Sunday, August 16, 2020

We'd Like to Make Big Lots Your Store!


Zayre #624 / Ames #2624 / Big Lots #509
308 State Route 312, St. Augustine, FL - Riverside Center

     Continuing the theme from last weekend on AFB, our St. "August"-ine series continues only a few steps away from the store that was the subject my last AFB post. I touched on today's store briefly in that post about the former St. Augustine Albertsons, but we'll spend today looking at the plaza's former Zayre in much more detail. For the most part, of the 80 or so locations Zayre had in Florida prior to the chain's sale to Ames in 1988, the vast majority of these buildings have either been demolished or remodeled beyond recognition. There are a handful of buildings still floating around the state that are quite recognizable as a former Zayre (like this one), but beyond some exterior details, that's usually the extent of what you'll find from the remains of Zayre in Florida. At least, so I thought. I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to check out this former Zayre in more detail, having a little extra time after documenting the next-door Albertsons, getting just a little more than I bargained for...

     But before we get into the fun part of this post, let me recap the history of this particular store. Zayre opened this location in St. Augustine in 1987, only a year before the chain would be sold to rival Ames. With its 1987 opening date, this was not only one of the last new-build Zayre stores to open in Florida, but probably one of the last new Zayre stores to open anywhere in the country. While Zayre's Florida stores were fairly isolated from the rest of the chain (with Zayre's main operating area being the Northeast and Midwest, although Zayre did have some Southeastern US outposts in North Carolina and Atlanta), Florida became a very successful market for Zayre, and remained successful all the way until the chain's demise. Zayre entered Florida early on in the 1960's, and by the time of the chain's demise, the company operated 83 Florida locations in every corner of the state, from Key West all the way to Pensacola - nearly one quarter of Zayre's entire store base. Unlike many of the Northeastern chains that jumped down to Florida to die a bitter, painful death, Zayre was quite successful, blanketing Florida with stores and even a distribution center. After the Ames buyout in 1988, most of the remaining Zayre stores were to be converted to Ames. Ames was a newcomer to Florida after the sale, Ames' closest stores to Florida at the time of the Zayre purchase being located in Virginia. While Zayre had a solid Floridian presence, Ames wouldn't be able to make anything of it. Ames' purchase of Zayre was an act of zeal, with Ames wanting nothing more than to be one of the largest discount chains in the nation. Ames wasn't in the financial position to buy a chain as large as Zayre, and because of the amount of debt Ames assumed from the purchase, within a year, Ames was bankrupt. With the bankruptcy, Ames announced the closure of 221 stores in early 1990, including all of the newly acquired Zayre stores in Florida. Florida was a bit far-flung from Ames' core Northeastern store base, so geographically, it had to go in the bankruptcy. Since Ames was only in Florida for a little over a year, they never had the time to properly convert all of the Zayre stores they bought to the new nameplate (although according to Ames' early plans, they were going to keep the Zayre name alive in some markets). Even though some stores were converted to Ames, from the description in that linked article, the conversions were nothing more than a new sign on the front of the building (which makes sense considering Ames' financial position post-sale). While Ames would eventually survive their bankruptcy from the purchase of Zayre (emerging as a much smaller chain), Ames' zeal would eventually kill the chain in 2002, when a late 90's purchase of the troubled discounter Hills propelled Ames to become the nation's 4th largest discounter, a title Ames held until their Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing a few short years later.

     After Ames left Florida in 1990, their former store in St. Augustine was split between Big Lots, Dockside Imports, and Bealls Outlet. Big Lots and Bealls Outlet still operate from the building today, although Dockside Imports has since been replaced by Harbor Freight Tools. Harbor Freight heavily remodeled their portion of the building upon moving in, and Bealls Outlet also conducted a major remodel of their store in recent years. So that leaves us with Big Lots, whose sliver of the old Zayre will be the subject of this post. While the building has received exterior upgrades in the years since Zayre left, the basic shape of the building is still the same, with Big Lots using Zayre's original entryway (unmodified in design too, that design recognizable in the image above).

     Stepping into Zayre's original entryway, the doors into Big Lots are the ones furthest to the left, with an unused (presumably original to Zayre) set of doors to the right of that.

     At the far end of the vestibule is this covered window, complete with another unused door. The space behind the covered window seen here is not a part of Big Lots - either part of Harbor Freight is behind that window, or behind there is an unused sliver of the building between Big Lots and Harbor Freight. I didn't go into Harbor Freight, so I can't confirm what the situation is here. Regardless, this window is probably original to Zayre.

