This week, we’re looking back at the glory days of shopping on Main Street downtown, and we begin with the giant: AM&A’s.
Adam, Meldrum & Anderson was Buffalo’s largest and most popular department store for 127 years.
Locally owned and operated from 1867 to 1994, more than just a place to shop, it was a Buffalo institution.
Starting in the mid-1970s and lasting through the early 1980s, the store’s italicized green-lettered corporate logo was augmented with an ultra-modern swooshy AM&A’s first in an electric green and blue, then in a more subdued dark blue and red.
In 1995, only months after AM&A’s sold its operations to Bon-Ton, the York, PA based department store announced the closure of the Main Street downtown location which had been hemorrhaging money for quite some time.
More than 300 jobs were lost with the closure of the store as well as the warehouse behind the store across Washington Street.
We’re in the final chapters of AM&A’s history now, with the Bon-Ton’s never ending going out of business sales in several of AM&A’s former locations.
If you eschew the k-cup– you are a soldier in the generations-long war over how coffee should be brewed in your home.
In 2014, Keurig sold 9 billion k-cups. That’s enough little white pods to circle the Earth more than 10 times.
While millions of Americans have given in to the convenience of the Keurig coffee maker, millions of others steadfastly refuse to entertain the notion of having the device in their homes.
Notwithstanding any recent political strife, “The coffee doesn’t taste as good” and “the little cups are just too expensive” are among the common arguments against the Keurig. These folks, it’s understood, are happy with the good ol’ automatic drip machine they’ve had for generations.
It’s a same-as-it-ever-was argument that seems to happen once a generation lately.
It was only 40 years ago when old line caffeine addicts were fighting the original home automatic machine, Mr. Coffee.
“Coffee tastes better in a percolator,” you’d hear people say, who’d also complain about the cost of the machine, as well as the extras, like filters.
But even among the fans of percolated coffee, there were those who couldn’t imagine the extravagance of an electric percolator in their kitchen. Their stove top model worked just fine, thank you.
These days, a good Keurig machine can be had for about $100. In this 1975 AM&A’s ad, the Mr. Coffee brewer is on sale for $29.99. The regular price of $39.99 is about $177 in 2017 dollars, according to a federal government inflation calculator.
Over the last 40 years, what was luxurious has become common place.
Like so many of our great cultural traditions in Buffalo, trying to pin down the concise history of our collective amber-hued fuzzy memories of Downtown Christmas shopping is difficult and can even get combative.
For many of us, all those warm recollections seem to get lumped into a generic category of “AM&A’s Christmas windows,” and to imply anything else is often met with side eye looks, and sometimes with outright hostility.
Through the decades, some stores moved, some changed names, all eventually closed. Taking the fuzz off memories and bringing them into focus with the actual names and dates can be dangerous business, but that’s the dangerous business we’re in. So here we go.
The tradition of decorating downtown stores for Christmas dates back before anyone reading this can remember. Downtown’s department stores were fully decorated, for example, for Christmas 1910.
Since those stores—some with familiar names—decorated their windows more than a century ago, plenty has changed along Buffalo’s Main Street, especially in the areas where generations did their Christmas shopping.
The most tumultuous change came between 1965 and 1985, the time when most of our memories were forged and influenced. The buildings we shopped in for decades came down, new buildings were put in their place, and traffic was shut down with a train installed in place of the cars.
The one constant through all of that, our collective memory tells us, is those wonderful AM&A’s windows.
Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson was a Buffalo institution between 1869 and 1994, when the Adam family sold the chain to Bon-Ton. That being the case, for as long as anyone can remember, people off all ages would line up along the east side of Main Street, looking in those big AM&A’s windows, before going inside and taking the escalators up to AM&A’s Toyland starring Santa himself.
Well, here’s where the hostility sometimes comes in.
If you remember looking at windows in that spot before 1960—you weren’t looking at AM&A’s windows, you were looking at the windows of JN Adam & Co.
For more than 90 years, AM&A’s was located directly across Main Street from the location where the store’s flagship downtown location was for the final 34 years of the chain’s existence.
JN’s closed up in 1959, so AM&A’s moved into the larger, newer building. Soon thereafter, the original AM&A’s was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall.
Adding to confusion is the similar name of the two stores. JN Adam and Robert Adam—the Adam of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson—were Scottish-born brothers who founded department stores which would eventually compete with each other across Main Street from each other.
Both stores also took their window decorating—especially Christmas window decorating seriously. But so did all the Main Street Department stores. On the same block as JN’s and AM&A’s, Kobacher’s, which had a location in a spot now occupied by the Main Place Mall, had a memorable giant animated, talking Santa in its window. Hengerer’s, a bit further north, always had well decorated windows.
