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The Apocalyptic Architecture of One 1970s Retail Chain (atlasobscura.com)
303 points by yaseen-rob 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Wow, I really like some of those. I'm surprised that I've never even heard of that company.

There are more pictures available at the source: http://www.siteenvirodesign.com/content/best-products

There are such cool designs that it's a shame nobody nowadays tries anything similar.

You would be surprised :)

There's a company called WonderWorks that embodies this style


These existed?

There's one there that's a parking lot that ripples and the store is under the ripples, and it's only shown as a model. I'm guessing that one was never built, because it looks really dangerous and confusing for drivers.

I remember the one in Sacramento, with the corner that slid in and out. I didn't know there were others at the time, nor did I realize how unusual an architectural experiment it really was.

I grew up in Richmond and thought the Best location there was an anomaly. It was so cool though. The picture doesn't do it justice. When you walk between the gap from the front of the building to the entrance it felt like you were in a terrarium. Because of the gap there was such a distinctive earthy, peaty smell to the whole thing. I did not understand how rare a design was at the time.

Interesting fact: Sydney (who ran the company) and his wife Francis Lewis (an art collector) from what I understand had an unfathomably large amount of modern art located somewhere under Richmond, Va. They have a wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts named after them and donated quite a bit of art to the museum.

I also grew up in Richmond, and in fact my dad worked at Best. The corporate headquarters up in Ashland had a really impressive collection of modern art.

Paid my way through college working for Best.

It was minimum wage. $3.05/hr at the time, unloading 60 ft trailers in 100 degree heat in the late summer. That notwithstanding we actually had medical/dental and paid vacation time.

Often thought if they'd made it longer, it was a pretty close approximation to online shopping. Look at an example on the floor and then order from the warehouse upstairs.

> Look at an example on the floor and then order from the warehouse upstairs.

So.. like Ikea?

Sorta. At Ikea (at least near me), you have to go find the items on the warehouse shelf yourself, and bring them to the registers still.

At Best (and Service Merchandise) you collected tickets for the items you wanted and brought those up to the front. They'd enter your order, you'd pay and wait. The items would be picked and sent on a conveyor to the front.

Probably the most successful example of this approach was Service Merchandise (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_Merchandise).

Never heard of them, but reading the link, yes same idea.

So like Argos?

Do Argos' have showrooms or open floors? My experience, 10 years back, was limited to a looking through a catalogue, punching in a barcode into their stock checking device, and waiting for our number to appear on the screen in the waiting area after having paid.

Very small and incomplete ones. It does sound like the Best store was slightly different in its model, more like an Ikea/Argos cross.

Better than Ikea, then.

More like Service Merchandise, if you remember those...

The author of the article thought so.

> ... They owned Best Products, a catalogue retailer that sold discounted goods in hybrid showroom/warehouses (sort of like Ikea). Selling everything from hair dryers to toaster ovens to doll-houses, they were proto-big box stores ...

As a millennial, the idea of paying your way through college on $3.05/hr is mind blowing

$3.05 in 1974, for example, would be about $15.59 today, after adjusting for inflation. What is so mind-blowing about it?

For context: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/the-my...

> A credit hour in 1979 at MSU was 24.50, adjusted for inflation that is 79.23 in today dollars. One credit hour today costs 428.75.

Honestly, paying your way through college for on $15.59 an hour is still pretty brutal.

Average college cost $25k/year: https://www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tm...

That's about 1600 hours at $15.60, or 40 x 40-hour weeks. So you need to work most of a year to pay the tuition for a year. And this doesn't account for your living expenses, taxes etc.

You can't really compare an inflation-adjusted income from the 1970s to college tuition today, though, because tuitions have been increasing faster than inflation for a good long while now.

Here's an infographic that does a more detailed comparison: https://college-education.procon.org/view.resource.php?resou...

Depends on where and the type of school you go to. For example, average in-state tuition in GA is $10,183.

Are you being deliberately obtuse to be rude?