     Stepping into Big Lots, it's easy to tell you're entering a chopped up building. Big Lots has a very narrow entryway space, most of which is blocked by the service desk. You have to walk through a narrow passage on the side of the service desk to get into the store itself, leading us to this view down Big Lots' right side wall (the partition between it and Harbor Freight).

     Stepping inside, I noticed Big Lots floors were rather old looking. Since Big Lots was never keen on ripping up and replacing the floors of buildings they took over many years ago (specifically in the chain's early days - this Big Lots opened in the early/mid-90's, and is one of the oldest Big Lots stores remaining in Florida), I had a hunch these floors may have been original to Zayre...

     ...and while I know absolutely nothing about what the interior of a Zayre looked like, when I turned and saw the orange striped actionway borders spanning Big Lots' portion of the building, that confirmed it for me - that's a Zayre relic! While I can't provide specifics on the layout of a Zayre or what exactly their decor looked like (although this commercial gives us a small glimpse of the inside of a Zayre in the late 80's), I do know they had an orange and brown color scheme in their stores, and that's exactly the color pattern of the floor here. Considering almost every former Zayre building in Florida has been remodeled beyond recognition or demolished in the 30+ years since the chain went defunct, I thought this floor pattern was a cool find.

     Flooring aside, the above photo looks across the front of Big Lots space, from the front registers into the front left corner of the store. I never got a very good photo depicting awkward entrance setup into this store (although there is a photo toward the end of this post that will hopefully show it a little better), but immediately to my left was the narrow corridor that took shoppers around the service desk and into the store.

     Going off the layouts of other discounters, I want to say Big Lots takes up the slice of building where Zayre would have had its clothing departments, but I have nothing to back that up besides my own guesstimating. The St. Augustine Big Lots still has a very strong 80's discount store vibe to it, although I think the old floors really help with that feeling.

     Here's a look down the store's left side wall, home to Big Lots' assortment of hardlines departments (toys, hardware, seasonal, pets, electronics, etc.). Housewares were located on the other side of the store, with grocery/health and beauty aisles in the middle.

     Some more Zayre striping making its appearance in this photo, under the display of patio furniture in the back left corner of the store. That striping marks the dead end of the back actionway in the corner.

     More Zayre tile striping, this time in close-up form.

     Leaving the patio furniture department, here's a look across the back of the store. The furniture department takes up a good amount of space in the back of the building, although the department seemed small and cramped compared to furniture departments at other Big Lots stores.

     As if the original floors weren't enough for our 80's vibe, how about a giant round air diffuser on the ceiling to enhance the feel?!

     From within the furniture department, here's a different perspective as we look across the back of the store (where yet another giant air diffuser decided to crash the photo!).

     And for this photo, I managed to get the orange striping and a giant air diffuser in the same image. Now if only the couches in the photo looked more like this, we could have had a lot of 80's going on in here!

     Stepping over one more aisle, here we can see Zayre's back actionway dead end at the partition wall, trying to lead shoppers to departments that no longer exist.

     Here's one last photo from the furniture department, looking up the partition wall toward the front of the store.

     As we work our way out, here's one final view of Zayre's old flooring from the grocery aisles. Up ahead that orange stripe turns to the left, and will take us out of here.

     Heading out, here's my best photo showing the weird entrance into Big Lots. Immediately out of frame to my left is a wall, with the service desk to my right, followed by a register or two. This little aisle is the main path into the store, so if someone ever opens that register at the right side of my image, it becomes very easy for a line of people to block the main path for people to enter the store. When you inherit a space from someone else you sometimes have to work with what you have, but this was just odd (at least to me).

     Before heading back outside, here's a look down the small corridor to the side of Big Lots' main entrance. As typical for these late-era Zayre stores, this corridor contained the bathrooms, and is a very recognizable design for identifying old Zayre stores. Those brown tiles on the wall by the bathroom doors are probably original to Zayre too, but I never actually stepped down the corridor to investigate any further for additional relics.

     For a building that hasn't housed a Zayre in 30 years, it's quite amazing any of the relics we saw today even exist. Thankfully Big Lots wasn't as thorough with their renovations back in the mid-90's as they are today with their new stores. If Big Lots opened in this space today, they would have totally gutted and rebuilt the space!

     To finish out tour, here's a parting shot of the former St. Augustine Zayre, as seen from the walkway of the attached shopping center. I didn't think I was going to find much of anything from Zayre when I first pulled into this place, but I like it when my low expectations are surpassed in the end!

