Only the Best!
April 30, 2018 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Best Products is a now-defunct catalog showroom chain that had some really cool and really unusual store designs.
posted by DRoll (41 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you so much for this post.

My father worked for Best from the mid 1960s until the early 1990s. He started as a store clerk and ended up in the corporate office (seen in the photos as the Ashland, Virginia store) as a department director for a department he created. Back in the 60s, he convinced his store manager to let him do something Best was not currently doing: sell sporting goods. They gave him a little corner of the store, and it took off, eventually going nationwide.

He was good at getting celebrity endorsements. As a child, I got to meet Bjorn Borg and Tracey Austin, and see Borg play Jimmy Connors in an exhibition match. Through this endorsement work, he also developed a long friendship with A's/Yankees pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter. Dad was a pallbearer at Jimmy's funeral, and at the reception, I got to meet so many of my childhood baseball heroes, including Reggie Jackson.

My first job was at a Best Products store in Richmond, Virginia (in the first link, it is the bottom, right store). My job was to take orders sent to the basement by pneumatic tubes, find the product on the shelves, and send it up a long, steep conveyer belt. It was how I learned the hard way that a television is heavier on one side. Good times.
posted by 4ster at 10:42 AM on April 30, 2018 [24 favorites]


Oh man, we'd always go with dad to the Pam-E-Kays donuts and get a dozen, then walk across the parking lot to the BEST on Saturdays. Good memories, mostly of those bizarre 80s ergonomic chairs that we could never figure out how you sat in.
posted by k5.user at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


In the 80s in South Florida it was Best, Luria's and Service Merchandise with the wierd catalogue showroom vibe. It was always annoying to have to wait like 10-20 minutes for your crap to come up the belt. I suspect that's why the model didn't fare so well in the face of all the regular places one could buy this stuff: Sears, Burdines, KMart, Zayers. "My" store was the Cutler Ridge one and it was cool but the store never seemed to have enough people in it to justify its existence.

It was the worst combination of having to put pants on, but still having to wait for stuff to be shipped so you can then take it home. Lee Valley is still like this and I still hate it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:18 AM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


This is really good and I've never heard of this. Was it mostly East Coast?

Fry's Electronics earlier stores had pretty elaborate themes, but I think they've toned it down a lot now. The Burbank store with the Alien Invasion theme was pretty fantastic when it opened. I feel like Fry's is everywhere now, but apparently they only have 34 stores.

On a related note, the list of defunct retailers is pretty depressing, especially realizing most of them went out in the last 20-25 years, and surprising how many went away in just the last 5 years. There are several places I didn't even know were gone.
posted by bongo_x at 11:29 AM on April 30, 2018


Was it mostly East Coast?

We had one in Boise, Idaho.
posted by Hatashran at 11:44 AM on April 30, 2018


This is amazing. The Best store we had near us in Fairfax, VA was really warehouse-like, a big box that seemed strangely empty except for a few fancy office chairs. As a kid I found it eerie and offputting.
posted by PussKillian at 12:12 PM on April 30, 2018


SITE, the landscape firm responsible for these projects, has more amazing work that crosses the boundary between landscape and art, and remarkably still exists (see link above) James Wines is a crucial link in the history of postmodern / pop design and has inspired, directly or indirectly, a lot of work today that focuses on concept and experience as a driver of design.
posted by q*ben at 12:16 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Are any of those buildings still there, or have they all been demolished?
posted by monotreme at 12:22 PM on April 30, 2018


Best was great because, as a catalog showroom, everything could be touched. Such as videogames.

When the one near me opened around 1981, they had these huge baskets full of promotional...LIGHTERS. My friends and I would snarf armfuls of these, take them home, and learn how to turn them into flamethrowers.

I feel like as a precursor, Consumers Distributing should be mentioned. Much smaller than Best, fewer things out on shelves, but a precursor nonetheless. The one that was by me is now a laser tag place.

I still refer to the strip mall where Best was near me as "Best Plaza" rather than whatever stupid name it has now. We had many, many good times in the parking lot of Best Plaza, and I can still see the exact patches where our skateboard noses punctured holes in the cheap stucco exterior 30 years ago.
posted by rhizome at 12:23 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


monotreme, only the forest one remains - now a Presbyterian Church according to the FA link.
posted by q*ben at 12:25 PM on April 30, 2018


Are any of those buildings still there, or have they all been demolished?


