Austin Found: The many lives of a North Austin shopping center
Sometimes a furniture store is just a furniture store.
Sharp-eyed reader David Scott, who enjoys driving around older parts of town while imagining the previous lives of buildings he finds there, sent us a question about a large store located in a shopping center at Burnet Road and U.S. 183.
“It is in a rectangular strip center with an Olive Garden restaurant on the northwest corner and Furniture Row store in the southeast corner,” Scott writes. “Also in the strip center is a western boot store, a barbecue restaurant and some other small businesses. The Furniture Row part of the strip center is built of two-story cast concrete. I know there was something in that building before it became a store. Based on the height of the building, the two sets of front doors and some very fuzzy memories, I think it might have been a multi-screen movie theater.”
The guess about a movie complex was a reasonable one, and not just because of the shape of the building at 9012 Research Blvd., in what is now called the Lone Star Center. Suburban movie multiplexes sprouted like mushrooms on a rainy day during the 1970s and ’80s.
But first Scott and I got sidetracked on the subject of businesses that anchored the shopping center across Burnet Road during the 1980s, when I moved to town permanently. I recalled a Chez Fred, part of a trending local restaurant group, and a small Whole Foods Market. Scott remembers a Bookstop, part of a fast-expanding but now-vanished bookstore group based in Austin. It was quite the happening cultural center before, in the cyclical nature of things, the area faded a bit.
Scott blames the freeway.
“While I support building roads to handle the traffic — and the elevated 183 highway does that — the businesses that were thriving along Research Boulevard and 183 have struggled because once you’re on the elevated road, there are few opportunities to return to ground level,” he says. “Some great retail locations have suffered or failed entirely.”
A similar thing happened when Ben White Boulevard was expanded and partially elevated. Some of those once-thriving shopping centers never recovered, although we have noticed some new life stirring along Ben White, including the bustling Habitat for Humanity ReStore near the site of now-buried Civil War-era Fort Magruder.
Back to the previous life of Furniture Row. I searched the archives at Newspapers.com for movie listings and advertising during the 1970s and ’80s. I was quickly reminded of the many companies that invested in movie theaters during this period, after the major regional chains, such as Dallas-based Interstate Theatres, vanished. Also of the multiplying triple-X theaters in all parts of town just before they were made redundant by videocassettes and then the internet.
Still, I found no evidence that 9012 Research Blvd. had served as a theater. So I turned to crowdsourcing on Facebook and encountered almost instantaneous success.
Daniel Norton sent us a display ad for Levitz Furniture from the American-Statesman for Sept. 2, 1979.
“Sales Opportunities,” it reads. “If you are looking for an opportunity to become associated with the Nation’s Largest Retailer of Name-Brand Furniture at our new Warehouse/Showroom at 9012 Research Blvd. in Austin, apply in person at the Marriott Hotel 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Weds, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thurs. Excellent benefits include paid vacations, paid holidays, paid group insurance and more!”
The ad also asks those interested to call Dick Mazzoni Sr. The store opened Oct. 12, 1979.
Levitz Furniture, whose jingle assured listeners, “You’ll love it at Levitz,” was founded in 1910 by Richard Levitz in Lebanon, Penn. It went nationwide, and by the 1960s it had become a leader in the warehouse-style format. Undermined during the 1990s by the “whole rooms” approach to showcasing furniture, Levitz was liquidated in bankruptcy in 2008.
That sent me back to Newspapers.com.
Levitz, like many large retailers at the time, advertised heavily in the daily newspaper, at least 70 times in 1979, 158 times in 1980. But by 1998, the store was offering desperate-sounding deals such as “$1,000 in Instant Bonus Bucks” and “Don’t pay anything until September 1998. No down payment. No monthly payment. No finance charge if. …” All those offers came with fine print.
By March 1999, full-page ads announced that Lacks, which at the time operated furniture stores on South Lamar Boulevard, West Anderson Lane and Anderson Mill Center, had acquired Levitz. It urged customers with good credit at Levitz to apply for a Lacks card.
This development jibed with the recollections of a few readers who thought the store at 9012 Research Blvd. was a Lacks. Founded in 1935 in McAllen by Sam Lacks, the venerable company became the dominant furniture chain in South Texas. In 2010, Lacks, however, which owned or leased 35 stores, including three in Austin, filed for bankruptcy, too.
Curiously, none of those Lacks stores were listed at 9012 Research Blvd. By November 2010, Lacks — sometimes rendered as “Lack’s” — had launched a series of closing sales, with furniture, televisions, mattresses, appliances and home accessories marked 30 to 70 percent off. Lacks survives as a brand for stores in a geographic triangle that stretches from Houston to Laredo to Brownsville.
Spot-checks of newspapers from the years 1999 to 2010 indicate that Lacks never actually occupied the Furniture Row site. According to the Furniture Row website, that company started in Denver in 1974 as Pillow Kingdom, then grew by adding Big Sur Waterbeds (1977), Oak Express (1993), Sofa Mart (1994), Denver Mattress Co. (1995), Bedroom Expressions (1997), Furniture Row Shopping Center (1997) and, inevitably, Furniture Row Outlet (2001). It now runs 330 stores in 31 states. It is owned by low-profile Barney Visser, a winning NASCAR car owner.
Some of the businesses in the Lone Star Center, such as Highland Lanes, which opened in 1976, have been there since its earliest days.
We are still missing some pieces of the furniture store puzzle but can now submit the subject to the greatest crowdsourcing history resource in the city, the readers of this newspaper.
THE HISTORY OF MORE AUSTIN PLACES
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