When the values go up, up, up
And the prices go down, down, down
Robert Hall this season
Will show you the reason:
Low overhead, high quality.
Store number 126 is first, Summer Street Stamford, Conn., the sign says. Physical inventory: $160,936, 1976 volume: $410,693. Size: 7,000 square feet. Type of store: Conventional, Monthly occupancy charge (approximate, including utilities): $2.903.
Rubie Vine wants that store. He wants its inventory because that is his business - inventories. His chain of railroad salvage stores in Connecticut has made him a fortune by selling, at huge discounts, items that the public wanted but the manufacturers had to auction off. And so, like a half dozen others. Rubie Vine, age 52 begins to bid.
"All right, gentlemen," declares Stanley Friedman, the auctioneer. "Who's got 10 cents on the dollar to start win? Ten cents? Thank you, sir." His pace quickens, his 33 1/3 rpm speed up to 45. Soon it will be locked into 78. What he says is barely distinguishable, except that the bids have gone up a nickel.
New York's Felt Forum, an adjunct to Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan, is alive with hundreds of men, women and a sprinkling of children, all gathered for the big-money no-emotion business of suctioning off the 367 outlets that until a month ago made up the Robert Hall clothing chain - in business for 37 years, where two generations of bargain-conscious Americans were able to suit up in no-frills fashion for back-to-school Septembers, bar mitzvahs and Sunday Best.
But on the auction block, all this tradition gives way to an eerie scene, an unexpected blend of modern technology and surrealism. Guests occupy the permanent yellow and orange-cushioned seats to the rear of the auditorium. Bidders squirm uncomfortably in the brown folding chairs laid out in rows along the beige terrazzo floor.
Overhead, spotlights of varied hue hang from tracks, their beams directed at the low, expansive stage. Large yellow signs announce "Auction" as if to tell participants that they won't indeed see a hockey game or wrestling match here this morning.
The room fills, slowly, steadily the muffled murmur now loud, the loud murmur now a muffed roar. A young man his sport shiirt tucked haphazardly into his slacks paces restlessly, waiting for the production to begin. When it does, his job will be to direct a lime green pointer to each of the hand-lettered signs arranged in precision order across the stage.
Each sign resembles a king-sized blow-up for a mail order sweepsteaks; but in reality each is but a calling card for a store whose inventory is up for sale.
". . . 19 cents is the offer, who's got 20? Twenty." Friedman seems to say, "will the bid go to one to one, to one? Twenty-one? to two "The words and numbers run over each other in their anxiety to leave his mouth. He is a professional, a veteran who know what he has to do and how to do it.
"Use your paddle, your hands is hidden behind your face," he implores, never missing a beat. "Twenty nine and a half cents once, twice, three times, fair warning. A hand pops out over the sea of heads. "Thirty cents Just in time. Where you been?You almost missed the train there."
His 30-cent bid has won and Rubie Vine smiles. Within minutes he is top bidder at 28 cents on the dollar for a store in Groton, Conn. The morning has been a success.
"Look," he says with an easy, engaging smile. "My stores handle close-outs like this. It's said when a company goes out of business, but people like bargains and that's why I'm here. I'll sell these clothes for 50 per cent or more off the list price.
"Personally, I never shopped at Robert Hall," he continues, one ear tuned to the furious bidding battle blaring on the high-powered public address system. "I get all my clothes, and most everything else, at half-price. This jacket I'm wearing originally sold for $85 and we sold it for $19.95. The same with the pants. The only 'legitimate' thing is the scarf and I got that as a gift."
Three dozen rows away. Marvin Bailey and Larry Johnson are conferring. Until United Merchants & Manufacturers, the parent company, announced last June that the chain was closing, the two men - both 25 years old - had served as assistant managers in two New York City outlets. Now they are pooling their savings and funds from "investors" in an effort to buy the inventories of several stores.
Their hopes are high, but less than two hours later, they are crushed. Someone else has outbid them - someone else with more money. Someone able to top by a half-cent the 26-cent price they had set as their ceiling.
Calvin Zedd - Col. Colvin Zedd, if you please - is also unhappy. He had arrived at the Forum looking to buy as many of the Virginia stores as possible.
"I don't think the public cares about Robert Hall, to tell you the truth," he had commented early into the auction."They're bargain-conscious. I worked 29 W. T. Grant stores when they went out of business and found the same thing. As for me, I could care less about the emotion. It's pure business. There's no emotion.
Not long after Zedd, a 45-year-old independent auctioneer and appraiser based in Norfolk, is showing some emotion. He has lost out in the bidding wars to a Los Angeles industrial auctioneer.
Steven West arrives at the auction confident and relaxed. He is blond and wears an open-necked black silk shirt and mustard-colored suit. A black handkerchief peeks delicately from his breast pocket. Three seats away, flanked by two uniformed private guards, Greg Skinner, head of security for West's 19-unit Federal's department store chain in Michigan, sits clutching a black attache case. The case is cuffed to his left wrist.
"There's about $3 1/2 million in cash and checks in there," West remarks quite casually. "We intend to get the stores we want unless someone is a lunatic and overbids us. I don't think that will happen."
It doesn't. Midway into the auction (the entire disposal will be spread out over a four-day period). West astounds the congregation by bidding an unheard-of 71 cents on the dollar for a store in Porton Huron, Mich. Even auctioneer Stan Friedman pauses to reflect on the sale. And the audience applauds.
"Each successful bidder has the right to lease the store he has won for a period of 90 days" explains Philip Kirshen, an executive in charge of the Robert Hall phaseout. "Thereafter, if he wants to keep the location, he can work out an agreement with the landlord and with us. We think this route is the cleanest way to do it and also provides the most viable continuity process for the stores and, hopefully, for the employees."
By early afternoon the day's auction is over. Robert Hall, created in an effort to provide low overhead, factory-loft, supermarket shopping is being dismantled . . . piece-by-piece, and eventually, suit-by-suit.
Only the jingle and the name - selected for its easeon the lips and ears in radio commercials - remain.