When Chris Mirmirani heard Friday that Benny’s would be closing all of their stores by the end of the year, he knew where he wanted to be Saturday morning – the West Shore Road store where he and his father always shopped for Cooper tires.
Mirmirani wasn’t alone. There was a steady stream of customers in and out of the store and while their purchases were different there was a shared feeling of loss that a Rhode Island institution that was started 93 years ago would be closing its doors.
“I hate going to Walmart,” said Barbara St. John as she paused to chat in the parking lot. In Benny’s she’s always found what she wants without having to walk for miles. She extolled the diversity of products at Benny’s from bikes to grills, games, cleaners and candy. Service was also high on her list especially when it comes to assembling items that other stores leave for the customer to put together.
“No matter what they have it,” she said. “It has always been the place to go for everything.”
When St. John learned of the news she texted “sniff, sniff” to friends. And while St. John is savvy with cell phones she’s no fan of shopping on line.
But there’s no mistaking from the release issued Friday afternoon and the comments made by Benny’s president Arnold Bromberg on WPRO that the Internet had a role in bringing the curtain down on a business that has always prided itself in being part of the neighborhood.
“It is also important to all of us that our community knows that this is a calculated business decision based on our knowledge of the retail industry and where it is going in the future,” Bromberg said in the release. “That future is not so bright for small, family-owned chains like ours. We’ve lived and breathed this way of doing business for a long time, but we could not, in good conscience, leave the business to the next generation of our family when these market conditions would so clearly conspire to work against them.”
The release says the decision to close was “strongly influenced” by changing in retailing and the “dominance of online retailers like Amazon and others.”
No specific timetable was given for the closing of 31 stores and distribution center, only that the goal is to complete the process by the end of 2017. In an interview on WPRO, Bromberg said there would be some “surprise” sales in the weeks ahead. The company further said the disposition of real estate holdings – Benny’s owns most of its store locations – is under review.
An indication that the decision to close has been under consideration for some time, the release reads, “The company has been fielding offers on those real estate holdings and any relevant developments will be announced at the appropriate time.” The company held a staff meeting and called store managers prior to sending out a new release, but given social media, news of the closing preceded the release.
“We did it as thoroughly and sensitively as possible,” Bromberg said to the Beacon Monday. Bromberg personally called Mayor Scott Avedisian and Mayor Allan Fung.
An Eastern European immigrant, Arnold’s grandfather, Benjamin Bromberg, opened the first Benny’s in November of 1924 on Fountain Street in Providence with his wife, Flora. He had been working at American Auto Supply Co. mounting tires. The store mostly featured automotive parts, a product line that was not subject to the blue laws of the time allowing them to open on Sunday. Merchandise was expanded, as was the number of stores that grew to include outlets in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The Brombergs’ son, Malcolm, carried on the business and it is his children, Arnold, Howard and Judy Rosenstein, that run the business today. In 2014 when the company was celebrating its 90th anniversary, the three Brombergs visited the West Shore Road store where they had arranged to meet Mayor Avedisian. The mayor presented them with a citation and spent time talking about the store’s success.
Howard talked about the evolution of the store chain and the direct correlation between the Benny’s ads in the Sunday paper and that day’s sales. Auto parts was a big part of the business as home mechanics tackled such jobs as tune ups and changing brake pads themselves. As the auto industry changed, other sectors of the business including toys, yard equipment and supplies played a bigger role. The first Warwick Benny’s opening in the 1950s was in the Meadowbrook Plaza not far from the Meadowbrook Cinema.
Mayor Avedisian wasn’t outside the West Shore Road store Saturday morning, but at an event later in the day he shared his experience of looking for the proper ingredients to clean his fireplace andirons and knowing he could always count on Benny’s to get it. He lamented the loss of the store and the other mom and pop retailers that have folded with the advent of big box stores and now the Internet.
Ron Cardi, who was at Cardi’s West Warwick super store Saturday morning as volunteers filled two trailer trucks with supplies for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, is likewise sorry to see Benny’s close. Like Benny’s, Cardi’s is a family run business having gotten its start in 1928 when Ron’s grandmother, Rosa, opened a dry good store in the Knightsville section of Cranston. Now Cardi’s operates four big box stores in addition to nine mattress stores and other outlets. Cardi said the company is in the process of opening an Ashley House store in Attleboro.
Cardi said he understands how the next generation may not want to carry on the family tradition especially in a changing retail environment that is heavily influenced by online sales. As for Cardi’s, he said, “We can compete.” He feels the edge is giving customers “world class service,” competitive prices and same day delivery.
In the announcement Bromberg is quoted, “We feel that Benny’s has become part of what makes our small corner of the world so special. We’ll miss our loyal customers and our employees – friends and neighbors – generations of whom have shopped our stores for the past 93 years and have referred to Benny’s as ’my favorite store.’ As we wind down this business we want to do our best to ensure that our mark on local retail history will be as positive and lasting as possible.”
Bromberg said Monday there would be a staggered closing of the stores. As for business since the announcement, he said it has been good and that the store sold out of Benny’s T-shirts and hats. More are on order.
As for Mirmirani who was shopping with Sarah Rawnesley and their 6-month old son, Renton, Saturday, the store may close but he will hold on to the memories. He asked Rawnesley for the credit card and rushed back to the store. Minutes later he was back sporting a Benny’s cap.