Clearly the parent post was contemplating making $3.05 an hour in terms of today’s cost of living, just as I might contemplate how crazy it sounds to pay 5¢ a gallon for gas.

For context, you need the cost of tuition.

My first quarter at Cal Poly was about $90 if I recall correctly. Books were $150. Commuted to school and lived with my parents, who charged me small amount of "rent".

It was close to $400 a quarter near the end.

Basically in the 70s and before you could work 8 weeks during the summer and have enough to cover the basics for the school year, room/board /tuition /books.

I was in school at Virginia Tech from '82 to '87. My summer jobs were able to pay for about 1/3 of the total cost of college.

Nowadays, I imagine it would be more like 1/10 or less.

found a receipt from Univ. of Houston on Twitter: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DkiDeV8UcAADv1j.jpg

Cost for the courses and parking etc. for 1 semester was $152.50 . I guess the student had to buy some books also - so say, even $100 in books would take it to $252.50 ?

And 1975 minimum wage was $2.10/hour. So ~ 120 hours of labor (1 month) was enough to cover tuition and books.

I was in school from 1993-1997. My summer job (full-time @ $5/hour) paid for about 13% of the total costs and about 38% of the after-scholarships cost.

There was an electronics retailer in my country who did this. It worked great for a few decades but online shopping killed it.

A website has unlimited shelf space, physical retail doesn't. And e commerce has now been pretty much perfected with free next day delivery and internet banking.

I've never heard of Best, but it sounds like it was like Service Merchandise?

From the descriptions above they do sound similar.

I last remember going to Best in the early 90s somewhere in Northern Virginia. I have a boom-box CD player I got there, IIRC. The CD player doesn't work much, but 99% of time I just have a phone or tablet plugged into a cassette adapter, and it still sounds great.

Best was replaced by Circuit City over the course of the 80s and early 90s and now that niche is filled by Best Buy, at least here in the mid-Altantic east coast.

I was telling someone about Best the other day. They show my hometown store in Sacramento. It looked like the corner had exploded out. I always thought that was just a one-off and it was only that particular store with the weird architecture. I had never been to another Best.

They had a weird business model too as I (barely) recall. You didn't usually go there and buy a product and take it home. It was a showroom for products that were in a catalog. You would order what you wanted from the catalog and then come back a few days later and they would have it for you. I bought a calculator watch there in grade school, which was very exciting. However the experience was so odd, even for that time, that I never bought anything else from them.

The Best showrooms that were in Northern VA operated in that the store was arranged similar to a WalMart or Target today (rows of shelves), but instead of taking your item from that shelf, you wrote down its catalog number on a slip (an 'order form' as it were). You'd then go up front to stand in line and pay for the items on your slip at a cashier, whereupon the catalog numbers were entered into their system. This resulted in your products arriving up from a basement (or down from a 2nd floor depending on which store) warehouse on a conveyor belt to a 'pickup area' (reminiscent of an airport luggage carousel, only with employees working the conveyor belt). Those employees would then hand your items to you and you would leave with them.

B&H Photo in Manhattan is still like that.

I think high-end photography is conducive to that style of operation, though. Handling the photographic items, and carrying them around the store, would likely lead to damage before sale, if things were left out in the open on the sales floor.

"Service Merchandise" in the Detroit area was like that too.

But at a Service Merchandise they had the showroom items in stock usually. You'd place an order and go to a line to pick it up, right?

(My memory is a little shady. They were around when I was a kid and had gone under by the time I was a teenage).

At least for the Northern VA stores, they had the items in stock such that any 'wait' was only for the stock pickers on the warehouse floor (basement or 2nd, depending on the actual store) to find and deliver the items to the conveyor that took them up (down) to the "customer delivery counter" (my name, I don't remember anymore what Best called the counter where they handed your items over to you).

I believe "Service Merchandise" was nationwide - they used to have a reasonably solid Christmas catalog up into the early 90's. Them and Sears and J.C. Penney's, I would spend hours leafing through them during the Christmas season - so many cool toys.

