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The Origins of 7 Department Store Chains

You can't set foot in a mall without hearing one of their names, but the stories behind the men and women who founded department stores aren't often part of our food court conversations. Here's a look back at Richard W. Sears, James Cash Penney and some of the other people behind the anchor stores.

1. Sears & Roebuck

Richard W. Sears inadvertently got his start from a botched delivery. When Sears was in his early 20s, he worked as a railroad station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, and he was on duty when a shipment of watches came in for the town's jeweler. The jeweler hadn't ordered the watches and refused to accept delivery, so Sears talked to the watch wholesaler and worked out an arrangement—Sears would buy the watches for $12 apiece and then sell them for whatever he could get.

Sears had such great luck peddling the watches to his coworkers and local farmers that he quickly gave up the railroad business and moved to Minneapolis to start the R.W. Sears Watch Company at the tender age of 22.

Alvah Roebuck entered the story after Sears established his watch company.

Roebuck, a young watchmaker from Indiana, was searching for a job when he found an opening doing repairs for Sears' upstart company. Roebuck went to work for Sears in 1887, and by 1893 their friendship had grown to the point where they incorporated a new business together: Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

So Roebuck got fabulously wealthy as a result of his first watchmaking job, then? Not quite. In 1895, Roebuck talked Sears into buying out his share of their company for just $20,000. Although Roebuck stayed with the company as an employee of its watch division, he never saw the big money Sears made. After Sears' death, though, Roebuck had a great quip when people asked him if he regretted not having as much cash as his late partner: "He's dead. Me, I never felt better."

2. Macy's

dept2Rowland Hussey Macy played more of an active role in designing his company's logo than most founders do. Before Macy, a Nantucket native, got into the dry goods business, he worked on a whaling ship that sailed off of the island. At some point during his whaling days, Macy got a red star tattooed on his hand, and the star later became his store's logo when he opened his first New York shop in 1858.

The famous store was actually Macy's fifth attempt at opening a shop after four failed tries near his Massachusetts home, and Macy's shop only took in $11.06 on the day it opened its doors. However, by the end of his first year, Macy had pulled in over $90,000 and was firmly established as a popular New York shopping destination.

3. Nordstrom

dept3John W. Nordstrom began his life in Sweden as Johan Nordstrom. In 1887, a 16-year-old Nordstrom arrived in the United States with five bucks and no command of the English language. He spent 10 years working as a logger and miner in the Northwest before deciding to head to Alaska to look for gold in the Klondike. After two years of searching, Nordstrom finally made a strike.

Nordstrom sold his claim for $13,000 and returned to Seattle to invest his newfound loot. One of Nordstrom's buddies in Alaska had been Carl Wallin, who owned a shoe repair shop in Seattle, and in 1901 the two friends opened the shoe store Wallin & Nordstrom. Over the next two decades, the pair built up a devoted following in Seattle, and the firm gradually expanded into the largest independent chain of shoe stores in the country. In 1963, the company started selling apparel as well, and the modern Nordstrom's took off.

4. Neiman Marcus

neiman-marcusHerbert Marcus, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and A.L. Neiman might be the only people ever to lose money by founding a giant, successful department store. In 1907, Marcus, his sister, and his brother-in-law were business partners in a sales promotion business in Atlanta. Their firm was so successful that offers to buy it started rolling in, but there were only two deals the partners took seriously: an offer for $25,000 in cash, and a stake in an up-and-coming local soft-drink company.

The three partners conferred and decided they didn't trust the "sugary soda pop business" and took the cash, which they then used to open their department store. The soda maker they snubbed, Coca-Cola, ended up doing pretty well for itself. Decades later, Herbert Marcus' son Stanley became the CEO of Neiman-Marcus, and he often joked that the company was "founded on bad business judgment."

5. Bloomingdale's

bloomIf you ever find yourself desperately needing a hoop skirt, it might be worth checking your local Bloomingdale's. After all, the wildly popular 19th-century garment gave the department store its start. In 1860, brothers Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale began selling hoop skirts at their Ladies' Notions Shop on New York's Lower East Side, and when these skirts flew off the brothers' racks, they eventually decided to expand their store's offerings. In 1872, they opened a revamped store, the East Side Bazaar, that offered all sorts of European duds they bought through a purchasing office in Paris.

6. J.C. Penney

JCPJames Cash Penney got his start as regular clerk in a dry goods store. In 1898, he began working for a small Colorado chain called the Golden Rule. In 1902, his bosses offered him an ownership stake in the company if Penney would move to tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming, and start a Golden Rule store there. Penney jumped at the offer. His store was so successful that by 1907, he was able to buy out the other two stores in the Golden Rule chain. By 1912, Penney had over 30 stores in the region, and he incorporated them all under a new name—the J.C. Penney Company.

7. Barneys

bnyBarney Pressman, founder of New York-based luxury chain Barneys, owed a lot of his success to his wife. When Pressman saw a small store in Manhattan going under in 1923, he wanted to buy it and open a clothing store of his own. There was a problem, though: he didn't have the cash. When Pressman told his wife, Bertha, about this predicament, she slipped off her engagement ring and told him to pawn it. With the $500 Pressman got from hocking his wife's diamond, he took over the failing store's lease and bought 40 high-end suits, which were the original inventory when Barney's Clothes opened its doors shortly thereafter.

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Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
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The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

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The Little Known Airport Bookstore Program That Can Get You Half of What You Spend on Books Back
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Inflight entertainment is a necessary evil, but the price can quickly add up without the proper planning. Between Wi-Fi access and TV/movie packages, you can run into all kinds of annoying additional charges that will only increase the longer your flight is. Thankfully, there is one way to minimize the cost of your inflight entertainment that’s a dream for any reader.

Paradies Lagardère, which runs more than 850 stores in 98 airports across the U.S. and Canada, has an attractive Read and Return program for all the books they sell. All you have to do is purchase a title, read it, and return it to a Paradies Lagardère-owned shop within six months and you'll get half your money back. This turns a $28 hardcover into a $14 one. Books in good condition are re-sold for half the price by the company, while books with more wear and tear are donated to charity.

If you haven’t heard of Paradies Lagardère, don’t worry—you’ve probably been in one of their stores. They’re the company behind a range of retail spots in airports, including licensed ventures like The New York Times Bookstore and CNBC News, and more local shops exclusive to the city you're flying out of. They also run restaurants, travel essentials stores, and specialty shops. 

Not every Paradies Lagardère store sells books, though, and the company doesn’t operate out of every airport, so you’ll need to do a little research before just buying a book the next time you fly. Luckily, the company does have an online map that shows every airport it operates out of and which stores are there.

There is one real catch to remember: You must keep the original receipt of the book if you want to return it and get your money back. If you're the forgetful type, just follow PureWow’s advice and use the receipt as a bookmark and you’ll be golden.

For frequent flyers who plan ahead, this program can ensure that your inflight entertainment will never break the bank.

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