Benny’s owner on closure of family-run chain: ‘Things have changed’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The year was 1968, and Arnold Bromberg was working at the North Main Street location of his family’s retail chain, which at the time had been operating for four decades.

“There were supposedly going to be people rioting,” Bromberg recalled, with political protests happening across the country. North Main Street businesses in Providence were shutting down in light of the protests. But Benny’s – by then a neighborhood favorite – was keeping its doors open.

“We stayed open, customers came in, we took care of them,” he said.

Bromberg recalled the favorite memory from his office at Benny’s Smithfield headquarters on Friday evening, a few hours after announcing that the family-run chain would be shutting down by the end of the year.

“The time has come,” Bromberg told Eyewitness News. “Things have changed.”

Bromberg cited dwindling foot traffic and the changing retail climate as the main reasons for the closure. He declined to say how far sales have fallen, but said the trend has been going downward for the past 10 to 15 years.

“What sustains us is the people doing the shopping,” he said. “And they’re not doing the shopping the way they used to.”

Benjamin Bromberg, the founder of Benny’s, is seen inside one of the original stores. (courtesy: Benny’s)

Plenty has changed since Bromberg’s grandfather Benjamin Bromberg – the original “Benny” – opened the first store on Fountain Street in Providence back in 1924, when he decided to turn his talents as a local tire salesman into his own business selling mostly auto parts and radios.

“The radio was a new invention,” Bromberg said. “It was the iPod of the 1920s.”

While the chain has become a go-to location to buy snow shovels, Christmas decorations, bicycles and patio furniture, it hasn’t weathered the rise of e-commerce and competition from companies like Amazon. Bromberg said it wasn’t going to be sustainable for the next generation of the family to take over the company.

Bromberg and his siblings will be retiring, ceasing operations by the end of the year and selling the Benny’s properties in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, many of which are standalone stores with good-sized parking lots.

“We’ve never had a store in a mall,” Bromberg said. “We’ve always expected our customer to be able to pull up the door, go and buy the bag of rock salt and shovel and go right back out to the car.”

He said the company is fielding offers. “They’re great retail locations, so I’m sure somebody will slip into them,” Bromberg added. When asked if the properties would be sold to one buyer or individually, he said it could go either way.

An end-of-summer sale is already going on, and Bromberg said more sales will take place before the chain shuts down.

The Providence Journal building site on Fountain Street, looking north from corner of Fountain and Mathewson Streets, when it was Benny’s. June 1, 1933. (courtesy: Benny’s)

The company’s 715 employees, about half of whom are full-time, were notified Friday that the stores were closing and they would be losing their jobs. Gov. Gina Raimondo said Friday the Department of Labor and Training was reaching out to assist those employees.

Outside the Smithfield store Friday evening, Rosanne Morales and her grandchildren were taking a selfie with the Benny’s sign. They had just purchased a kite.

“We were looking for kites and no one else had them, but Benny’s did,” Morales said. “Years to come they’ll be able to say, ‘We were at that place called Benny’s,’ and they’ll be able to show their grandchildren.”

It’s precisely the legacy Arnold Bromberg sees Benny’s leaving behind.

“It’s always going to be, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where that Benny’s used to be,'” he said. “It’ll always be in everyone’s mind, I think. It’s built in.”

Ted Nesi contibuted to this report.