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 Retail Stores Of The Past

Gallery Two

The Rise and Fall of Union Hall

In 1954 unemployed Elbert "Al" Bagus was living in Chicago with his wife Rita and two children. Bagus decided to use all of his savings to come to Rockford to try out an idea he had in mind. Bagus and his wife hauled discount merchandise to Rockford from Chicago in a station wagon where he would open a small 800 square foot store at 423 East State Street in 1955. It was not an easy venture as Bagus and his wife slept on the floor in the stockroom of their store until they could afford an apartment and could be reunited with their children, which they did several weeks later. The downtown store was not the rousing success that Bagus hoped it would be and in the early spring of 1956 they considered closing the store and moving back to Chicago.

Instead they closed the East State store and moved to 303 Kishwaukee Street where they occupied a 6,000 square foot automobile showroom, where the concept of buying merchandise at greatly discounted prices caught on with the public. In fact it grew so rapidly that the store would expand in size to 12, 000 square feet, twice the original amount of floor space in 1957 and the company was incorporated. Bagus and his wife were working between 80 and 120 hours a week, seven days a week with no vacations, and they encountered turmoil, debt and mistakes along the way. They were able to hire their first employees in 1958. Many large companies frowned on the discount idea including the huge chemical company, Dupont Corporation, who sued Union Hall in 1959 for selling anti-freeze below costs claiming it violated fair trade laws.

On March 1, 1960 Bagus opened a 30,000 square foot store at 3720 East State Street. Union Hall was one of the first discount stores in the country at the time and the Rockford area consumer was very supportive of the store, as evidenced by the fact that in late 1961 they would add an additional 40.000 square feet of floor space to the store and the parking lot was expanded from a 200 car to a 600 car plus capacity. They also operated a 14,000 square foot warehouse at another location in town. There were companies and other stores that did not like the way Union Hall sold items at a cut rate price to consumers. They offered many of the same items that one might find at Marshall Field, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and other full price stores. The company could do this by offering no frills shopping, no fancy display cases, no carpet on the floors, no fancy store lighting, etc.  Union Hall in order to buy name brand goods would sometimes have to promise the manufacturer that they would not sell the product cheaper than the suggested retail price but did anyway. Some manufacturers refused to sell to them at all. Union Hall was sued many times and had injunctions placed against it. Union Hall in turn would file suit for relief from court injunctions that were imposed upon them earlier.

Union Hall heavily advertised by flyers and newspapers. Not only did they want to advertise their wares but for name recognition as well, as many new people in town would know Kmart or Spartan but had no clue as to what Union Hall was. The store continued its success and once again the store would expand in 1969 with a 17,000 square foot two story addition which provided more selling space on the main floor with the corporate offices occupying the second floor.  Ken Bagus who planned on being a film maker after earning his master's degree in film making from UCLA in 1973, did not plan on taking a job running a discount chain of department stores. He was never interested in the family business until his father Elbert thought about selling the stores and retiring. This was a turning point for Ken as he decided to run the stores before the family lost a valuable asset. He gave himself a crash course in the operation of the store starting in the accounting department, then moved on to buying merchandise for the stores, then became the assistant merchandise manager and finally he became president of Union Hall, Incorporated. Stuart Bagus who is Ken's younger brother was executive vice president, treasurer and director of store operations. Stuart would eventually become president of Union Hall, Inc.

The sales floor of the East State Street store in 1967

Rockford’s own Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick fame was featured in this advertising insert from Union Hall in 1981

Union Hall would open a second location in Loves Park in 1978 as the anchor store at the Park Plaza Mall Shopping Center at 6355 North Second Street which they purchased earlier in the same year and turned it into a new concept called an outlet mall.  A year later they would undertake a one million dollar remodeling project of the shopping center that resembled a warehouse by adding bright walls with overhanging plants, they installed large glass walls that allowed customers to see inside the stores as they walked through the mall which created a lively shopping area for visitors. The shopping center was the former Meadow Mart shopping center which was the first of its kind in the Rockford area. It was developed by John M. Giolitto and opened in 1964. It became an enclosed mall in 1967.