Argos in the UK had (has? I have no idea) a similar model

It does. I still find it useful because I can check online if they have something or not, reserve it if they do (they text a reservation number), then pay and pick-up in-store within ten minutes. I'm not obliged to buy, they just reserve the item until close of business that day.

Argos also had its start in the 1970's and has been going strong, adapting to the marketplace with no major upsets since then.

Curiously Argos was owned by Big Tobacco for many years. I wonder how helpful that was during a time when retail was far from easy due to inflation, high interest rates, no EPOS and big changes to VAT, import tariffs and other taxation.

Much like how illegal drug businesses have front companies that don't have to make money but allow illegal money to be laundered into the legitimate economy, I wonder if Argos worked like that, enabling their owners to repatriate untaxed earnings. If some type of financial engineering went on then that could explain why Argos survived whereas Best didn't.

Argos was originally a rebrand of the Green Shield Stamps catalogue, I think after Tesco stopped giving out stamps. Co Op stopped giving Co Op stamps about the same time. The Embassy Cigarette catalogue was possibly the last points catalogue survivor!

All the old Green Shield shops became the first Argos shops, and worked very much the same as they always had, just without the stamps. For the first few years you could trade old stamps.

And Toolstation. It's not an uncommon model.

It's like almost every Apple Store works (when you're buying more than just accessories).

Yes, that sounds right. I think the particular case with my watch was somewhat unusual and what you describe was the more common situation.

IKEA in France works the same way

I remember Best, but mostly from the dying days. There was one in my So Cal hometown with the later staggered red letter logo but it was just a regular strip mall anchor store, not these gloriously inspired monstrosities. Sometimes corporations can have a sense of the delightful.

I remember them from their acquisition of Labelle's. They really cheaped out on that store and went out of business not long after. Labelle's was all class, and Best was not.

I remember Labelle's for the amazing article in the Grand Forks Herald describing their parking lot as some nightmare creation of a clearly insane civil engineer and a drunk mathematician. To bad the article is before the flood, and they didn't seem to understand the concept of backups.

How will Apple Stores age when they’ve outlived their usefulness? Will they fade into the walls and disappear from the landscape, or will other businesses move into them but continue to live on in the same spirit as old Pizza Huts?

When Apple stores close, there are specialists called in to use mallets to destroy the floors and displays. (Saw this on Reddit, can't find a source at the moment sadly.)

My mother was an art and architecture historian in the Edinburgh college of art in the 60s, 70s and 80s and I recall her showing me these, in a very fine book of the architect.

I think a degree of playfulness in buildings is good. Sometimes you want clean lines and minimalism but sometimes you get a better connection to people by doing these things.

I have no sense if they actually were functionally easy to maintain and workable but they certainly stood out in my mind. I recognized the frontage immediately, from a book I haven't seen in over thirty years.

I hadn't thought of suburban strip mall like stores as an opportunity like that but there they are big buildings being built and rebuilt all the time. Too bad we don't have anyone willing to try such things now.

I need to get on my city planning board (or whomever approves these things) and set a "no normal buildings" rule.

Not exactly an architectural masterpiece but Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati is home to whole lot of second hand amusement park kitsch.



That's fun stuff.

I remember when silly roadside attractions like just a big chicken were a big deal tom me as a kid.

Not enough of that these days. Or at least I think we need more.

Fry's brick and mortar stores might be the closest thing. There's one that has a flying saucer crashed into it.

I’ve seen an Alice in Wonderland themed one and an Atlantis store (complete with giant aquariums). They have another one but I think the theme is a musty dimly lit electronics store with questionable returned merchandise restocking policies.

> with questionable returned merchandise restocking policies

Heh, I got an mp3 player new from Fry's once.

It came with a large number of songs.

The Roseville one has a train motif complete with steam locomotive coming out over the entrance.

Not sure that's earthquake ready.

