CHESTER - In the days of the mom and pop store, customers could walk in knowing they would find whatever they were looking for. If their credit was good, they could get the merchandise they needed without having to pay cash. They got personalized service from proprietors who knew them by name. And they knew the store was going to be there tomorrow.
Fineman's Department Store was that kind of store.
"You name it, we had it," said Alvin Fineman, a lifelong Chester resident and former owner of Fineman's.
Alvin Fineman holds his painting of Fineman’s Department Store, the way it looked in its heyday in Chester. Fineman, in fact, is the painting’s artist. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
Fineman, 91, reflected recently on the store that bore his family's name for 51 years. Later this month, the building at 505 Carolina Ave. is scheduled to be razed by the city of Chester to make way for new development.
"People like to know the history of a building before it's torn down," he said.
The building's demolition will close a chapter of Chester history and - city officials hope - open a new one. Fineman wants people to remember the store as an exemplar of the values that defined Chester's business community over the decades.
"For 51 years, we struggled to grow with the town, and we did our best to give them the service and the quality they deserved," Fineman said.
Fineman's memories of the store go back to the earliest days of his childhood in Chester. He was born in 1921, the same year the store opened at its original location across the street. At that time, the store sat next to the Mulberry Pool Room and Singleton's Barber Shop, Fineman said.
The store was founded by his parents, Morris and Lena Fineman, who had come over to the United States from Russia and Lithuania respectively. Morris Fineman had operated a small store in Midland, Pa., while Lena worked at a millinery in East Liverpool, Fineman said.
The two met when Lena's uncle took her to Midland one day. "My father decided Midland was not for him, so he packed up his inventory in his truck and moved to Chester," Fineman said.
Fineman's memories of those early days are fuzzy about some things, crystal clear about others. "There's so much history," he said, pausing. "But it's ancient history."
He can name practically every business on Carolina Avenue from Fifth Street northeast to Chaney's Service Station. He can remember Salvation Army band concerts on Saturday nights and Ku Klux Klan rallies on main street.
"I remember, as a kid, we got robbed one time. I remember being able to look at the door in the back where the robbers got in," he said.
Although Fineman was too young to remember it, a streetcar strike in 1921 inadvertently helped his father's nascent business. "It gave my father a break because the people had trouble getting to work and out of town (to East Liverpool). It basically kept the people (in Chester). Nobody thought anything of walking two or three blocks, and, as a result, they stayed home more," he said.
Fineman's Department Store eventually moved across the street to the location that became synonymous with its name. It was there, above the store, that the family of five brothers and one sister lived.
The store grew and prospered despite - or maybe because of - hard times in the 1930s. Chester residents came to rely on the Finemans' deferential spirit during the Great Depression - as attested to in a 2009 letter by one longtime patron.
"We never were without shoes, coats or underwear. Your parents so willingly gave credit. Many, I know, never returned payment," the letter said. "I had to jot this note of kindness about such a gracious family, which saw Chester through hard times. Every town should be so blessed. ... They themselves could have been so much more well off if they had not been so kind and caring."
In 1932, Morris Fineman expanded his business by enlarging the retail space from 40 feet by 40 feet, to 40 feet by 90 feet. Fineman also enlarged his inventory and expanded the clothing lines he carried. The store sold general merchandise, what Fineman calls "notions, five-and-10 stuff," plus clothing, shoes and dry goods.
When Fineman needed to fulfill a special order for a customer, he either went to a small-time wholesaler known as a "jobber," or he traveled to Pittsburgh. Getting to the big city was a chore, requiring a streetcar ride to East Liverpool and a train ride to Pittsburgh. While there, Fineman also stocked up on kosher supplies for his family's Jewish dietary needs.
Alvin Fineman bought the business from his father in 1959 and operated it until 1972. Despite having to close the store because of illness, Fineman has no regrets.
"It helped maintain a stabilizing influence on retail business in Chester for 51 years," he said. But, alas, Fineman's went the way of the mom and pop store.
After Fineman's closing, the building housed a florist, an insurance agency and, most recently, Taco Huey's Restaurant & Lounge. The now-vacant building has taken on a blighted appearance, so the city of Chester hopes to have it demolished by the end of the month.
The city purchased the property for $50,000 in May. A grant from the state of West Virginia will pay for the demolition.
"Hopefully, we'll catch the interest of somebody who wants to build something nice there for our main street. We're investing in our downtown," said Mayor Ken Morris.
Morris said he envisions an office building or medical building in the space where Fineman's used to be.
Fineman said he still walks in the shadow of his parents' store to this day. On June 2, at the "Meet Our Heroes" event at the Orchards at Foxcrest, where Fineman lives, a man came up to him with a memory of Fineman's.
"This fellow said, 'I was 9 years old when I came into your store with my mother and father,' " Fineman said. "That always makes me feel good."