Downtown Salem. (Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

The city of Salem is now pondering what to do with a big empty space in downtown after JCPenney announced Thursday that it would end its run in the city as part of a nationwide closure of 154 stores.

The closures follow the retailer filing for bankruptcy in May. The company indicated in a statement on its website that the decision was made after analysis of store performance and its retail footprint. Store closing sales for the announced locations are expected to take 10 to 16 weeks to complete, the company said.           

The company set up shop in Salem in 1917 and later became part of a constellation of major national retailers that anchored Salem Center.

JCPenney’s Salem location is part of the Salem Center mall, at 305 Liberty St N.E. Although retailers have been allowed to reopen as part of a relaxing of COVID-19, the store is currently temporarily closed.

Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford said the city will explore all the options it has to help recruit a new tenant or repurpose the building.

“This is a large building in a key downtown location, and it will be unfortunate to have it empty for a period of time,” she said in an email.

Hazel Patton, the interim executive director of the Salem Main Street Association, said that JCPenney has served as an anchor store for downtown. She explained that anchor stores have a strong reputation and attract a variety of people to downtown who then patronize other businesses.

Patton said the retail value of the store can’t be replaced. But she said that the Salem Main Street Association will be holding celebratory events in the winter to encourage people to come downtown.

“I think it’s sad and I’m sorry that they are leaving Salem,” said

Nationally, retailers have been closing locations as more shoppers move online and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Macy’s also announced in February that it will similarly begin closing 125 stores. It’s not clear if the retailer’s Salem location will be included in the closures. Macy’s didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, Salem saw a national retailer leave when Nordstrom pulled out.

News of the store’s demise elicited sad and nostalgic reactions on social media with residents recalling shopping at the store for sometimes decades. Others responded with indifference, noting that much of retail has shifted online.

“I learned about retail and customer service at that store, starting in the catalog department, makes me sad to see it go but the bonds I formed there are still strong and it's the people I will remember,” said Linda Parker on Facebook.

“What memory don't I have there(?)” said Kimberly Dwyer on Facebook. “Seriously though. From Christmas time to Work clothes to back to school shopping.”

“I haven’t been to the store for years, but it is still sad to see it go,” said Susann Kaltwasser on Facebook. “Let’s face it, retail is changing world-wide. Be interesting to see what takes its place.”

Old newspaper clippings show the store was popular enough to warrant multiple remodels and eventually a new building.

A December 1916 article in the Statesman Journal said preliminary work had begun on a JCPenney syndicate store, The Golden Rule.

“It will be one story high of light, pressed brick with double entrance and vestibule,” the article said.

In 1940, the area’s merchandiser on 160 Liberty St. N. was touted as the “most modern Penney store.”

News of the store’s grand opening filled the front page of the Nov. 13, 1940 edition of the Capital Journal.

The store had three floors and was “streamlined throughout the interior, generously lighted and equipped with new counters and cabinets of blond maple,” according to an article in the Capital Journal.

In 1965, Salem opened a new JCPenney store at northeast Liberty and Chemeketa Streets that would later become one of the anchors of Salem Center along with the Meier and Frank Department store, now a Macy’s. 

At the time, the store manager said he was pleased to see throngs of people moving through the store’s three levels of merchandise, according to a Statesman Journal article on Jan. 7, 1965.

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