Nobody knows how many black felt pens have been drained marking prices on products sold in the Spokane White Elephant Stores founded in 1946 by the late John R. Conley.
Eschewing price tags for simple penmanship was one of the distinctions of the stores that started primarily with the military surplus gear sportsmen craved. Soon they expanded to feature hunting, fishing and camping gear plus toys that families craved.
Another distinction that is even more amazing nowadays: The Elephant stores are locally grown and still local.
Conley could be all business and less than flattering sometimes, but many people have chimed in on the White Elephant Facebook page with fond remembrances. He was a deeply religious and patriotic man known to give customers – and especially kids who caught his fancy in the store – a little U.S. flag, a free ride on the swaying elephant machine or maybe a lucky fish hook.
Customers accepted the former general lack of customer service as a game or challenge to hunt through the stacks of merchandise and find deals.
Conley, a proud penny pincher, set up the family-owned businesses to survive this far into the era of big-box and online retailing with some age-old values.
“He had a way of getting kids to work hard,” said John Kallas, manager of the Valley store. “It takes a special knack to do that.”
Sales in the Elephant stores were cash-only with no cash registers and undated adding-machine receipts until 1995, long after most retailers had succumbed to credit cards.
“The family owns everything lock, stock and barrel,” Kallas said. “That’s hard to do in this age. That keeps us going.”
Bucking the trends, the stores continue to operate on a principle conveyed in Conley’s after-hours telephone answering machine message that went, to wit, “We’re open six days a week, but never on Sunday. Big sale on Monday.”
Customers would come in the next week and find merchandise…