NORWOOD – The racks in Kline’s basement children’s clothing section were bare. Beneath the knotty pine wall panels in the men’s department, bargain hunters strolled along the thin carpets and linoleum floors one morning last week and picked over piles of jeans.
Manager Marilyn Wolfson, who first started working in the 81-year-old Norwood Center landmark as a sales clerk nearly a quarter of a century ago, stood stoically behind the lingerie counter, presiding over the store’s last sale.
“It’s sad, very sad,” said Wolfson. “I was the youngest person working here when I started. It’s the kind of thing you think is going to go on forever.”
Just as retailers enter the all-important holiday shopping season, Kline’s department store, one of the last traditional downtown department stores in the Boston suburbs, is going out of business. Once the merchandise in stock is sold, the store will close.
Cleveland-based Kline Bros. Co. last month announced the closing or sale of its 26 stores in 11 states. Officials said the directors of the holding company that owns the chain no longer want to be in the retail business.
No buyer has been found for the Norwood store, which is the only Kline’s in New England. About four years ago, the company closed stores in Wakefield and Lincoln, R.I.
Kline’s joins the growing list of department store chains across the United States that have closed in the past decade because of rapid consolidation, competition from specialty discounters, management problems, and heavy debt accumulated in the 1980s. Among the chains that have closed are Bonwit Teller, Gimbel’s, Altman’s and Frederick & Nelson.
Many of the big stores were, like Kline’s, located in suburban downtowns, which suffer from parking and traffic woes and must compete with malls and “big box” discount stores on highways that skirt the business districts.
Gone from the Boston suburbs are such local institutions as Re-mick’s in Quincy, Grover Cronin’s in Waltham, and Buttner’s and Puritan Clothing in Plymouth.
Only a few suburban downtown department stores survive in the Boston area, mainly in well-to-do communities. Filene’s still operates stores in Wellesley and Belmont centers.
“General merchandise stores in downtowns are becoming dinosaurs,” said John Connery, a Melrose-based development consultant. “You can go to a mall now, hit the anchors and find 150 specialty stores under one roof.”
Unlike many older downtowns, Norwood Center has considerable off-street parking, including a municipal lot behind Kline’s. The main toads in the shopping district usually are not badly congested. These conditions plus stable, middle-class neighborhoods nearby helped Kline’s to survive as long as it did.
However, downtown Norwood merchants face fierce competition from nearby strip malls, as weir as enclosed malls in Walpole, Dedham, Brockton, North Attleborough and Braintree. In the 1990s, Route 1 from Dedham to Foxborough became a magnet for big discount stores. A Wal-Mart opened earlier this year in neighboring Walpole.
Norwood business leaders said the closing of Kline’s will be a blow to the downtown, which is already dotted with empty storefronts. Kline’s, which has between 30 and 50 employees depending on the season, sells men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, as well as home furnishings and specialty gifts.
The store opened in 1913 as a Park-Snow department store. Kline’s bought it in 1974.
“It helped to feed a lot of small businesses around them,” said David Mahn, director of the Neponset Valley Chamber of Commerce. “People would go there and then stop and have an ice cream or buy a paper.’
The store also has served as an informal meeting ground, where long-time residents have gone regularly to see neighbors, chat with the friendly sales staff, and pick up an item or two.
The store, with its 1950s decor and none of the glitz of mall department stores, has a relaxed, homey ambiance.
“I feel I’m among friends when I’m here,” said Connie Ferris. “I have shopped here the 47 years I’ve been in Norwood. I come down at least once a week. I don’t know where I’ll go now.”
When she turned 16, Cheryl Golden, now 34, got her first job as a Kline’s sales clerk. “It was a wonderful place to work. I still come back weekly.”
Wolfson, who is now job hunting, said, “I know that time marches on, but something like this can never be duplicated in a mall or large store.”
By Robert Preer CONTRIBUTING REPORTER