Bruce is as sharp as the tacks he once sold alongside pins, needles, buttons, thread, spatulas, saucepans, loose-leaf paper, backpacks, poster paints and so on.
He was born in Paris, Ky., outside Lexington, “hard on the bluegrass,” he tells me. After Army service in World War II, he became a trainee at the J.J. Newberry Co., a five-and-dime chain that in those days was second only to Woolworth.
His first assignment was to run the Newberry store in Lansford, Pa., in the heart of the coal mines. “Anthracite country,” he says. “It was a good store when the mines worked, but when they didn’t work there was nothing you could do but sit there.”
His next store, in upscale Saratoga Springs, N.Y., had its own challenges. “You had racetrack people, people coming up for the water. In the wintertime, you died. In the summertime, you were competing with the racetrack and hotels for help.”
It was so hard to find employees that Bruce had an idea: self-service. Rather than put a clerk behind each counter — stationery, toys, notions, etc. — you’d let customers select their own merchandise. He took the idea to his bosses.
No, they said. The customers would steal you blind.
But then a sympathetic board member gave him the go-ahead. “Sales immediately jumped some 20 percent, and there was no indication they were stealing us blind,” Bruce says.
Bruce’s next idea?
“I thought, if I can make money for them, I can make money for myself.” With $25,000 in savings he looked for a place to open a store.
“I looked at areas not subject to strikes,” he says. “That’s how I came to the Washington area, where the government doesn’t go on strike.”
I ask how he decided what to have in his store.
“I cheated,” he laughs. “I took the list that I brought over from the Newberry Co. It’s called ‘check and list’ merchandise. The stuff you had to have.”
And then, like an orchestra conductor coaxing interesting sounds from a composer’s sheet music, Bruce experimented. He did things like print the names of nearby schools on the covers of loose-leaf notebooks, ensuring kids would clamor for them. (“School opening for me was better than Christmas,” he says.) One Sunday night he was watching “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” when a bunch of girls demonstrated a weird new plastic . . .
thing. The next day Bruce was on the phone with his toy wholesaler.
“I said, ‘I saw this thing on TV. I think we can sell them.’
“ ‘Naah,’ he said. So I went and ordered them direct from the manufacturer. I ordered 12 dozen and stacked them right between the two front doors. I put them out at 8 o’clock that morning and at 6 o’clock that night, I didn’t have a Hula Hoop left. That was the hottest item I ever had.”
Not everything was a success. Bruce opened stores in Gaithersburg and Arlington. They were twice the size of the Bethesda store but never did the volume and closed after 10 or 15 years.
“The thing is you’ve got to have the right mixture,” he explains. “Bethesda had the right mixture. It had home dwellers, and it had apartments. The trouble with the Arlington store was it was all apartments. By the time you got a following, they moved out and you had to start with somebody else. Same deal with Gaithersburg.”
Bruce never had a computer in his stores. He never accepted credit cards. He’s never had a credit card. I ask him why he was successful.
“I built a good organization,” he says. “The girl behind the counter creates the impression of the store. Customers don’t care who owns the store.”
The fact that he funded a pension plan for his employees helped him keep top talent.
“Our average sale was $4,” he says. “It took a lot of people to pay the rent.”
I ask Bruce whether the fact that he’d majored in economics at the University of Kentucky helped prepare him for a long career in retail.
He thinks a moment. “No,” he says finally, “I learned more watching my parents lose the family farm during the Depression.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.