the Ames store (which is very visibly one of the stores acquired from Zayre) is now the parking lot for the current Home Depot.