They proclaimed it “Akron’s Greatest Store,” and they weren’t kidding.
Writing by Jeff Davis
It had more floor space than Summit Mall. More than the John S. Knight Center, the downtown library, the West Market Target and the South Arlington Wal-Mart SuperCenter combined. It was the M. O’Neil Company — O’Neil’s — offering anything and everything a shopper ever wanted under one South Main Street roof. It had class, it had charm, and wonderful public transportation dropped you off right at the front door.
As the story goes, Michael M. O’Neil and Isaac J. Dyas, a couple of Irish-born 20-somethings, pooled their relatively short dry-goods business experience in 1877 and opened the O’Neil & Dyas store on East Market Street, in the general vicinity of Summit Art Space — this newspaper’s world headquarters. Audaciously, it was also several blocks from Howard Street, Akron’s retail district at the time. They figured people would find them if their merchandise was cool enough.
People surely did, allowing the partners to soon build a larger store at Main and Mill. After Dyas died, O’Neil carried on as the M. O’Neil Company, finally selling the business to the St. Louis-based May Company in 1912, because his son, William, didn’t want to take over.
While Michael was busy selling suits and hats, son William was busy founding the General Tire Corporation. Dad actually sold the store so he could become president of General Tire.
May Company leaders knew that Grand Department Stores — emphasizing not only quality goods but quality, even luxurious shopping experiences — had become extremely successful in Paris. They brought the idea to Ohio in 1914, in the form of a giant May Co. store situated on Public Square in Cleveland. In 1928, they built an even larger store at the corner of Main and State streets in Akron for their O’Neil’s brand.
When shoppers entered the Akron store, they were in awe. It was bigger than any store they could have imagined. Those few who had been to Paris said it was like the real thing. It had 700,000 square feet of floor space, roughly equivalent to 16 football fields.
Its white terra cotta exterior shone brilliantly in the sun. The expansive sales floor on the first floor absolutely glistened with art deco ornamentation. As one traveled higher in the six-story building (not including the two basement levels) the various departments were designed to be small and intimate, affording each customer a less-hurried experience.
Fine jewelry and watches near the front door lured shoppers deep into the store where they would find separate departments for ladies’ lingerie, hosiery, shoes, ready-to-wear clothing, sportswear, formal wear and coats and hats.
There were departments for men’s suits, furnishings, shoes, and boys and girls clothing. There were fur coats, with summer storage available, a bridal shop, and dedicated areas for Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms and supplies and nurse’s uniforms.
There were huge toy and sporting goods departments. The store sold sheet music and records, with sound-proof listening rooms so shoppers could preview recordings before actually buying them. For the home, one could find furniture, major appliances, kitchen appliances, draperies (which could be installed for you), carpet, linen, fine china and glassware, cutlery, lighting and an interior decorating department.
Handy? Have a hobby? The store had a camera department, pianos and other musical instruments, with music lessons if you wanted them. It sold fabric and patterns, sewing machines. They could teach you to sew. There were art supplies, paint and wallpaper, a stationary shop, and automobile accessories. It even had plumbing and heating supplies.
Every department had a sales desk where a shopper could pay via the store’s revolving credit plan. If an item wasn’t available in a customer’s preferred size or color, the clerk would phone the customer at home when the item was back in stock. If a shopper didn’t care to carry his or her package, it would be delivered within a day or two at no charge by a fleet of the store’s trucks.
The store had a florist, a beauty salon, an optometry department, a bookstore, and a candy shop, as well as a children’s barbershop, shoe repair shop and photo studio.
Shoppers could extend their days with lunch in the white-tablecloth Georgian Room restaurant upstairs or the Oak Grill downstairs. The store’s auditorium was used for civic events. Elevators and wooden escalators transported shoppers between floors.
There was a parking deck in back and bus stops at both the Main Street and State Street doors. It is said that people often had to wait for the second or even third bus at busy times of the day because downtown had so many shoppers. Most didn’t mind the congestion because they had left their homes that morning with every intention of making a day of it. Perhaps an escape for a one-car family member left home alone every day.
Bob Parks of Stow, who retired from O’Neil’s as VP of merchandising for men’s clothing, remembers the inner workings of the store: a pneumatic tube system that allowed paperwork to travel between the selling floors and the back office, an employee cafeteria and quiet rooms where employees could relax or even take a nap on their lunch break.
That seems weird, but May probably borrowed the idea from the world’s oldest department store, Le Bon Marché in Paris, which had a dormitory on its uppermost floor so single ladies working as clerks could arrive at work promptly.
The lowest level of O’Neil’s housed one of the largest print shops in the city, creating everything from signs to mailers to newspaper advertising inserts, Parks remembers.
At one point, the store served as a receiving hub for eight other O’Neil’s stores in the area. Merchandise arrived via truck or the two rail sidings in the rear of the building.
“I had five buyers and many times I would take them down to the docks to unpack cartons of shirts and either send them up the freight elevator to the men’s department or send them out to the other stores in our area,” Parks says.
“For a while, downtown Akron was May Co.’s flagship store. The president worked in Akron because he didn’t want to move to St. Louis,” he says. “But then downtown changed.”
Indeed it did. In the mid-1950s, it was a 5-minute walk from O’Neil’s to two other large department stores, a dozen shoe stores, nine jewelers, eight banks, seven restaurants, six women’s wear stores, five bars, five men’s clothiers, four theaters, three furniture stores, three drug stores, two newsstands, Scott’s dime store, a butcher shop, Sears & Roebuck and more.
Many of these places, of course, eventually moved to the malls. Some gave up and went out of business. Two-thirds of the O’Neil’s building was demolished and replaced with a parking lot.
Cue Joni Mitchell.
Sadly, no one will remember the good times they had shopping online last month, or wax nostalgic about a trip to a big box store. But the memories of O’Neil’s and South Main Street shopping are still with us. And there are still big department stores in Paris.
Jeff Davis is a lifelong resident of the Akron area and is a retired writer, editor, and teacher. Like most Akronites of a certain age, he remembers riding the wooden escalators at O’Neil’s.
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