I know the one I used to work in is now a church. There is another one in the Richmond, VA area that did not have the cool architecture that is, I believe, vacant.
posted by 4ster at 12:25 PM on April 30, 2018


"My" store was the Cutler Ridge one...

This took me right back, for I was a wide-eyed youth who eagerly awaited trips to that Best store. Was there an arcade in this location, or am I thinking of Zayre's?
posted by DrAstroZoom at 12:29 PM on April 30, 2018


PussKillian: Fairfax, VA -- the one at 50 and Gallows, by the middle school (Luther Jackson?)
posted by k5.user at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Those pictures at the end of the second link showing what two Best sites look like today is easily the worst thing I'll see all week.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:35 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Fry's Electronics earlier stores had pretty elaborate themes, but I think they've toned it down a lot now. The Burbank store with the Alien Invasion theme was pretty fantastic when it opened. I feel like Fry's is everywhere now, but apparently they only have 34 stores.

San Jose Fry's still has the insane Aztec Pyramid theme, outside and inside. It's. so. crazy. They're really just a California & Texas thing with a handful in some other states.
posted by GuyZero at 12:36 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


DrAstroZoom, the arcade nearest there that was any good, was on the south side of the overpass in the Cutler Ridge mall.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:37 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


The Best in Citrus Heights, CA is now a Burlington Coat Factory. The Mervyn's next door is now a Kohl's.

(And the Roseville Fry's has a subtle train theme!)
posted by elsietheeel at 12:48 PM on April 30, 2018


Also the Sacramento Best store is a Best Buy and it looks like this.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:54 PM on April 30, 2018


I’d like to point out that a lot of design history and theory people would have an aneurysm hearing Fry’s and Best compared this way. They are wrong and everyone here is right. If it walks like an architectonic duck...
posted by q*ben at 12:58 PM on April 30, 2018


The first job I ever applied to, and then was glad to not get, was at BEST in Bradenton FL. Which was a pretty boring-looking building.
posted by Foosnark at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2018


And the Roseville Fry's has a subtle train theme!

That must only be west coast Fry's stores. The one outside Chicago is as soulless and un-fun as going to get your driver's license renewed.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:01 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


I’d like to point out that a lot of design history and theory people would have an aneurysm hearing Fry’s and Best compared this way.

I actually don't think it's a great comparison but they're the only two instances of modern big-box (and they're literally just big boxes) stores that look like something other than an unadorned box. AT least that I can think of. Fry's is less postmodern than modern kitsch.
posted by GuyZero at 1:10 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


There's a Cabelas in Dundee, MI that is a big box with some design and over-the-top theming.

The Best stores I remember from the 70s (also in Michigan) were boring boxes. Buying stuff there was like waiting for your luggage at the airport. Eventually it would get spit out the conveyor belt and you hope for a correct and undamaged thing.
posted by elizilla at 1:14 PM on April 30, 2018


actually don't think it's a great comparison but they're the only two instances of modern big-box (and they're literally just big boxes) stores that look like something other than an unadorned box.
I agree that there is a significant qualitative and conceptual difference, but not a categorical one. In academia they like to draw a nice line around “theming” as if it’s separate from other architectural approaches, but it’s always struck me as not holding a lot of water. Disneyland and Bilbao use the same basic architectural methodologies (and had elements fabricated by the same companies). It’s trying to make a theoretical distinction to conceal a classist bias.
posted by q*ben at 1:18 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


The Lewis family (store founders) were also big into other forms of art, among other projects. Their house in the Fan District of Richmond VA had all kinds of neat sculpture in the yard (sorry, can't find a picture, darnit!), and they gave lots of $ and stuff to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Here is Mr. Lewis's obit.
posted by JanetLand at 1:22 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


k5.user: Intersection of 50 and 29, nearish my elementary school Fairfax Villa. It's an Aldi now. Was a gym for a while.
posted by PussKillian at 1:32 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


It’s trying to make a theoretical distinction to conceal a classist bias.

