G.C. Murphy's now a matter of memories

Writer putting together book on former community anchor

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Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Lou Washowich and other McKeesport power brokers held court at the G.C. Murphy Co. lunch counter in town. If you wanted to meet Mayor Washowich to discuss a problem back then, you could catch him there between noon and 1 p.m.

"That was the meeting place," Washowich recalled. "Every day, I'd go in and have coffee before work, then back at lunch time. That store was an institution in this town."

"It was a rallying point," McKeesport city administrator Dennis Pittman agreed.

Of course, ask anyone over a certain age about the Murphy's variety stores and you will hear about the wooden plank floors, the parakeets making a racket in cages in the pet department, and, of course, the blue plate specials at the lunch counter.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Jason Togyer is writing a book about the history of G.C. Murphy Co., the McKeesport-based five-and-dime store chain that enjoyed 79 years in business before closing in 1985. He's pictured Sunday outside the now-vacant Murphy's storefront on Forbes Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh. That Murphy's site consists of five buildings between Fifth and Forbes avenues and Market Square.
Click photo for larger image.

Jason Togyer, of West Mifflin, collects those memories for a book he is writing about the defunct chain, which closed in 1985 after 79 years in business when it was bought out by Ames department stores.

Togyer hopes the book, which he is working on with help from the G.C. Murphy Foundation, will be published by 2006, which would have been the company's centennial. He has interviewed about 50 former employees and patrons of the stores, and he is gathering more contacts and information through a Web site: www.murphymemories.com.

Togyer, a former newspaper reporter who now works for the University of Pittsburgh, said the book would be a mix of facts and feelings.

"It'll be factual, interwoven with anecdotes," he said. "We want people to pick up this book and bring back those old days."

The author has a personal connection to the material because his grandmother worked at Murphy's. He said he had warm memories of the store from childhood, but that he had learned of other positive aspects of the company since he began the book.

"They treated their employees well," Togyer said. "They were one of the first variety stores to offer health insurance and paid vacation."

Neighborhood cornerstones

G.C. Murphy Co. stores were among the first "anchor" retailers. From Ambridge to Bellevue, Brentwood to Clairton, Carnegie to Wilkinsburg to Oakmont and many places in between, the company's stores were cornerstones of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods until a generation ago.

The Fifth Avenue G.C. Murphy in McKeesport was Store No. 1 of Murphy's 375 in the chain. The chain owned a total of 512 stores, including southern-based variety stores Morgan & Lindsey, Terry Farris, Bruner's and Cobb's.

"When you were a kid, you could take your $10 and buy something for your mom and sister and have something left," Pittman said.

"Losing that company and its employees really hurt downtown McKeesport. They had a 590,000-square-foot warehouse at 28th and Walnut [streets]."

Post-Gazette file photo
The first G.C. Murphy store at 315 Fifth Ave., McKeesport, in 1985.
Click photo for larger image.

About 1,100 G.C. Murphy employees were based in the company's Fifth Avenue, McKeesport, home office. The company was known for donating business machines to McKeesport High School. Many business students went on to work for the company. Murphy Foundation board members Bob Messner and Edwin Davis spearheaded the effort to have the book written. Davis, of Elizabeth Township, is a 35-year employee of the company. He credited Messner with coming up with the idea for the book.

"Bob planted the seed by looking at the recently done book on Isaly's," Davis said.

Still contributing

Begun in 1952, the G.C. Murphy Foundation still benefits the McKeesport community with charitable efforts. The foundation distributes about 25 grants each year to various nonprofit organizations in and around the city. Recipients include the YWCA and YMCA, UPMC Mc-Keesport and Womansplace.

Preserving memories of the stores is essential because they represent a look at the past, said Messner, of Wilkinsburg. He has a historical bent and is a member of the Braddock's Field Historical Society.

"All of the variety stores are pretty much gone," Messner said. "It was a different era and a different experience. Most of the variety stores featured a salesperson behind the counter. A lot of the discount stores did away with that person and replaced them with a checkout counter."

Despite the popular misconception, G.C. Murphy did not go out of business. In fact, the company was quite profitable when it was bought in a hostile takeover. "We had 100 Murphy's Marts at that time," Messner said. "We were doing extremely well financially because we were operating on leases that were negotiated in the 1950s."

Many of those who worked for G.C. Murphy describe the company as having a comfortable atmosphere, Togyer said. "What they tell me is that Murphy's was a family," he said.

Like Togyer, Messner, a native of McKeesport, has personal connections to the company; he worked there for 17 years and his father made his career there.

"My father worked for G.C. Murphy for 47 years. He began as a male secretary to W.C. Shaw [who founded the company along with J.S. Mack]," Messner said.

"He'd drive Mr. Shaw around to the different stores. He later became the hardware buyer for the company."

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer.


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