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11 Stores That Used to Sell Unexpected Items

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It’s no surprise that not every hugely popular retail giant was an instant success (for instance, did you realize that Target stores have been around since 1962? Or that the founding family of stores that spawned Target first opened their doors more than 110 years ago? It’s true!), but it may be a little shocking to realize that plenty of well-known stores didn’t even start out selling the stuff they’re best known for now.

Success, it seems, sometimes involves pivoting to something new—like getting rid of safari-themed clothing in favor of more sensible (and marketable) khakis.

1. Gap

The Gap remains synonymous with exactly one item from their original incarnation—well, sort of. The first Gap opened in San Francisco in 1969, and sold just two things: Levi’s jeans and LP records. In 1974, the chain had expanded to about 25 locations across the country, and they finally started selling their own private label merchandise—like their own jeans, which they are still best known for slinging. Sorry, Levi’s!

2. Abercrombie & Fitch

Although A&F isn’t the hot teen clothier it was for the better part of the early aughts, the store is still recognizable for its tight fits and sexy styles, the kind of stuff its original founders—David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch—probably never dreamed of when they started their namesake store back in 1892. The original Abercrombie & Fitch was essentially a sporting goods emporium, one focused on selling fishing and camping supplies, including rods, boats, tents, and even guns. There was not a cheeky logo tee to be found in the entire place, and not just because such a thing had yet to be invented. In 1988, the store was sold off to The Limited, who eventually turned it into what it is today.

3. Banana Republic

Much like A&F, the original Banana Republic store was founded with a very specific (and weirdly preppy) purpose: to provide its patrons with the best in safari-themed clothing. The first store opened in 1978, but just five years later, Gap, Inc. purchased the brand, turning it into the upscale arm of its retailing empire. Fortunately, khakis worked for both incarnations of the store.

4. Spencer’s Gifts

If you’re strolling your local mall and suddenly remember you’re in need of a gag gift, a dirty card, or a really ill-advised T-shirt, you probably won’t think twice before hitting up the nearest Spencer’s. This was not always the case, however, as the first Spencer’s wasn’t even a store, much less one you could find at the mall. Spencer’s started as a mail-order catalog back in 1947, and while they specialized in gag gifts even then, we’re guessing things weren’t nearly as heavy on the Playboy branding. The first brick and mortar Spencer’s went up in 1963, at the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

5. Cost Plus World Market

If you’ve ever thought, “Wow, Cost Plus World Market really loves rattan furniture,” you’re not far off. The first Cost Plus (which you might now know as just “World Market,” depending on where you live) opened at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1958 as a rattan furniture discount store. Founder William Amthor already owned his own furniture store, and when he caught on to how much people loved the rattan stuff, he rented out a massive warehouse space and dedicated it to selling only rattan furniture. It was such a hit that Amthor soon turned to importing rattan items full time. By the 1990s, Cost Plus World Market was already a big brand that sold all manner of imported knickknacks (and rattan and wicker, of course).

6. Sears

Sears’ origin as a mail-order business should come as little surprise to shoppers who are familiar with their (still great, especially around the holidays) catalog. What would become Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1893, originally conceived as a mail-order watch business. Sears got into the watch business somewhat unexpectedly—he was a railroad station agent who sort of fell into selling watches after a Chicago jeweler offloaded a shipment to him, which he then sold to other station agents. A mail-order business sprang up, and eventually Sears teamed with Roebuck to start selling more items—like farm equipment—and the first Sears retail outpost opened in 1925.

7. Kohl’s

Consider this a bit of a technicality, but the first incarnation of “Kohl’s” was actually a small supermarket chain named Kohl’s Food Stores, founded by Maxwell Kohl in 1946 in Wisconsin. Kohl then went on to found Kohl’s Department Stores in 1962, and the grocery side of the business was absorbed by A&P before closing altogether. The department store side of the business is now known just as Kohl’s and continues to be successful throughout the United States.

8. Nordstrom

Have you ever wondered why Nordstrom has such a famously solid shoe department? It’s because the department store’s roots are ankle-deep in the shoe world—founder John W. Nordstrom first got into the retail business with a Seattle shoe store he co-founded way back in 1901. The chain steadily expanded as a shoe-only enterprise for decades, before banching off into clothing and other items after the company acquired Best Apparel in 1963.

9. Trader Joe’s

Everyone’s favorite purveyor of cheap snacks actually started as … a purveyor of cheap snacks. Wait, it’s not what you’re thinking! Before TJ’s became a bonafide grocery chain, founder Joe Coulombe envisioned it as convenience store chain in the vein of 7-Eleven. In fact, Coulombe’s “Pronto Markets” (which opened in 1958) were so like 7-Eleven stores that even he was freaked out by the possibility of competing with them. Coulombe then opened his first “Trader Joe’s” in 1967, featuring grocery items and its now-beloved South Seas theme.

10. Burlington Coat Factory

Yes, Burlington Coat Factory started as a coat seller. Back in 1972, Henrietta and Monroe Milstein bought a closed-out factory outlet in Burlington, New Jersey, and set about selling only coats and jackets at wholesale prices. Soon, however, they moved into other items—turns out, coats are kind of a seasonal thing—including other apparel, linens, and gift items.

11. A&P

Your local A&P gets its name from its original owners, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That’s right: What would become America’s first grocery store chain originally started as a purveyor of tea and coffee, first founded in 1859. A&P veered off into the supermarket game in the early part of the 20th century, while still retaining its beverage-based moniker. Fortunately, supermarkets need to sell coffee and tea, too, so it’s not a huge jump.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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