     Since we're in a Zayre state of mind, I feel this is a good time to dig into my bag collection to feature this nice piece of Zayre memorabilia I own. Found at an estate sale, this late 80's Zayre bag is one of my personal favorites, and a bag I was hoping to find for years. On the bag is Zayre's final logo, (which would have been where Big Lots' logo is now on the building), and the company's final tagline, "We'd like to make Zayre your store!" This bag fits in nicely with everything we saw today, and is a great note to end this post on!

      While that's all I have for now, be sure to return to AFB next Sunday for the final installment of my St. "August"-ine series. Like this post, there are plenty of relics from the 80's at our next destination, so be sure to stop by to see those!

So until the next post,



  1. Although I've read a lot about Zayre, Ames, Caldor, and other chains like that, I really don't have any personal experience with them since we didn't have them here in the Houston area. It's neat to take a look at one of their former stores which probably still has some original Zayre features like that flooring. The orange stripe happens to match Big Lots' own colors so I suppose it works.

    I'm a little surprised to see that Zayre was still using those big, round HVAC registers in the late 1980s. I'm thinking Kmart was switching to other designs by then, but I'm not positive about that. While we had a lot of 1990s Kmarts and 1960s/1970s/very early 1980s Kmarts in Houston, we didn't have that many from the middle and late 1980s. Anyway, it's nice to see a discount store icon like that still hanging up there.

    I'm glad that you cover Big Lots fairly extensively on this blog. While their transition from a closeouts store to a general discount store has taken some of their quirkiness away, there are still a lot of retail relics at various Big Lots locations and they are pretty useful these days as an alternative to busy discount stores without having to deal with the Dollar General/Family Dollar stores of the world.

    I'm not sure how Big Lots entered Florida. Here in Houston, they entered via buyout. We had a chain of closeout stores pop up in Houston in the late 1980s called Pic-N-Save. One opened up locally to me in an ex-Greenhouse Kroger in the late 1980s and it was full of low-grade Chinese made goods at a time when stores like Wal-Mart and Kmart didn't have many Chinese products. Eventually in the early 1990s, Pic-N-Save was renamed MacFrugal's. Eventually, the company behind MacFrugal's was acquired by Big Lots in the late 1990s or early 2000s and MacFrugal's were renamed again to Big Lots. As far as I can recall, all the old MacFrugal's locations still remain as Big Lots in this part of Houston, but Big Lots has opened some new stores as well. We have quite a few of them around here, but the local one to me is still the one in the old Kroger and it has changed very little from the Pic-N-Save days when it opened in the late 1980s.

    The ex-Kroger MacFrugal's was sandwiched in between a Kmart which moved in 1997 and became a Hobby Lobby. I discussed this location in a comment on the last AFB post. The other neighbor was a hilariously named local clothing store chain called Weiner's. When I was in school, Weiner's was always the source for jokes as you can well imagine. They went out of business in the late 1990s, but they made a last ditch effort to try to save the business by embracing the awkwardness of their name. This led to some very strange low-budget TV commercials which have to be seen to be believed. Some of the 1990s fashions in here will really make you laugh!

    The Weiner's is now a local dollar store.

    There is another local Big Lots in a shopping center which used to have a small mall corridor running through the middle of it. The mall was called North Oaks Mall. A small portion of the mall which leads to a very, very vintage 1970s dollar theater still exists. Big Lots is on this small corridor and they still have (or at least had as of a few years ago) an old MacFrugal's sign on the old mall entrance which they no longer use. It's a pretty cool relic. Je of the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog did a post about it a few years ago:

    1. The only one of the big, much talked about Northeastern discount chains I have any memory of is Ames (and vaguely Hills, which is what my childhood Ames store used to be). All the others either went out before my time, or never operated in the area of the Northeast where I spent my first few years before moving to Florida. Even though I have no personal recollection or experience with Zayre, it's still fun to have this small look back at what one of their stores were like, and yes, the orange floor accents do fit in with Big Lots' color scheme too - a happy coincidence.

      It was sometime in the mid-1980's when Kmart switched from the big round air diffusers to the square ones, based on the few pictures I have looking inside mid to late 80's Kmart stores in my archives. Zayre's use of those was probably at the tail end of their popularity, but those things are definitely a classic discount store feature.

      I find Big Lots to be a fairly interesting chain to document, especially when it comes to visiting the buildings they've repurposed throughout the years (as a good retail/supermarket conversion is something I enjoy, as those conversions really catch my interest, trying to find pieces of the past lurking about). I think removing their focus from closeouts was a bit of a mistake (as Big Lots is the company that made closeout shopping a big thing at the national level), and they still can't seem to make up their mind on what merchandise to sell or get rid of (for example, office supplies were eliminated about a year ago, but were recently brought back. Also, Big Lots is bringing clothing back to their stores this fall after a 10 year hiatus too). Big Lots was much more fun to shop at when they were "The Closeout Store", but even their new format comes in handy from time to time when not wanting to deal with the larger stores. I have plenty more Big Lots tours in my archives though, and it's amazing how their older stores vary so much.