Still, AM&A’s and JN’s made the spot just south of Lafayette Square the epicenter of Christmas décor in Buffalo. As early as 1949, JN Adam was promoting “animated Christmas windows.”
AM&A’s decorating team, eventually headed by Joseph Nelson, started adding animated displays as well, although it wasn’t until the 1960s—after AM&A’s moved into JN Adam’s old space—that AM&A’s made the presence of the windows a part of their Christmas advertising.
It’s tough to tell even if the “AM&A’s window displays” which have popped up around Western New York over the last couple of decades were originally created for and by AM&A’s. AM&A’s took over not only JN’s building, but also many of its traditions, and quite possibility the actual displays and accoutrements of those traditions.
Another JN Adam yuletide tradition which also became an AM&A’s tradition after the move was the full-floor Toyland.
All this is to say, if you walked down Main Street in mid-December 1955, the magic and wonder you were filled with was only partially Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson-inspired.
But AM&A’s was the survivor—which is why we remember. But just keep in mind– it’s very likely that 1955 window you remember was a JN Adam’s window.
But no matter which store displayed these windows when, they have always been a universally beloved Buffalo institution, right?
Well, once again… not exactly. As traditional Main Street retailing was gasping its last breaths in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Christmas windows were often derided as a part of the larger problem—rehashing the same ideas instead of trying to appeal to a new generation. The dated, tired animatronic scenes seemed out of place and woefully out of date in the Nintendo age.
When this snarky review of AM&A’s holiday decorating efforts appeared in The Buffalo News in 1993, the writer probably didn’t realize he was looking at the penultimate effort of a nearly-dead Buffalo institution.
In the AM & A’s window downtown, the same (manger scene) figures are placed in front of a set of free-standing Baroque pillars, all marbleized in green and gold. Lofty, that. If Gianlorenzo Bernini were around today, that’s what he’d be doing for a living: AM & A’s window displays…
(And) at AM & A’s downtown, the other holiday windows display a charming mixture of images, though if any community actually tried to build like this, folks would be petitioning for a design review board before the developers knew what hit them: New England covered bridge here, rough-hewn alpine furnishings there. One window features a frilly pink Victorian cottage that looks as if it could have been plucked off a side street in Allentown.
Since AM&A’s flagship downtown store was closed shortly after selling to Bon-Ton in 1995, the legend of the window displays—and the actual displays themselves—have spread far and wide.
In the mid-90s, Buffalo Place refurbished and displayed the most-recently-used scenes along Main Street. Some of those, along with older scenes as well, have appeared around Western New York in holiday displays in the Village of Lancaster and in Niagara Falls, as well as around Rotary Rink near Main and Chippewa.
The actual displays are interesting, but seeing them out of context—or even worse, trying to pry an iPad out of the hand of a toddler so she can appreciate them—seems to miss a bit of the point.
A Victorian man carving a turkey or a big white bear handing another bear a present isn’t what make those memories so wonderful—it’s the way the memory swells your heart.
Here’s to whatever makes your heart swell this Christmas season.
These photos appeared in the Buffalo Courier Sunday Magazine, New Year’s Day 1911. The quality of the images isn’t good enough to see what is in those window displays, but they still represent a great look at the retail scene on Main Street downtown more than 100 years ago.
Where possible, the 1910 images are presented with Google images of the current look of the same space.
From the pages of the Courier-Express, holiday shopping on Main Street downtown 47 years ago today… AM&A’s windows and sidewalks jammed with shoppers.
Downtown Is Jammed by Shoppers In Traditional Post-Holiday Spree
By RAY DEARLOVE
The traditional heavy shopping downtown the day after Thanksgiving held true again Friday as pedestrians jammed stores and sidewalks and cars filled downtown streets bumper-to-bumper most of the day.
Most store officials contacted said they were pleased with what appeared to be near-record crowds and all the stores were jammed right after opening.
Total sales volume for the day wouldn’t have been known until today.
Robert B. Adam, president of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson Co., said A. M. & A.’s traditional downtown store Christmas window display was viewed by the largest amount of people in the eight years the displays have been offered. He said this
year’s window display is on the history of Christmas carols.
Hens & Kelly Inc.’s downtown store also was reported jammed and Harry Blum, senior vice president, said business was very good right from the store’s opening. He said it was usually “noon before the store got that crowded.”
Lawrence R. Rose, executive director of Main Place and vice president and secretary of the Main Place Merchants Assn., described the shopping crowds as
“fantastic.” He said the day is normally a big day, but that Friday’s crowds were exceptionally heavy in all 53 stores in Main Place.
