With nine branches scattered throughout the borough, Modell's sporting goods stores are a familiar sight to most Brooklyn residents. Although the chain's first store opened on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan, Brooklyn played an important role in the company's development.
Henry Modell, November 12, 1946
Morris A. Modell founded the company in 1889 as a discount clothing shop. Morris's son Henry inherited the business after his return from World War I, and renamed it Henry Modell & Company. He purchased spare World War I army clothing from the Federal Government at a huge discount and passed the savings along to his customers, that acquisition changed the dynamic of Modell's. Unlike so many other businesses, the store experienced record growth during the Great Depression.
Brooklyn Borough President Cashmore and Henry Modell at the Brooklyn pre-opening sale, 1946
In 1945, Henry created a veterans training program for returning GIs, which provided them with on-the-job training for careers in sales. When the first Brooklyn Modell's opened at 381 Fulton Street in 1946, customers were greeted by the staff of 15, who were recent graduates of the program.
Opening day of Modell's on Fulton Street
Henry again stocked the new store with army surplus and sold the materials at a discount. He creatively recycled some supplies, including shell cases, which were crafted into lamp bases; helmets became toys, and children's snow suits were made from blankets. He also donated ten percent of opening day sales to the United Service Organizations.
After the war, consumer demand declined due to rising prices. As President of the Smaller Business Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Henry worked with businesses to reduce demands on customers' wallets. In response to President Truman's appeal urging businesses to "cut prices," Henry sent a telegram to the White House:
"Dear Mr. President,
We all know how the War brought scarcities, high earnings, free spending and skyrocketing prices. America was riding a gravy train. Manufacturers were piling on and on. Retailers were marketing it up and up. The customers were shelling it out and out. Nobody seemed to mind. Prosperity was on a binge.
Then the War was over. A peacetime America was back, uncertainty along the road to normalcy. Earnings couldn't keep pace with mounting prices. Housing and food remained high. So did taxes. Savings dwindled. Customers starting pulling in their money belts...
Here, in New York, we are doing something about it. Henry Modell & Company retail stores started a lower prices crusade weeks before Christmas 1946. Wide markdowns on already reasonably-priced merchandise were perked up. Goods started moving again. Hundreds of other retailers adopted Modell's plan for reduced prices..."
July 14, 1947, marked the start of "National Surplus Week," an idea promoted by Henry Modell. The week was designed to stimulate buying through slashed prices in thousands of retail stores throughout the country, including, of course, his own.
Also in 1947, shortly after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers and broke the color barrier, Modell's made news and marketing history when they used him in their advertisements. "As Jews, we knew what it meant to be outsiders." Henry's son, William later told Crain's New York Business.
In the 1940s there were only a handful of Modell's stores. Today, according to its web site, "Modell's Sporting Goods is America's largest and oldest family-owned and operated sporting goods" chain, with over 140 stores in the North East. Modell's continues to give back through their "Team Weeks" program, with over $1,000,000 donated to local organizations since 1997.