So I agree that it's a pretty blurry line for a categorical difference but I'm not sure if there's a big classist difference at play between Fry's and Best, neither of which are particularly high-brow. For Sleeping Beauty's castle vs the museum at Bilbao, sure, there's some classism going on there.
posted by GuyZero at 1:46 PM on April 30, 2018


GuyZero, the article at the second link shows the academic opinion of these projects. There is a whole “high-art” interpretation to the Best projects that is very significant to architects (myself included). It’s like a commercial Gordon Matta Clark. We just don’t want to admit that it’s a cousin to themed retail even if it is.
posted by q*ben at 2:20 PM on April 30, 2018


I lived in the Sacramento area during the last few years of their existence, and the first time I saw the notch store, it was closed, and slide out corner was retracted into the building. I thought the guy telling me was pulling my leg until I drove past it another time and saw it open.

Never went in to it, but about a decade later I did buy a computer from the Best Buy that had moved into the space. It wasn't a very good computer.
posted by Badgermann at 3:00 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Was there one of these in Southern California? I vaguely remember one from my childhood but “best stores in Orange County” is obviously a tough search term.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:00 PM on April 30, 2018


I have never seen these before and my mind is blown. That notch facade is something else - and the notch shut at closing time?! Genuine amazement over here. The forest building is just glorious too. That's some architectural wit right there. Thanks so much for posting!
posted by freya_lamb at 3:27 PM on April 30, 2018


It's worth noting that SITE was also responsible for the late Ghost Parking Lot in Hamden, CT.

Fashion dies very young, so we must forgive it everything.

—Jean Cocteau
posted by sonascope at 3:30 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


San Jose Fry's still has the insane Aztec Pyramid theme, outside and inside. It's. so. crazy. They're really just a California & Texas thing with a handful in some other states.

That is something. There's one in Phoenix that has a golf (?!?) theme that's subtle and boring I didn't even notice it until I was in there quite a while. There's one in Atlanta and if it has a theme I never noticed.

I’d like to point out that a lot of design history and theory people would have an aneurysm hearing Fry’s and Best compared this way.


Yeah, I don't know if I'd totally lump them together myself, except they are the only big box stores doing unique visuals I can think of. So I guess I did.
posted by bongo_x at 3:51 PM on April 30, 2018


Supplemental reading - the first Best showroom was completed the year Learning From Las Vegas was published.
posted by q*ben at 4:41 PM on April 30, 2018


I'm glad the forest one still seems to be around in some form -- we shopped there several times and I think I was too young to recognized the unusual bits of it, but I still regard it with affection. I'm glad that for all its weirdness and flaws, Richmond still likes a lot of its different architecture. (I would often take people to the Markel Building because LOOK AT THAT THING.)

(We drove by the Ashland one enough and I always thought that was cool.)

I'm sad most of these have been destroyed, although I get that they were weird to begin with & didn't really translate into other stores. But so many big box stores are just so ... boring! ... I liked that BEST tried to do something else. It wasn't necessarily my aesthetic but I'm glad it existed.
posted by darksong at 7:43 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Growing up in Sacramento, I remember the notch Best but at the time it didn't feel remarkable because at the same time, all of the Taco Bells looked like miniature Spanish missions, and buildings like White Front department store were still in recent memory.
posted by jamaro at 8:17 PM on April 30, 2018


It was a different age, when commercial architecture could be genuinely playful. There are some more great SITE models and drawings in this post at Andreas Angelidakis's long neglected blog. And (sort of self-link, apologies) the intriguing connection between James Wines and one of the world's most expensive private residences (third para, final picture).
posted by srednivashtar at 10:35 PM on April 30, 2018


Two things.

First off great to see these again. I subscribed to a UK monthly science magazine in the early 1980s, called 'Science Now'. One issue had a feature on these stores which I always loved revisiting.

Secondly that second link is setting off hella malware alarm bells on our corporate firewalls here.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:51 AM on May 1, 2018


I used to go with my parents to that "Indeterminate Facade" Best store in Houston when I was a kid. Only to me it was "that weird store."

Thanks for the post. Brings back memories I forgot I had.
posted by cross_impact at 9:58 AM on May 1, 2018


The Best in Richfield, Minnesota got knocked down and is now a Menards home improvement store. I don’t think the original building was architecturally-significant - I just remember it being a huge white big box with a Chi Chi’s “Mexican” restaurant in the parking lot. The catalogs were cool, though!
posted by Maarika at 12:45 PM on May 1, 2018


Every Fry's has a theme. Some are cooler than others. When my kids were little, they loved to walk around the Dallas store (ranch theme) and see the longhorns. They called it "Bull Fry's," although I believe bull fries mean something very different at an actual ranch.
posted by Dojie at 4:18 AM on May 2, 2018


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