Naturally Vegas has a slot machine.

In the context of that and the earlier mention of planning boards, the history of the Headington Shark in Oxford, U.K. might prove to be interesting reading for those unaware of it.

The one in Austin Texas ("Live Music Capital of the World") appropriately has a grand piano on it.

There was a Best that opened near me when I was growing up. It was in Lawrenceville, NJ. It wasn't as cool as some of these. It was just kind of a square building, but the second floor was rotated about three degrees. It took an otherwise very bland building and made it totally memorable and I still consider it to be the Best building when I see it.

I grew up in Houston and still remember my dad pulling a dad joke on me. We drove by best and he said that building is falling apart why are they letting people shop there?!? I was 4-5 yrs old at the time and I got genuinely worried before he burst out laughing. Today that site still exists but it’s been “fixed” here’s a link from one of my favorite series on the chron.com page.


451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons Guess yet another site that decided to not care about visitors privacy so block all in EU instead of behaving

Maybe, or maybe a newspaper in Texas isn’t too concerned about the EU’s definition of privacy.

I think part of supporting GDPR is being honest about the fact that it’s not purely positive for end users.

Fascinating. I'd say these kind of run the gamut from inspired (the "Tilt Building" cuts a memorable profile with just a single plane) to kitsch ("Inside/Out" would have been lovely as an actual structural expressionist piece, but the brick effect is a big, unnecessary "get it?"). Retail architecture doesn't have to be post-modern to be interesting, but it's a shame so much of it today is so aggressively inoffensive.

Everything is! Not just retail. I live in an apartment building that could be described that way, office spaces... the list goes on.

This reminds me of the famous children's entertainment venue / science museum Wonderworks [0] whose building is constructed to appear upside down entirely.

[0]: https://www.google.com/search?q=wonderworks&prmd=ivns&tbm=is...

That's some pretty whimsical architecture. It's be nice if a future retailer looking for some initial buzz picked up the habit. Their "distressed" facade, looked even more distressed after it was undressed[1].

On a side note, it reminds me of (at least) houses in Greece not getting technically completed on purpose to avoid taxation of some form[2].

Also, they are whimsical, even avant guarde designs, but I wouldn't call it apocalyptic.



Ah, the Catalog Showroom era.

In the Bay Area, Consumer's Distributing came first. Best Products came later. Service Merchandise came West after that.

There was another small chain called something like DAG or DAK (not the Drew Allan Kaplan operation). There was a showroom of theirs near Camden and Union in San Jose near Campbell.

I immediately recognized the second picture from growing up in Baltimore, MD. It turns out that James Wines is a graduate of Towson High (class of '51) just 2 miles from where the Towson Best store was.

Those buildings are so cool! Sad that there isn't any will to preserve them. And those pictures are awesome too, I'm going to be wasting a lot of time now Googling Best and SITE buildings now...

Some of these are neat, but it seems to me the problem with making your building look abandoned is that passers-by might just conclude it is abandoned and not come closer to take a look.

We used to go to the "Peeling Building" in Richmond when I was a kid. That almost looks like my Dad's Olds 442 in the photo. I've looked for the building on Google Maps and Street View, but don't recall exactly where it was on the Midlothian Turnpike.

Best was the Best Buy of its day. I remember being fascinated by the pneumatic tube system in the store, something you only see now in bank drive-throughs.

I remember going to Best as a kid all throughout the 80s. This was the store in Langhorne Pa.


Thanks for that. I visited the same store as a child as well.

I loved Best when I was a kid, and I was so sad when they disappeared.

I never knew they liked to do cool stuff with architecture. There were one or two locations in the Dallas area, and now I really wish I remembered what the buildings looked like.

Reminds me of the concept of a stone mason's folly. I built one in the desert with dry stone masonry and two bbq pits. Fun project.

Really cool buildings. I had never heard of this at all, and I even lived near one of the buildings apparently. Thanks for posting!

thank you for the link.

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