Closing of Janesville JCPenney store stirs memories
JANESVILLE—Merchandise was just beginning to roll in when Joseph Viertel walked into the new JCPenney store at the Janesville Mall for the first time.
“I remember how empty the floor and the walls were,” he said of the day in July 1975, about three months before the store opened.
A few days ago, Viertel walked into the store again to find a similar sight for a different reason.
“I saw empty floors and empty walls, with a few fixtures scattered about,” he said. “I guess what goes around comes around.”
The store closes at the end of the day Saturday, May 3, after 39 years at the mall location.
For former employees like Viertel, the ending stirs fond memories and deep sadness. He worked 29 years at the Janesville store as the visual and advertising manager before retiring in 2004.
“I went back to the store for one more look around,” Viertel said. “I did not expect it to be quite so empty. It is a place that has been near and dear to me for all those years.”
The Janesville man considers himself lucky to have had a long JCPenney career, which began in 1970 at a store near Oshkosh. After transferring to Janesville, he coordinated the store's advertising and made sure that store displays were attractive to customers.
“It was an exciting and wonderful career,” Viertel said. “I enjoyed every minute of it. We are losing a real spirit of the American way.”
Viertel is not alone in his enthusiasm for a once solid store that was a mainstay of local shopping.
Bill Moxley spent 42 years with the JCPenney Company and was manager at the Janesville store from 1982 until 1999. At one time, he had 186 employees.
“I was surprised and disappointed when I heard that Janesville would be among the five stores closing in Wisconsin,” Moxley said. “I know how good a store it was.”
Moxley's JCPenney career began in Brookfield, Missouri, while he was still in high school. After graduation, he worked full time at a store, which looked much like the old JCPenney in downtown Janesville.
“There was a balcony upstairs, where change was made,” Moxley explained. “There was no money on the floor. You put money into a metal can and pulled a string for it to go upstairs, where they made change. Later, the system was updated with vacuum tubes.”
Janesville's first JCPenney store opened in 1922 at 32 S. Main St. In October 1975, it moved to the Janesville Mall.
While in Missouri, Moxley met James Cash Penney Jr., who founded the JCPenney chain in 1913.
“He was just as friendly a guy as you would want to meet,” Moxley said. “He was a man you could easily converse with. He would spend all day on the floor talking to customers. If a customer wasn't carrying a package on the way out, he would ask if there was something the customer needed that the store did not have.”
When Moxley moved to Janesville in 1982 to manage the mall store, he bought the house of the former store manager. He recalls when the store had fishing, camera and catalog departments. At one time, it even had a restaurant and an auto center.
Moxley appreciated the autonomy he had to buy his own merchandise for many years.
“It made you run the store as if it were your own,” he said. “I was fortunate. I always said I had the best merchandisers of anyone in Wisconsin.”
He is grateful for a career he loved.
“I'll never forget anything that went on in my years with the company,” he said. “It was a career made for me.”
Like so many, he was surprised when he heard about the store's closing.
"I'm sure every store closing feels the same way,” Moxley said. “But this was a Middle America store. It is shocking and sad.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org