Neisner’s was an affordable shopping option in downtown Rochester
Back when downtown Rochester was lined with retail stores, Neisner’s was one of the more affordable shopping options.
Grouped with stores like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s, Neisner’s was known as a five-and-dime. But there was a lot of money to be made with those nickels and dimes (even though the prices were actually slightly higher) – in 1968, for example, Neisner reported record sales of $100 million.
Neisner’s relied on a merchandising policy characterized by lower profit margins and high sales volume. The Neisner chain, which later included Big N stores, operated 192 outlets across the United States at its peak in 1967, according to a 1978 Times Union article. And it all started in downtown Rochester.
Brothers Abraham and Joseph Neisner, originally from New Hampshire, opened their first store at 200 E. Main St. in 1911. They followed with a second store in Worcester, Mass., two years later and a third in Philadelphia in 1915.
Neisner’s has never been flashier than its Rochester contemporaries like Sibley’s and McCurdy’s. Instead it was a cozy place to grab a bargain and grab a bite to eat. The “five cents” policy ended after World War I, when the upper price range fell to one dollar, but thrifty shoppers continued to browse Neisner’s for its low prices and wide product selection for decades. .
“The business now calls itself a ‘Junior Variety Department Store,'” said a 1961 Times Union article noting the company’s 50th anniversary. “Even before 1925, when it was called a ‘five and dime’, merchandise was in a slightly higher range than merchandise in stores of the same class.”
Neisner’s emphasized a “family” atmosphere, and as Bob Marcotte noted in a 2010 Democrat and Chronicle article, longtime employees confirmed the feeling was mutual. A 1951 Times Union article said that Neisner pioneered retail employee profit sharing, extended vacations, bonuses, and group insurance and retirement plans. A 1955 news report noted that 25-year-old employees received $1,000 bonus checks, a lot of money at the time.
The East Main flagship store was significantly expanded and renovated in the late 1940s. A November 1949 Times Union article describing the seven-month renovation project stated: “Today was Neisner’s day on Main Street.” The article noted an “eager crowd” who witnessed “one of the most modern and comprehensive establishments of its kind in the country”.
The headline of the story called Neisner “one of the greatest business ventures in the country”.
Neisner sold all kinds of merchandise. A full-page ad from 1949 listed first-floor offerings, including a luncheonette, delicatessen, candy, gloves, hair items, jewelry, and “cut up chickens.” The second floor was where you could buy clothes, luggage and shoes or visit the beauty salon. The basement had a cafeteria, glassware, hardware, toys, and a pet store. The ad encouraged customers to “take the new escalators to the second floor.”
In Marcotte’s 2010 series on the local five hundred, readers recalled that the pet store had “little caged monkeys” and live chicks for sale at Easter in the 1950s – dyed in colors like pink, lavender, green and blue. Longtime Neisner customers remembered a piano player in the sheet music department and the “family shopping night” held for employees each Christmas season.
Neisner’s never promoted nationally, even though its retail empire stretched across the United States. know the extent of the business.”
A 1967 story noted that Neisner’s was the only one of the 15 largest variety stores in the United States headquartered in upstate New York (Neisner’s offices were on East Avenue). But as Neisner’s continued to open more Big N stores, its nickels and dimes struggled. In 1975, with the company posting a net loss of $10.6 million, Neisner’s began closing stores.
Neisner’s declared bankruptcy in 1977 and closed 31 stores the following year. The chain operated under bankruptcy law for nearly a year before being taken over by Ames, another retailer, and then McCrory’s. The East Main Street store, long a staple of the downtown Rochester shopping scene, closed in 1980.
The reaction to the closure has not been as emotionally sincere as the subsequent closures of Sibley’s and McCurdy’s. But, as Marcotte wrote in the 2010 series, Neisner’s has earned its place in local retail lore.
“For many children,” Marcotte wrote, “the five hundred was where they started making the decisions – what to spend that allowance on – that are part and parcel of
What happened to…? is a report on the Rochester haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives.
Morrell is a freelance writer based in Rochester.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2014.