|© J. Adrian Wylie|
by Sally Mitani
Thirty-some people gathered on August 2 outside of the new Big Lots, which replaced Borders in Waters Place, that strip mall of big-box stores that also houses Best Buy and Kohl's. Compared to the thousands who streamed through Costco, one freeway exit east, on its opening day, they were a mere trickle, but they were equally committed; it was a virtually unadvertised soft opening that they could have learned about only via updates taped to the front door. They milled around in the vestibule waiting for the deadbolt to be flipped, murmuring "I love Big Lots" or "... school supplies ... I'm a teacher." "I'm just here to browse. You never know what will turn up here."
Big Lots is like the dollar store's durable-goods cousin, selling electronics, hardware, housewares, and even furniture and mattresses, all making their last stop on the retail train. But it differs from dollar stores in a couple of other important ways than just price range. Many dollar stores are franchises, but all 1,400 Big Lots are company owned, started by one outsize personality with a vision.
There was nothing Sol Shenk loved as much as to corner the market on anything that had just been universally declared a bad idea. Perhaps his finest hour was the 1982 bankruptcy of the DeLorean Motor Company, when he bought (and successfully resold) 2,500 sports cars.
Shenk started Big Lots' precursor, Odd Lots, in Columbus in 1967. He died years ago, and his son runs the company now, but Sol Shenk's philosophy lives on: buy weird, overproduced, damaged, or outdated stuff, mark it way down, and wait for people to beat a path to your door.
Manager Craig Watson, who has been with the company for sixteen years (he came over from the Jackson store), stresses that a lot of the merchandise is overstock, not abandoned, bankrupted inventories or factory seconds, waving by way of example at the Serta mattresses and DeWalt cordless drills ("a lady carried
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