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Portage Pathways: Sunday sales fueled heated debate in Kent and Ravenna 50 years ago

Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published: December 23, 2012 4:00 AM

There aren't very many activities that are off-limits anymore on Sunday, which used to be the traditional "day of rest." That includes shopping, which has become a seven-day activity.

That wasn't the case 50 years ago, when the 1962 Christmas season found merchants in Kent and Ravenna debating whether to open their doors for Sunday shoppers.

The result turned out to be a split decision.

Ohio's Sunday "blue laws," which dated to the 1830s, banned most retailers from doing business on Sunday unless they could justify their trade as serving travelers, an exemption that enabled restaurants, drug stores, service stations and theaters to operate. Grocery stores and other establishments were supposed to remain closed under the laws, which were a throwback to the Puritan era.

In November 1962, Lawson Milk Co. mounted a statewide bid to overturn the blue laws by seeking a change in the Ohio Constitution that the convenience store chain dubbed the Sunday Necessities Amendment.

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"Don't let anybody tell you milk isn't necessary on Sundays!" was the pitch made to housewives in a full-page ad in the Record-Courier a few days before the election. The amendment was soundly defeated, by a margin of more than 400,000 votes.

Enforcement of the blue laws varied across the state, however, and that led some retailers to test the waters on Sunday sales.

As the Christmas shopping season began in earnest in December 1962, Clarkins, the discount department store that anchored University Plaza in Kent, promoted Sunday sales. That led other stores in the plaza to open their doors as well, albeit reluctantly. "I wish someone would file a warrant against me for operating on Sunday so that we wouldn't have to work on Sunday," one unnamed merchant told the Record-Courier.

With Clarkins and most of the University Plaza merchants open on Sunday, McCrory's, the five-and-dime store in downtown Kent announced plans for Sunday sales, too. Downtown retailers W.T. Grant Co., The Budget Shop and Wright's joined McCrory's a week later.

While Sunday sales were becoming a reality in Kent, merchants in downtown Ravenna dug in their heels, voting 19-1 against them and urging enforcement of the blue laws.

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"We have a Sunday closing law and we, the merchants of Ravenna, intend to abide by the law," said Kenneth Newton, chairman of the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce's retail division. "Let's keep Sunday Sunday."

The Ravenna merchants, for the most part, were adamant in their opposition to Sunday sales. "We either have to open on Sunday and buck 'em or appeal to the people to back us and stay closed," said Carl Rupert of the Jack 'n' Jill Shoppe, "We can't close our eyes to it."

The lone dissenter among the merchants' ranks was furniture dealer Hy Friedland, who said he would remain open on Sunday and added that he "wanted to be arrested" as a test case.

By mid-December, more merchants in Kent were keeping their doors open on Sunday. A University Plaza merchant reported "better business last Sunday afternoon than during any afternoon on a weekday." The Kent Post Office joined retailers, selling Christmas stamps -- issued for the first time in 1962 -- and handling mail from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Sunday sales proved to be a hit with shoppers in Kent, and whatever reluctance retailers might have had regarding seven-day operations quickly vanished.

"If the tinkling of cash registers is an indication of the popularity of Sunday shopping, it would appear that Portage County thinks it much more enjoyable than a TV football game," the R-C reported on Dec. 17 following "one of the biggest shopping days of the year."

"Thousands from the area flocked to the stores to take advantage of the extra shopping hours. They came in families and even bigger groups." The parking lot at University Plaza was overflowing by mid-afternoon and parking spaces in downtown Kent "were as hard to find as they are on a normal Saturday." Several stores had checkout operators on duty.

"We could hardly handle the crowds," said W.T. Grant manager Edward Muth. "I never saw a bunch of shoppers quite like these people. Everybody was so happy. They seemed to be making a family day out of it."

The 1962 Christmas season proved to be a turning point for Sunday sales, with retailers gradually remaining open on a seven-day basis despite the blue laws, which remained on the books in Ohio until 1973, when they formally were repealed. By then, they were virtually ignored by retailers and law enforcement alike.

Today, the final Sunday before Christmas will be one of the busiest shopping days of the holiday season. It will be a rare retailer whose doors will be closed.

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anonymous Dec 29, 2012 12:06 PM

I remember the Blue Laws. If you wanted something on Sunday you'd better have it by Saturday afternoon or you could pretty much forget it. You had to depend on your neighbors to carry you through just like the neighbors depended on you to carry them through. You spent Sunday hoping something unexpected and unusual didn't crop up. The tiny berg I grew up in, actually a cross roads, closed on Sunday and if something was needed from *Town* from the place whose turn it was to be open it was at least a 5 mile drive. 10 miles to the larger town that probably actually had what might be needed. Youngsters will say "10 miles, big deal". This was back in the days of bias ply tires, snow tread with studs, drum brakes, carburetors, vacuum operated windshield wipers, and sometimes straight axles. Driving was an adventure. Next time someone says our society has fallen because "God" has been taken out of our schools and our lives and how it's the "atheists" I think I'll start mentioning the falling of the Blue Laws in the face of the All Mighty Dollar because when you get down to it even God doesn't stand a chance against The Buck.