Remember Caldor Super Stores?
If you grew up in Connecticut, the megastore was a part of your life. I remember the location in Stamford that is now Burlington Coat Factory. I would frequently hide in the endless racks of clothing and then escape to the downstairs area that oddly sold pet supplies. I can’t seem to remember if there were actual animals there too. My endless online research has failed me and I can’t confirm that but my eight-year-old mind does remember bunnies being down there. It was decades ago, but I can still picture the organized mess that made up the store.
Although at the height of popularity Caldor had 145 stores along the east coast, many people don’t know that it’s roots are local. It all started with Carl and Dorothy Bennett in 1951. They created the name Caldor by combining their first names. The first tiny store opened in Port Chester as a “five and dime” but as they grew, the couple moved their operations to Norwalk, Connecticut. Dorothy was originally from Norwalk and after marrying Carl, they settled in Stamford.
Caldor at one time was the fourth largest retailer in the country. With that honor came controversy. There was the Howard Stern incident- Most Caldor stores had a book department and would post the New York Times Best Seller list. Turns out Caldor wasn’t a big fan of Howard Stern and not only refused to carry his book “Private Parts” but also removed the book from the published list in the stores. New York Times came forward and told the megastore that they could not alter their list because of their beliefs. Caldor responded by no longer posting the famous New York Times Best Sellers list.
In a big “oops” moment, Caldor relied heavily on their weekly circulars that would be distributed in newspapers. In one 1998 ad for the board game “Scrabble”, there were two smiling boys in the print add playing the game… the word “rape” was spelled out prominently in the center of the board amongst other nonsense words. How that managed to get past copywriters, who knows? 11 million copies of the ad went out and caused outrage.
Then there were lawsuits. One of the biggest of all time was filed by an employee named Donald Thorton. He said that the store would not honor his religious beliefs because he was being forced to work once a month on the Sabbath. He said it violated Connecticut’s state law that allowed him to work without opposition when it came to religion. The store offered to transfer him to a Massachussetts store that was closed on Sundays or he could take a lower paid position at his current Connecticut location. Thorton didn’t like either solution and sued when Caldor gave him a clerical position that he didn’t agree to. Caldor argued that the law was unconstitutional. Thorton died before the lawsuit was ever resolved but to this day, the case is taught in major law schools. It was presented to the Supreme Court where they stated:
“it was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause for a state to require employers to relieve an employee of work on his or her Sabbath, as “an absolute and unqualified right” that applied “no matter what burden or inconvenience this imposes on the employer or fellow workers.” The Court concluded that “[t]his unyielding weighting in favor of Sabbath observers over all other interests contravenes a fundamental purpose of the Religion Clauses.”
Then there needs to be a terrible fire story because what major store doesn’t a horrific fire at some point? Caldor was no exception. Their Norwalk location suffered over $1,000,000 in damages in 1961 where a massive fired leveled the location on Route 7. Onlookers reported that it looked as though “fire bullets” were coming from the building. Nothing was able to be salvaged but luckily no firefighters were hurt in the momentous blaze. The cause of the fire was never determined.
In 1981, the Bennetts sold Caldor to Associated Dry Goods for reportedly over $313 million dollars.
In 1984, the Bennetts moved to Greenwich and continued to be Connecticut residents.
Although they had a fantastic run in the early 90’s, which included going public in 1991 and earning over $2.5 billion in revenue, it was short lived. They filed for bankruptcy for the first time in 1995 and never fully recovered. In 1998, it was clear that the end was near. Layoffs were immediate at the Norwalk Home Office and soon all 24,000 of their employees were left jobless. The last doors of their stores closed for good on May 15, 1999. Immense competition from stores like Target and Walmart were to blame.
Dorothy Bennett passed away in 2008. She had long struggled with cancer. If you’ve been trying to figure out why their names sound so familiar it’s because they have made incredible contributions to the Connecticut community. A huge donation was made to Stamford Hospital, hence the “Carol and Dorothy Bennett Cancer Center” at the hospital. Carl Bennett donated another $9.1 million in 2014 to help create new buildings. Their philanthropy doesn’t end there. Their initial endowment created the The Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.
In an odd twist, it was reported last year that a 24-year-old South Windsor man had taken “ownership” of the brand. He is a University of Hartford graduate and purchased the domain name, the business trademarks, and patents. Old articles quote him as stating that he was taking Caldor online and that it would open late this year. Seems like a far-fetched dream and his website mentions nothing of the venture.
Most likely Caldor will remain a building block in the history that is Connecticut… and for many of us, a memory of our upbringing.