Best Day Seen
Similar observations were made by Daniel Ransom, president of the Wm. Hengerer Co., who said Friday was the best day-after-Thanksgiving in the
three years I have been here.”
Parking facilities in the downtown area were reported full most of the day.
Gerald R. Tunkey, general manager of Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps Inc. which operates five city ramps in the downtown area, said all the ramps were
full by 11 a.m. William J. Cochrane, assistant manager of the
Genesee Motor Ramp at 312 Pearl St., said business was “much heavier than normal, with almost all 300 spaces full much of the day.”
The shopping hordes meant the usual headaches for traffic police. Capt. Albert F. Saxer, head of traffic point control and radar units of the Buffalo Police
Dept., said extra patrolmen were planned both day and evening to handle the traffic.
“There are not enough parking facilities to handle the volume of vehicles that were downtown Friday,” said Saxer. “Parking facilities would have to
double to alleviate the situation.”
Saxer said traffic was slow but moving. There must have been room for sleighs, since several Santa Claus’ were spotted
WEBR’s “Amanda” interviews an AM&A’s buyer on her midday shopping and fashion tips show at the WEBR-970 studios, 23 North Street, in 1951.
“Amanda” was actually Dorothy Shank, president of the local chapter of American Women in Radio & Television. She later worked in marketing for AM&A’s, had a show on Channel 4, and was a host on WJJL in Niagara Falls through the 1980s. She was 81 when she died in 1989.
But my favorite part of this photo: in the middle, just to the left of the phone, Buffalo’s 1950’s equivalent of a Tim Horton’s cup– a glass “to go” coffee cup/milk bottle from Buffalo’s ubiquitous Deco Restaurants (there were more than 50 Deco locations around WNY when they were most popular.)
Now that Halloween is over, retailers see nothing but daylight between now and the big day — Christmas. That sense of timing has been true for decades, but the way certain items are marketed have changed with the times.
This AM&A’s ad for holiday sweaters appeared in The News’ Buffalo Magazine in November 1988.
If Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson was still in business, they might still be offering the same array of sweaters, but instead of calling them “festive holiday tops,” and noting their “designer look,” there’s a fair chance that they’d have joined other retailers like Macy’s, Target, and Walmart, each of which have large selections of “ugly Christmas sweaters” on their websites.
The concept of the American Teenager as we know it today is a relatively new one.
In the simplest of terms, after decades of economic depression and war, young people of the late 1940s had less responsibility, more economic freedom and a growing segment of pop culture being cultivated to employ and take advantage of that free time and free cash.
For 70 years, more mature generations have been panning the choices of teenage girls and especially the fervor with which they make those choices. The names change, but from Frank Sinatra to Justin Bieber, rigid-minded adults can’t understand all the swooning over (some singer) with (some bizarre haircut, bizarre dance, etc.).
By 1964, American fuddy-duddies had withstood the waves of bobbysoxers and Elvis’ wagging hips — but the arrival of a moppy-headed quartet of singers from England took the genre up another notch.
If there’s a start date for Beatlemania, you might choose Feb. 9, 1964 — the date of the band’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” About 60 percent of American televisions were tuned to the performance of the nation’s No. 1 top single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Immediately, adults started to try to make sense of the mania.
In a matrix that has repeated itself time and time again as American Pop Culture has evolved, the aversion to the Beatles was just as strong as the fanaticism of their young followers.
What was it about the Beatles? everyone seemed to want to know. Was it the haircuts, asked the Courier-Express’ “Enquiring Reporter” of Western New York high school students?
One boy from Cardinal O’Hara High School was convinced that it was “The Beatles’ weird looks more than their musical ability” that made them popular. Many others agreed, but said it was the combination of talent and different looks that made the Beatles “just far out.”
Whether you loved the Beatles or hated them, they were clearly a growing economic force to be reckoned with.
It wasn’t just with the expected idea of record sales at places like Twin Fair, more staid institutions such as AM&A’s were offering “The Beatle Bob” in their downtown and branch store beauty salons. Hengerer’s was selling Beatles records and wigs.
A month after the group’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan, a couple of doors down from Shea’s Buffalo, the Paramount Theatre sold out a weekend’s worth of closed-circuit showings of a Beatles concert.
Eighteen uniformed Buffalo Police officers were hired to help keep the peace among the more than 2,500 teens who showed up to watch the show at the Paramount, which was hosted by WKBW disc jockey Joey Reynolds. The only slight hint of misbehavior on the part of Beatles fans came when the infamous rabble-rouser Reynolds declared on the stage, “I hate the Beatles!” and he was pelted with jellybeans.
