|Headquarters||Chicago, Illinois, USA|
|Key people||Sol Polk|
One of the original discounters, Polk Bros. Inc. was founded by Sol Polk, the son of Romanian immigrants, on the Northwest Side in the Portage Park community area of Chicago in 1935. The first outlet was on Central Avenue under the name Central Appliance and Furniture at 3334 N. Central Avenue. Brothers Sol, Sam, Harry, David and Morris and their sister, Ghisella "Goldie" Bachmann, ran the business, which was renamed Polk Brothers in 1946. By the 1960s, there were two dozen or more family members including uncles, cousins, and in-laws, working in various departments of the company, which became one of the biggest appliance retailers in the United States at a time when the industry was very fragmented.
Polk Bros. was the dominating electronics/appliance retailer in the Chicago market through the 1980s. The chain was known for its aggressive "let's make a deal" salesmen who would pair off with customers as they came in the door. It was an industry leader in innovative merchandising and was chosen to be the first retailer in the nation to sell color televisions and microwave ovens.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when most appliances and stereos were bought at department stores at full price, Polk Bros. pioneered the art of discounting. "The motto was that no customer walks out of the store without buying at least something," recalls Howard Polk. "Whatever it took to make a deal, we gave it to them." The company's influence lives on at Wal-Mart and other chains that advertise, as Polk Bros. did, the lowest prices anywhere.
Owner Sol Polk was considered a master pitchman. He ran in-store promotions that offered everything from TVs to Christmas trees. Polk served as the president of the North American Retail Dealers Association (NARDA), and his innovative and flamboyant promotions of the industry's products gained him nationwide recognition. He also was frequently called on to appear at hearings on proposed industry-related legislative and regulatory hearings held by the United States Congress and federal and state agencies.
A fire during the evening of June 1, 1987 that gutted the company's warehouse and adjacent headquarters at 8311 W. North Avenue in Melrose Park put the company in financial straits, and the death a year later of 71-year-old CEO Sol Polk sent it spiraling downward. The 1990-91 recession and the arrival of new competitors such as Best Buy sealed Polk Bros.' fate.
Divestment & The Polk Foundation
The chain officially closed its doors in 1992 in a grand "going out of business" sale. But the company did not go bankrupt. The assets were rolled over into the Polk Bros. Foundation, today one of the Chicago area's largest charitable organizations. With assets of $385 million, the foundation last year dispensed 350 grants totaling $15.7 million to organizations. The foundation has funded organizations such as the Chicago Children's Choir, The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), and the University of Chicago. The Polks also had a vast investment portfolio that included stock in such bygone Chicago retailers as Wieboldt's and Goldblatt's. They also held thousands of acres of real estate around the country, most of it divested over the past 15 years. One of the last parcels, 60 acres (240,000 m2) prime in the Malibu Hills north of Los Angeles, has a sale pending.
A Menards currently occupies the rebuilt Polk Brothers store in Melrose Park.