      Big Lots entered Florida naturally in the early 1990's, starting with stores around Jacksonville and Pensacola and heading southward from there. The MacFrugal's purchase brought Big Lots a larger presence in South Florida though, where MacFrugal's had a small cluster of stores. I do know the MacFrugal's deal is what finally made Big Lots a national retailer, as MacFrugals got Big Lots into many parts of Western US for the first time. Many of the old MacFrugal's still exist as Big Lots stores down in Miami, although many of those are quite small compared to the stores Big Lots wants to operate today (with more room for furniture).

      Those commercials for Weiner's were certainly strange - very 90's, and very low budget too, which I feel made the effect even better! I really wonder what the meetings in Weiner's marketing department were like...

      North Oaks Mall is quite interesting too. It's very much a time warp, and that's really neat seeing the old MacFrugal's sign still intact too - on an operational Big Lots, no less!

  2. Cool find indeed with the tile! Awesome bag to have in your collection, too. And thanks for the history on Zayre and Ames. I'm not terribly familiar with those (unlike everyone else, it seems!), so that was helpful. Interesting that Ames was going to keep the Zayre name intact at some Florida locations.

    1. Glad you liked it, and you're welcome! While Ames is all the rage with the Northeastern retail folk, to us in the Southeast, it's a rather foreign name to most! Glad you found the information on Zayre and Ames helpful. It would have been interesting to see what Ames would have done with the Florida stores had they lasted longer (and if they would have gone through with keeping the Zayre name around in some places). Sadly though, Ames' purchase of Zayre seemed to be doomed from the start.

  3. Nice article AFB! Despite claiming myself as "The Ames Historian", I somehow never knew that Ames was in Florida, despite knowing about the Zayre acquisition (this is probably due to Ames's very short lifespan in the state). I'm not surprised that they didn't last long. They had more brand loyalty in their original Northeast market compared to down south. Also if we're going for the 80's store theme, the fluorescent lights fit in perfectly!

    1. Thanks! Ames was only in Florida for a year, so they're stay in Florida is easily missed (and forgotten) by most. Like I said in the post, Ames was gone so fast, some of the Zayre stores never formally converted to the new brand by the time the bankruptcy hit. Florida was a very isolated market for Ames, so getting rid of those stores right away in the time of financial distress wasn't much of a surprise. Still though, this place is a nice throwback to the glory days of the discount store!

  4. Hi. I asked my dad and my grandmother about Zayre and Ames and both my dad and my grandmother give me information on Zayre. Dad's town had a Zayre that opened up in 1970 and my grandmother (my dad's mom) said it was an L shaped plaza anchored by a local supermarket and Zayre. Grandmom said it had 3 other Zayre divisions, a Spree! Toys, a Hit or Miss clothing store and Beaconway Fabric. It had 3 other stores, a barbershop, a restaurant and a local bank.

    Dad told me that the Zayre was where he got his $150 Huffy in 1979. (He had it until someone stole it in 2009) and it was Zayre most profitable store. The plaza is still active with a Petsmart in the Zayre, TJ Maxx, Home Depot and ShopRite Supermarket.

    Dad said the orange stripes were Zayre signature...After Ames took it over, it was still profitable, but not #1. Ames headquarters was about 20 miles from dad's hometown. Dad said Ames knew it needed to grow but they took over too many ailing stores. Hills and Jamesway were two that they shouldn't bought. 7 years before they closed, they were bigger than WalMart, Target and Kohl's. (Ames was smaller than Caldor and Bradlees).

    I like your blog. Interesting to find out about old shopping centers and old stores. Thanks. Hope I gave you some info on Zayre and Ames.

    By the way, if you want to check out a place, dad said in Winter Haven there was a Zayre and Kash N Karry in a shopping center near Chain O Lakes Park, an Southgate Shopping center near there with a Winged Publix and in LAke Sales, a Southgate with a Winged Publix.

  5. Wow I've always loved to find old school buildings of Zayre in Birmingham, Al cause the former Zayre building on Greensprings Hwy was made into Big Lots and there was once a former Zayre on Huffman Rd was once a Big Lots but they shuttered in the early 2000's

  6. Can't forget the zayre locations in orlando on west colonial Dr. And a colonial Dr.