Beatlemania continued at a fever pitch through all of 1964 and 1965.
Local bands like the Buffalo Beetles, later renamed the Mods, enjoyed popularity and even their own records on the radio. After the July, 1964 release of The Beatles’ first film “A Hard Day’s Night,” the summer of 1965 saw the release of the Beatles’ second movie, “Help!,” which opened at Shea’s before moving onto the smaller theaters and the drive-ins.
The Beatles also played a concert at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in August 1965. There were at least a couple of dozen Buffalonians in attendance courtesy of the WKBW/Orange Crush Beatles caravan, hosted by Danny Neaverth.
Buffalo Stories archives
Sixteen-year-old Jay Burch of Orchard Park High School described Beatlemania from the midst of it in 1964 this way: “The Beatles’ singing is OK, but it’s the haircuts and dress that make them standouts. … The Beatles are different. They got a good gimmick and made it work.”
Many of Buffalo’s Beatles dreams finally came true on Oct. 22, 2015, when Paul McCartney made his first appearance in Buffalo, singing songs that many in the audience had first heard 51 ½ years earlier for the first time on a Sunday evening with Ed Sullivan.
Until the lifeless and drab Main Place Mall and Tower replaced its character-filled old buildings, billboards and neon signs, Shelton Square was more or less Buffalo’s version of Times Square.
Buffalo News archives
It was the city’s crossroads; it was bright and vibrant. It was the place where people transferred streetcars and buses — just about every line in the city came through. Standing in Shelton Square, you were a few blocks from the Crystal Beach Boat in one direction, a few blocks from the Town Casino the other way. It was the middle of the action that was Buffalo.
If you remember it, it was a special place.
It was filled with character and characters. There was Domenic Battaglia, who ran the newsstand shown at Niagara and Main starting in 1929 “with his oversized cap, news apron and halfchewed cigar.” His News obituary called him “a goodnatured curmudgeon who was out daily in all kinds of weather to sell newspapers and magazines. He never wore gloves even on the coldest days and often heckled his customers who did.”
Battaglia’s newsstand is in front of the Harvey & Carey Drug store at Main and Niagara.
He moved to Main and Church when the entire Niagara Street was eliminated from the map, now underneath the Main Place Tower.
In the very foreground of the photo is the top of the Palace Burlesk sign. George Kunz, whose beautifully crafted memories of days gone by used to appear in The News, wrote “the Palace exuded life. Pedestrians passing during showtime heard raucous, robust sounds of extravagant fun. The orchestra blared, drums rumbled and laughter, a rollicking outrageous laughter, tumbled out the doors onto Main Street.”
“Such was the theater’s fame that for years the Palace was used as a focus for any downtown geographical instructions,” wrote Kunz in 1993. “’You know where the Palace is . . . well, you turn right there.’ Everybody remembered the lively marquee with the dancing girl figures kicking endlessly to the rhythm of blinking lights.”
Right next door to the Palace, disc jockey Tom Clay — known as “Guy King” on WWOL Radio – ushered in the rock ‘n’ roll era in Buffalo on July 3, 1955, when he climbed out of the station’s window and onto the giant WWOL billboard.
There, he urged the teens in his audience to drive to Shelton Square and honk their horns if they wanted to hear Bill Haley and The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” They did in huge numbers, and he kept playing “Rock Around the Clock” until the fire department showed up with a ladder truck to help police get him off the billboard. After climbing back in the station window, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for the stunt.
On the pages of The News, Janice Okun wrote about Hughes Restaurant, “the dingy old coffee shop on Shelton Square where you sat on high stools at even higher marble tables and injected fat into yourself in the form of Snappy Cheese Sandwiches, while drinking coffee from a clunky mug carefully. Because if you dropped the mug, it would break a toe.”
Minnie Feiner’s had high tables, too. And there was Minnie Messina’s cafeteria through the ’50s and ’60s.
In 1965, most of the buildings in this photo started to come down. In December, it was announced the new $20 million complex being built in its place was given a name “big enough for such a big project — Main Place.”
This block of Niagara Street, between Main and Pearl, is now covered by the Main Place Tower. City Hall (upper left) and the McKinley Monument were visible from Main Street at Shelton Square until 1968.
At the time, editorial page writers panned the name, saying it wasn’t distinctive and was “anything but appealing.”
One writer said, “It’s a terrible name. It grates on one’s ears. … It certainly wasn’t given too much thought.”
In hindsight, though, it’s probably better that the name many wanted to keep — Shelton Square — was retired. It makes it easier to give a name to the memories.
A 1980s view of Main Street, with the Main Place Mall and Tower on the right and Woolworth’s and AM&A’s on the left.