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

Bon-Ton stores closed last month. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

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.

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 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.

An Associated Press report blamed “high unemployment, impossible interest rate hikes, changing consumer demands, long-term population shifts, and, in some cases, bad management” for the closures.

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.

“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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