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SMU Library Regales Retail Pioneers

DALLAS — Merchant kings Stanley Marcus and James Cash Penney helped define U.S. retailing and consumerism. From Marcus’ “quest for the best’’ mantra to Penney’s egalitarian approach to selling, they built vastly...

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DALLAS — Merchant kings Stanley Marcus and James Cash Penney helped define U.S. retailing and consumerism. From Marcus’ “quest for the best’’ mantra to Penney’s egalitarian approach to selling, they built vastly different retail empires from shared visions of value and social responsibility.

They also shared an affinity for Southern Methodist University, the dominant institution of higher education in their Dallas hometown. And now, the university’s DeGolyer Library is a scholarly repository for their private correspondence, books, photographs and other archival materials that help reveal the professional and personal passions that shaped these two iconic careers.

“Both collections provide important insights into retail history and consumer culture in the United States,” said Russell Martin, director of the library. “The Stanley Marcus Collection is astounding. There are books on art, art history, literature, business, history and fashion, collected in great depth and with a discriminating eye. The collection will support teaching and research in many disciplines.’’

The J.C. Penney materials constitute “a stunning collection that adds a rich new dimension of insightful retail history and consumer culture to our existing archives,” Martin said.

The Marcus archives focus on the years 1947 to 1995, chronicling his career in the business — founded in Dallas in 1907 by his aunt, Carrie Marcus Neiman, her husband, Abraham Lincoln Neiman, and Marcus’ father, Herbert Marcus Sr. — that now includes 35 luxury stores across the U.S. It also features among its 12,000 books first-edition works of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, and quirky items such as Sophia Loren’s cookbook with a personal note to Marcus in Italian.

“The Marcus papers will provide researchers with information on various fields, including the fashion industry, business, history, Dallas and U.S. history, civil rights and others,” said Alex Lorch, who completed his master’s degree in history at SMU with a thesis on Marcus’ support of civil liberties and civil rights.

The library’s J.C. Penney Center for Retail Excellence houses materials ranging from 20,000 photographs detailing the origin, growth and operations of J.C. Penney Co., which includes more than 1,000 U.S. stores, to the wedding dress of the founder’s wife.

This story first appeared in the March 16, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“This collection reflects Mr. Penney’s fundamental values, which are still applicable and play a key role in the continuing success of the company,’’ said Allen Questrom, Penney’s former chairman and chief executive officer. “He was dedicated to delivering good value to customers and operating a business with integrity. Mr. Penney [who died in 1971 at the age of 96] also believed that businesses should give back to the communities they serve.’’

Marcus started donating much of his private correspondence and files to DeGolyer in 1993 after establishing a  bond with the library’s then-director David Farmer. Both had a love of rare books. Marcus died in 2002 at age 96. His widow, Linda, bequeathed his remaining archives, as well as other personal items to the library.

Marcus joined Neiman’s in 1925 at age 19 after spending a year at Harvard, where his initial ambition was to devote his life to books and publishing. But his father, the company’s chairman, was intent on grooming him to take over, promising that a retailing career would provide him with the financial means to become a book collector.

The younger Marcus eventually rose to be chief executive officer. His iconoclastic vision included a self-described “quest for the best,’’ which focused on offering only top-quality and often unique luxury merchandise and meticulous customer service.

Marcus also set new standards in retail by first publishing the Neiman’s Christmas book in the late Thirties to expand the chain’s national customer base. The archives touch on his involvement in the civil rights movement. He included blacks in Neiman’s marketing and advertising, and by 1968, Neiman’s Christmas catalogue featured fashions modeled by black women.

Then there is Marcus’ own correspondence to relatives, friends and business associates, typed on onion-skin paper and often edited in pencil. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was given or developed a great amount of curiosity,” he wrote in a 1958 letter to his daughter, Jerrie Marcus Smith. “So I find myself interested in a dozen and one other subjects besides business, such as modern art, or primitive sculpture, or Byzantine mosaics, or printing, or literature, or urban rehabilitation, or transit problems, or wine and food, or foreign affairs. These multifaceted interests enrich life and give me other things to think about besides business, and other things to which I may make some contribution to the general welfare.”

This Penney collection spans the late 1800s to the most current annual reports of J.C. Penney Co., based in Plano, Tex., near Dallas. Penney opened his first store in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyo., under the banner The Golden Rule Store, and was the first U.S. retailer to charge all customers the same price for merchandise. The archive occupies more than a quarter mile of shelves.

In his autobiography, Penney said his business was “bigger than anything one individual could ever create or be. Whatever I had to do with its beginning, by injecting a few cardinal ideas into the selling of merchandise, has come back to me a hundredfold in the confidence and I think I may say, humbly, the love of my fellow associates.”

For more information, visit the http://www.smu.edu/cul/degolyer or call 214-768-3231.

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