Union Hall expanded to Englewood, Colorado in 1983 when they opened Buyers Club Market, a wholesale membership club store similar to Wal-Mart's "Sam's Clubs". They eventually had a few stores in Colorado and California but never had any plans to open a Buyers Club Market store in Rockford. In 1989 the Buyer Market stores were liquidated after it goes through bankruptcy proceedings.

In 1980 Discount Store News would proclaim Union Hall as 95th on its list of "The Top 100; Billion Dollar" discount stores in the country. A pretty big honor for the locally owned two store chain. Union Hall, Inc. spent around six million dollars to expand the Park Plaza Shopping Center and convert the shopping center to a strip mall in 1988-89. The first phase included the expansion and remodeling of the Union Hall store located there. This was followed by removing the mall portion giving stores frontal exposure and entrances facing heavily traveled North Second Street, and giving the entire 200,000 square foot shopping center an updated modern look. Union Hall held a grand reopening of the 80,000 square foot Park Plaza store in September 1988 marking its tenth anniversary at the Loves Park location.

Union Hall had plans in 1987 to open a third Rockford area Union Hall store at the northeast corner of North Rockton Avenue and East Riverside Boulevard. They had planned on building a 65,000 square foot, $2.5 million retail store on a 7.5 acre tract. The store was to include a cafe, pharmacy, bakery and garden shop along with general merchandise and would have parking space for 270 cars. Some Rockton Avenue residents and nearby retailers would oppose the idea citing that a retail store on the property would conflict with residential living, exposing them to more noise, increased traffic hazards and the light from the parking lot lights and signs. Supporters said that it would provide initial construction jobs followed by 150 store employees, boost the sales and property tax bases and provide another shopping destination for west side residents. Petitions were circulated around the area for people who opposed the store to sign, they gathered around 1,300 signatures and presented it to the zoning board, however the Rockford Zoning Board approved the request to build the store on the site as had the Rockford Community Development Department previously and in January 1988 the Rockford City Council also approved the plans. The store was never built as Union Hall decided not to build there as a result of the outcry of the residents. At the time they announced they would look for a similar location to construct the store.

Stuart Bagus in the East State Street Union Hall store in 1987. Rockford Magazine photo

Union Hall had stood against many other discount retailers that came and went in Rockford such as Spartans, Arlan's, Topps, Zayre and Ardan's, and others still in existence including the discount arm of the S. S. Kresge Company's six Kmart stores and Venture. They would soon face another up and coming retail giant, Wal-Mart when they opened their first Rockford store on July 28, 1990. Target Greatland soon followed in 1992. Union Hall changed its store format to emphasize crafts, fishing supplies, cosmetics and several other departments it hoped would develop into a strong niche business. Wal-Mart opens a second Rockford store in April 1993, this one on Northridge Drive near East Riverside, Forest Hills and North Alpine Roads on the site of the former Northridge 4 Movie Theater complex. Union Hall was feeling the effects of the new competition and decided it needed to reinvent itself abandoning its general merchandise format and instead sell off priced name brand merchandise. The store named Bargain$ would open at the East State location the day after Thanksgiving in November 1993, the busiest shopping day of the year. The store would sell manufacturers close outs and other low cost merchandise similar to T. J. Max that sells designer label clothes at 40 to 70 percent off the regular retail price. In addition they sold housewares, toys, sporting goods and hardware.

In February 1994 Union Hall filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and the court documents that were filed revealed that Union Hall, Inc. was $6.8 million in debt, owed to an estimated 968 creditors. The company started liquidating merchandise at the Loves Park store and the store would close shortly afterward. The Rubloff Development Company purchased the Loves Park shopping center from Union Hall, Inc. and later filled the vacant Union Hall Space with retailers, Big Lots, Heilig-Meyers Furniture, Kings Grocery and Dollar General. The remaining store, Bargain$ could no longer survive in a market dominated by the giant national retailers. On November 4, 1994 Bargain$ started a liquidation sale and after almost forty years in Rockford the last remaining part of Union Hall would close in early 1995 ending a local retail icons chapter of history. Union Hall was an early discount department store that was swallowed up by the very industry it helped develop long before. “If it wasn't at Union Hall, You didn't need it."

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