Buffalo in the ’80s: The changing face of retail

By Steve Cichon

Over the last couple of years, brick and mortar retail has taken a major hit in Western New York. Sears and K-Mart stores, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes, Toys-R-Us, Macy’s and the Bon Ton have all closed stores or gone out of business.

Bon-Ton stores closed across Buffalo in August, 2018.

The change in the local and national retail landscape has led area the owners of local shopping malls to reimagine what those malls could be as they struggle to keep up on bills.

The two area Two Guys stores, including this one at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Sheridan Drive, were among the 36 major stores that closed in Buffalo during an 18-month period in the early 1980s.

The last time such a tidal wave hit Buffalo retailing was during a recession in the early ’80s.

During an 18-month stretch between 1980 and 1982, seven major retailers closed 36 stores in Buffalo.

At the time in question, the original flagship Sears store on Main at Jefferson closed (today, the building is part of the Canisius College campus). Also closed: three Sattler’s stores, eight Hens & Kelly stores, 15 Twin Fair stores, five King’s stores, three Naum’s and two Two Guys stores.
Buffalo’s original Sears store, Main & Jefferson, 1937. (Buffalo Stories archives)

It was during that same time period that Buffalo lost another long-standing name in retail, as Hengerer’s stores were rebranded as Sibley’s.

Even though some stores were bought out or taken over, the closures left 2.5 million square feet of empty retail space around Western New York. Most troublesome were the empty downtown Main Street storefronts that had been Hens & Kelly and Sattler’s for decades.

AM&As, late 1950s, in the building that was torn down to make way for the Main Place Mall. The store moved across the street to the former JN Adam store until the 1995.

“Their show windows are dark and dirty, like others along Main Street, even as progress on the city’s new pedestrian mall and rapid transit system continues,” wrote John Given in an Associated Press report printed in newspapers around the country.

The longtime retail giants left standing were feeling the pinch, as the massive MetroRail construction on Main Street was happening just as the worst economic times were hitting.

Robert Adam was worried about the downtown AM&A’s location, but even more so, the branch near the GM/Harrison Radiator plant in Lockport that had just seen massive layoffs.

“Everyone thinks if you’re the only one left they have to go to you, and that’s not true,” said Adam. “I don’t want to be the only one left.”

A few blocks down Main Street at LL Berger’s, Louis Berger said he hoped that all the bleeding in 1981 and 1982 was going to be enough to right the ship.

“We’ve seen the end of closings downtown,” said Berger. “I think the shakedown is over.”

LL Berger, Main Street, downtown Buffalo, in the 1980s.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.