No matter how frugal we are, or how much is passed along from friends or family, or picked up on the street, at some point in our lives, most of us need to buy an item or two of furniture. This is true now, and it was true back during the Great Depression. As we all know, not having a lot of money during an economic downturn doesn’t stop our families from growing, or stop the leg on your couch, which you’ve glued back together a hundred times, from finally calling it quits. There are times when we need stuff. Before the dangerous days of credit cards, if you needed to buy something, you paid cold hard cash, in full. But merchants figured out long ago that people would buy more, and become loyal repeat customers, if they allowed their customers to pay off purchases over time. With interest, of course. And that was the philosophy of one of the country’s most successful furniture chains: Spear’s.
Spear’s and Company got its start in Pittsburgh, PA, with three brothers, Nathanial, Alexander and Maurice Spears. The family furniture emporium got its start in 1893. As the company grew, they found that their customers were middle class folk who wanted to have the popular designs of the day, but couldn’t afford the real thing. They began knocking off popular designs and producing a more affordable product that had the same look, but not the same quality as the higher priced item. They were extremely successful. Their first New York store opened in Manhattan around 1903.
By the time the Great Depression was in full swing, there were Spear’s Furniture stores in many major cities, including at least three in New York City, plus a warehouse. They had their large store on 34th Street in Manhattan, next to the Empire State Building, a huge warehouse facility on 23rd Street, on the far west side, another retail store on Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn, and this big store at 166-02 Jamaica Avenue, here in Queens.
Their motto was “We give you time,” which was usually placed near a large clock on the façade of the store. They offered no money down, paid off over time, with interest, for purchases. Many people did not have the money to buy large, expensive items like furniture outright, and this method was a perfect way for newlyweds to buy furniture, or for someone to replace that broken couch, or just redecorate. Spear’s made much more money charging interest than they would have made for just selling goods, a formula that kept many a store going through the Depression, and on to today.
In order to attract customers, Spear’s gave them beautiful, state of the art, architecturally impressive stores to shop in. Art Deco, especially as it moved towards Modernism, was an evocative style for large retail establishments. The sleek, racy lines, the bold modern shapes of the buildings, even the fonts used for the lettering, all gave the impression of wealth, modernity, the end to the Great Depression, and on to a better and brighter world. Who wouldn’t want to shop there?
The Spear’s store was designed by the firm of DeYoung, Moscowitz & Rosenberg in 1934. That firm was designing stores, banks, public housing and other buildings around New York City, and would design the new Spear’s store on 34th Street in 1934, as well. This store, on the corner of Merrick Boulevard, has a great location with curb appeal, as the original design included marquee-like “wings” with the store signage in neon, on either side of the entrance, which was on an angle facing both avenues. The façade enveloped you, like arms, saying “Welcome, come on in, we’ll take care of your needs.”
Unlike Victorian stores, which needed large banks of windows for natural lighting, this modern, air conditioned and well-lit store eschewed window banks for sleek concrete, pushing them to the angles of the buildings, except for the display windows on the street level. Inside, there would be no distractions to the business of buying. Spear’s sold everything for the home; furniture, rugs, lamps, radios and accessories, even cut rate piano brands. The store thrived on Jamaica Avenue until the 1950s.
By then, two of the three Spear brothers had died, and their heirs were not as interested in the store as their parents had been. They started to invest in other things, and the chain folded in the mid-1950s. The last Spear brother, Nathaniel, died in 1968. The Jamaica store became a Sach’s Furniture, continuing the tradition of cut-rate knockoffs of popular styles, and easy credit. But they, too, went the way of Spear’s, and by the 1980s. This store, like its other New York City counterparts, was subdivided into smaller stores.
Today, the six story building rises above its neighbors, still impressive as a structure, but rather naked except for the signage of its current tenant, the Gap. No longer chopped up into little boutiques, the Gap takes the entire space on the ground floor, and brought back the large display windows on the sides. Faintly visible on the façade, the shadows of “Spear’s” still remains. GMAP
(1935 photograph:New York Public Library)