The John’s Bargain Store I remember was located at the Soundview Avenue stop of the “IRT” line. Soundview Avenue was an “elevated” subway stop. Rather than climbing up the stairs from an underground station, I climbed downstairs from a platform through the turnstile leading outside to the street. The newsstand was at the corner with an assortment of papers on a wooden rack rotted from weathering any number of winters.
There you could buy candy bars, cigarettes and chewing gum and continue along Westchester Avenue, lined with stores, including Daitch Shopwell, a supermarket with barrels of sauerkraut and dill pickles where my mother bought her Farmer’s cheese for baking and bins of nonpareils and chocolate-covered raspberry jells. Along these blocks before I turned to walk home down Manor Avenue, were several clothing stores whose displays rarely changed despite the season, or maybe not often enough to keep me interested.
Finally, there was John’s Bargain Store with its big red sign and white lettering, a place I could afford as a high school student, smaller and not as diverse as the Five and Ten Cents store of my childhood where I swiped many pens and made off with sparkly cheap rings, but a place that engaged me with its stuff stacked on tables and arranged in wire bins, tubs, colorful and cheap enough. I felt good that I could buy things here my own dime without having to ask my mother for money.
From 1927 to the mid-1970’s, John’s sold discount housewares and appliances throughout New York City. The first store was opened in Queens near the home of founder Harry Cohen (1888-1963), who gave the chain its name (obviously not his). At its zenith, Harry operated 280 stores, 118 of them in the New York area with an annual sales volume of $46 million. The company provided a model for stores like Ben Franklin and WalMart. It specialized in paying cheap rent in run-down neighborhoods and in buying overstocked merchandise. “Give us your mistakes and we’ll make them pay,” was a company slogan. But the store ran into financial trouble.
In February of 1978, the New York Times reported that “Gerald Sprayregen, a New York businessman, was sentenced … to a year in prison on Federal charges involving a scheme that the prosecutor described as a ‘massive fraud’ that caused the collapse of a large retail chain called John’s Bargain Stores.”
Comptroller, Jose Umana, and the Vice President of Operations, Walter Spengler, established the case against Sprayregen. In 1969 a group of investors acquired control of John’s Bargain Store. David Cohen, the president of the company who possibly could have been Harry’s son, purchased Sprayregen & Co., a brokerage firm, for an estimated fifteen million dollars. Suppliers balked. They viewed this as compromising the corporation’s liquidity and refused credit. Spengler, Umana, and Sprayregen cooked the books to hide the amount of loss to the stores’ inventory and ended up pointing fingers at each other replacing one story with another with Sprayregen denying everything.
WalMart is privately owned by family members. Maybe Sam and the rest of the clan didn’t want to make the same mistake.