REPRINTS


Mari-Mad's – A Specialty Store Started Half A Century Ago
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society
Originally published in a Hartford Courant "Discover Manchester" section, September 2004

Fifty years ago, Mari-Mad's Youth Specialty Shop opened in Downtown Manchester. Many shoppers remember its handsome clothes, organized shelves, and proprietors Mary Fournier, now deceased, and her sister Madeline Matheny. "Mari-Mad's" combines the first names of Mary and Madeline.

The store started out at 691 Main Street, and moved in 1975 to the 1926 one-story building at 757 Main Street, which once housed Fradin's Clothing Store, "specializing in women's apparel and millinery," and Kemp's Music House. Today, the Fradin-Kemp Block operates as two different businesses. Madeline still owns the north side of the building, and the Optical Style Bar, the oldest Downtown business, owns the south side.

Madeline says, "The retail trade was bred into me!" Her family, the Ferrises, operated a small department store. Their father, nicknamed "Petit Baptiste" for his calmness and generosity, had come to America from Lebanon in the late 1890s. He worked as a peddler, going on foot from the Springfield area to Northampton, selling his wares. He would stay overnight along his route, where various families offered him hospitality. A few years later, his wife came over from Lebanon – she remembered coming into New York and seeing the city draped in black after President William McKinley's assassination in September 1901.

When Madeline's uncle came over, the two brothers got together and opened Ferris's Department Store in Chicopee, Massachusetts. "They came up the hard way," said Madeline, and had to work hard to make a success of their business.

The Ferrises had nine children, four girls and five boys. All of them finished high school and college or business school. Among the siblings, one brother became a doctor, and one a dentist. Madeline became a teacher, and taught for eight years in West Virginia and Massachusetts.

The oldest sister, Elizabeth Alonzo, now age 100, had established her own children's clothing shop in Westfield, Massachusetts. She encouraged Madeline to consider a retail store, and eventually the two youngest sisters decided to strike out on their own.

With her children then aged two and four, Madeline was ready to take the risk, despite "knowing well the amount of hard work that went into the retail business."

From the beginning, Mari-Mad's thrived. Customers responded well to the wide variety of merchandise, which Madeline and Mary purchased on frequent buying trips to New York. They took the train to the City, and headed for the garment district. Madeline said they always sought "the highest quality clothes and best brand names."

The store's grand opening advertisement in the July 21, 1954 Manchester Herald says:

• Mayor Bowers will open the store to the public ... tomorrow at 10 a.m. Mari-Mad's ... has a complete stock of famous name youth and infants' clothing at popular prices.
• You'll agree it's back to school with Mari-Mad's.... Our newly furnished and gaily decorated interior will make your visit here a real pleasure.

From other early advertisements:

• School girl dresses, $3.98 and up. The most luscious collection of dresses ever to say hello to a new semester! Skirts $3.95 and up, size 7-14. Blouses, $2.98 and up. – Herald, August 4, 1954.
• There's spring enchantment in our Boys' and Girls' coats. Size 1-4, $8.95 and up. Size 3-6, $11.95 and up. – Herald, March 2, 1955.

Mari-Mad's invited charge accounts, using a system of 3x5" cards. No plastic credit cards were needed – the staff knew the customers' names and wrote the charges on file cards kept in a box on the counter.

Generally, the orders would arrive in huge boxes. They would be brought into the basement for tags, before stocking in the main-level store, described in one advertisement as having "new counters and new fixtures ... making our store the most modern in Manchester."

Over the years, the sisters took pride in the "tasteful d้cor and display" of the merchandise, and "plenty of help for the customers." This pride in quality made it difficult to run the store in the late 1980s. Madeline found it was increasingly hard to hire and retain staff. "I enjoyed my store! And I wanted the customers to get the very best service. But I couldn't get the help I needed."

Madeline decided to close the store, and ran a liquidation sale from September to December 1987. The store closed in early 1988. Madeline has been enjoying her retirement, and continues to live in Manchester, where she frequently runs into the different generations of Mari-Mad's customers, as well as their children and grandchildren.