Making their final stops at Penneys

May 1, 2014
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Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
Opal Gaso of Bentleyville has been a devotee of the women’s clothing department of JCPenney’s at Washington Mall. Order a Print
Image description
Rick Shrum / Observer-Reporter
James Wrenshall of Pancake, a shopper at Penney’s until the very end, worked for the store when it was in downtown Washington. Order a Print

Penney for your thoughts?

James Wrenshall has had JCPenney on his mind many times and for many years, most recently Thursday morning.

“I’m going in for men’s underwear,” said the South Strabane Township resident, chuckling. “I think they have the best men’s underwear of anyone going.”

He knows JCPenney in Washington Mall intimately, and intimate apparel is a mere fraction of the equation. Wrenshall has been shopping there since the store opened in 1968, and before it relocated from downtown Washington.

“I even worked downtown when I was 16 and 17, selling shoes.”

His love of the place is why this man from the Pancake part of the township is flat-out disappointed about what will transpire Saturday. After 89 1/2 years, JCPenney will cease operations in Washington County at the end of the workday – whenever that will be.

The Plano, Texas-based retailer announced Jan. 15 it was closing 33 stores nationwide, including the one in South Strabane Township. At the time, Penney said the affected stores were underperforming, and that it was cutting 2,000 jobs, including 100 at Washington Mall. The cuts, according to the company, would save more than $65 million annually.

More than three months later, this still does not sit well with a half-dozen local customers who were interviewed Thursday. They, like Wrenshall, favored this mall store and were scouring for deals before the place closes at some point Saturday.

The individual answering the phone there Thursday afternoon said the store would open at 10 a.m., but closing time was undetermined. It may depend on whether all of the stock goes.

And, although much of the store was empty Thursday, there were deals. Clothing was dwindling, but there was enough available at 80 or 90 percent off to make shoppers’ time worthwhile. Store fixtures, furniture and equipment were being sold. Even mannequins were available, priced according to size – full body or part body.

There was, indeed, a beehive of customers buzzing around in late morning.

Opal Gaso of Bentleyville still considers it a honey of a place. “I’ve been shopping here for a good many years, especially around Christmas,” she said. “When the announcement was made (in January), I was hurt.”

Gaso said she works at a grocery store and needs “a lot of slacks,” which she usually buys in the women’s clothing department at Penney.

She said she won’t patronize the next nearest Penney stores, in Robinson Township and West Mifflin, which will continue operating. “Traffic bothers me,” Gaso said. “(Interstate) 70 is bad enough.”

Jackie Temple of West Middletown works nearby, at Imperial Cleaners in the mall, and is a frequent Penney’s patron.

“I love it,” said Temple. “I love the clothes. It’s very, very sad that it’s going.”

Dan Augenstene does not work or live nearby – he resides in Springfield, Va., and works in Washington, D.C., both five hours away. But he said he comes to the South Strabane Penney twice a month, usually in tandem with visiting his parents in Prosperity.

“I buy all my clothes here. There’s no tax on clothes (in Pennsylvania) and it’s 2 1/2 percent in Virginia,” said Augenstene, who grew up in Bethel Park.

Although its merchandise is thinning out, the Washington Mall Penney remains well stocked with memories – among patrons and employees. One who has worked there for more than a quarter-century, and did not want to be identified, said longtime staffers consider themselves a tight fraternity, one that gathered for a party last weekend that celebrated good times.

“They took the best care of us. They were a wonderful company to work for,” said that soon-to-be ex-employee, who is retiring with no apparent bitterness.

A number of the local Penney payroll have accepted a company offer to transfer, while others are retiring or moving on to something else.

Penney has an intereasting history in and near Washington. It opened downtown on Nov. 7, 1924, one of 94 stores the company launched nationwide that year – and six years after the company debuted in Pennsylvania.

“That store had the best work clothes anywhere,” Wrenshall said. “Steelworkers used to buy moleskin pants that reflected the heat.”

The downtown store shut on Oct. 12, 1968, with the mall store opening five days later.

JCPenney is now in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Its closure locally will be another dagger for staggering Washington Mall. That and the pending departure of Designer Furniture Warehouse will leave just five businesses at the once-proud retail site: JoAnn Fabrics, Toys R US, Staples, Imperial Cleaners and Grand China Buffet and Grill.

Seven businesses are also operating on outparcels on mall property: Home Depot, a Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits border store, branches of Community Bank and Washington Financial, Firestone Tires, Long John Silvers/A&W restaurant and Waffle House.

By Sunday morning, Penney will no longer be functioning where Route 19 and Interstate 70 meet. And no longer making customers like James Wrenshall happy.

“I’m sorry to see it closing,” said Wrenshall, adding that his wife prefers to shop there as well. They won’t, however, continue their relationship with Penney at farther-flung venues in the region.

“We won’t travel that far,” he said. “I’m afraid this is it.”

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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