The attractively printed handout, intended for area newcomers and visiting shoppers, enthuses that “Princeton is one big General Store.” The businesses listed truly do constitute a fascinating bazaar of goods and services. And they are overwhelmingly locally owned and operated, many being multi-generational businesses.
But this flier — produced during the late 1970s or early ’80s by the Princeton Merchants Association — lies in the archives of the Historical Society of Princeton. And of the 177 businesses it lists, more than 110 are now gone, their names fading in the dimming collective memory of family-owned stores.
The latest of them to exit is Morris Maple & Son at 200 Nassau Street. By the end of the month this century-old paint store will sell its last cans of house and wall colors, its final feet of wallpaper, its ultimate artists’ supplies, and its remaining varnish — and then vanish.
The Princeton Merchants Association is still quite active, as is the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. And their memberships will no doubt always include locally owned businesses. But the closing of Morris Maple & Son reminds us that Princeton is an historic microcosm of macro changes in retail.
Like so many mom-and-pop businesses and “old line” stores, Morris Maple had its roots in choice and chance. The Maple family lived in Cedar Grove, just off the Great Road near today’s Princeton Day School property. Cedar Grove was one of countryside communities like Mt. Lucas and Mt. Rose that had their own churches, general stores, one-room schools, and proud identities but are today are mostly names on road signs.
Morris “Doc” Maple was a purveyor of flavoring extracts and health tonics, the latter including “Maple’s Compound Hoarhound Cough Syrup,” “Maple’s Electric Liniment,” and “Dr. Maple’s Toothache, Neuralgia Cure and Clover Blossom Tonic.”
His son possessed a similar aptitude for chemical concoctions. Young Morris took a mail-order study course in lettering specifically to create eye-catching advertising signs for his father’s patent medicine business. This led directly to his adult career of mixing, selling, and applying paints. (In fact, a surviving receipt given to a William Bond on July 30, 1900, for the purchase of paint, putty, and other supplies was written from the receipt book of his father’s flavorings and tonics business.)
In 1907 the younger Morris Maple branched off with his own paint and contracting business. By 1912, he had his first in-town location at 20 Chestnut Street. The business moved upward in success: In 1925 it located to 136 Nassau, moved to 170 the next year, and then to its ultimate location, 200 Nassau, in 1928. Apparently, another generation joined the firm which around 1946 started calling itself Morris Maple & Son.
In 1968 Morris Maple & Son was sold to another local painting contractor, J.V. Skillman, descendent of an old central New Jersey family. His son Mike took over in 1987. (Mike Skillman declined to comment for this article, citing a wish to close the business quietly and without fanfare.)
But the historical success of such a family-owned Princeton business speaks for itself. It was a store that offered products plus valuable advice. At Morris Maple & Son, you could not only get custom blending of the most appropriate colors for your needs but recommendations for the numerous contractors with whom the Skillmans worked.
The names of the other businesses listed on the old promotional flier may bring wistful memories to longtime residents. Or, to more recent arrivals, they might be utterly mysterious.
Consider the Urken Supply Company at 27 Witherspoon Street (now home of Holsome, a home for teas, herbs, yoga and meditation). From 1937 to 2002 it was a Princeton fixture selling light fixtures, door fixtures, plumbing fixtures, and all manner of hardware and housewares.
Or Toto’s Market down at 74 Witherspoon (now occupied by the Terra Momo Bread Company), a meat and grocery business from 1912 until 1987. Well into the 1980s, the Toto family and their employees, six times a week by 9 a.m., would make 40 to 50 individually ordered deliveries to the homes of regular customers with store accounts.
Consider especially the apparel shops, including such once truly fashionable names as the H.P. Clayton women’s store (at 17 Palmer Square West, now occupied by Ann Taylor) and the English Shop for men (at 32 Nassau, now Lululemon Athletica). Of the 22 listed on the flier, the only survivors are the Army & Navy Store at 14 Witherspoon and Landau’s at 102 Nassau, now in business for more than 100 years.
Some businesses had histories of growing with Princeton and with America, then trying to adapt as both the town and nation changed. In 190, Frederick William Luttman founded a shop for making and repairing horse harnesses and saddles. It was a durable business at first, given the dominant use of horses for individual transportation and for hauling delivery and passenger wagons. But Luttman soon saw that the internal combustion engine would run his business off the road. He diversified into suitcases, trunks, handbags, and other carrying goods made of leather. But even Luttman’s Luggage couldn’t contain the competition of department stores and, later, the Internet. It closed its Witherspoon Street location in 2005. The space is now Mamoun’s Falafel.
Luttman’s illustrates that Princeton shops no longer compete against neighboring stores or even those in the Princeton Shopping Center or the Route 1 malls. They now struggle against the entire world.
Economies of scale play a major part, of course. Big box home improvement stores and even physically smaller hardware chains have outdone “old line” stores such as Urken’s and Morris Maple & Son, both in prices and inventories. (Plus, parking is infinitely easier at the malls and shopping centers than in downtown Princeton.)
And there are economies of scale. Major apparel companies are able to have products made to their precise specifications from manufacturers (often in Asia) without middlemen, and in such quantities that even steep clearance discounts still yield comfortable profits.
Then there are the rents on downtown Princeton retail space, spiraling far above the resources of a mom-and-pop. For large corporate chains, having the cachet of a Princeton address is a good investment and their profit margins make the costs rather easy to bear.
Ironically, in years past many local shop owners decided — wisely at the time — to purchase their buildings. Even with a mortgage, they profited by eliminating their rents and gaining income by leasing upstairs offices or apartments. And the commercial realty boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries made these investments even more successful.
But many such properties became potentially more valuable than the profit from the stores. Real estate thus outstripped retail, and if competition from national chains became too intense and/or an owner died or retired, the owning family had great motivation to sell.
The persistence of Army & Navy and Landau might suggest that highly specialized product offerings with personalized service delivered by long-term staff and ownership might be strategies for the locally owned stores to survive and even thrive. And it’s hopeful to think that no national ice cream chains could ever compete with the homegrown flavors of Thomas Sweet or Bent Spoon. There is often survival in niches and sometimes long lines form outside them.
But the list of surviving Princeton small family businesses will likely grow smaller and smaller. Seemingly, nothing can paint over that historical trend.