John Conley was a teenager fresh out of the Navy when he opened his first White Elephant military surplus store in 1946.
“The term ‘white elephant’ refers to something expensive that nobody wants,” explained Pat Conley, the fourth of John and Mary Conley’s seven sons. “When Dad started, he sold all the war stuff the military didn’t want anymore – blankets, helmets … even trucks.”
Gradually, Conley expanded his inventory to include hardware and sporting goods. And when the fifth of his 11 children arrived in the late 1950s, he figured it was time to add a toy section.
Today, the White Elephant stores on North Division Street and East Sprague Avenue are landmarks and something of a family dynasty. Almost a fourth of company employees are Conley relatives.
Pat Conley runs the East Sprague store, and the eldest son, Rich, manages the company and the Division store. The brothers took time out of their hectic holiday schedules to reminisce about the early days and share their vision for White Elephant.
S-R: What was Christmas like for children whose parents owned a toy store?
Pat: Dad was always real conservative, so we each got only one toy.
Rich: But he’d be up all night putting stuff together. There was always a big display around the Christmas tree.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of the store?
Rich: We went to St. Aloysius (elementary, several blocks away) and we lived in Colbert, so we’d be in here every day after school.
S-R: When did you start working in the store?
Pat: As soon as we could sweep. I remember cleaning out the coal furnace, and then sweeping the floors at night. Dad always had us carry a pan of sawdust and sand with an oil in it, and we’d spread it down the aisles – we called it “feeding the chickens” – and then we’d sweep.
Rich: When my own kids were 2 and 3 years old, they’d spend Sundays with us stocking the store. My daughter used to hang up all the Barbie doll clothes.
S-R: Did you have a favorite section when you were growing up?
Pat: My favorite was the Breyer horses.
Rich: I remember we had Matchbox toys in a display case numbered one through 69, and I kept all the cars in order.
S-R: Did you always imagine someday you’d run the business?
Rich: Yes. Dad’s dream was a store for each of the seven boys. But the other five went on to different things.
S-R: What is White Elephant’s business philosophy?
Rich: Buy cheap, buy closeouts, buy discontinued items – white elephants – and sell them at a good price.
Pat: For instance, those metal sleds out front are hard to come by. A couple of weeks ago, I found them at a distributor who was closing them out, and I grabbed them.
S-R: Do you sometimes get deals on oddities?
Rich: We bought all the souvenirs left over from Expo ’74.
Pat: Two semitruck loads. They filled up the whole basement.
S-R: Anything left?
Rich: Oh, yeah. Ashtrays don’t sell like they used to.
S-R: Despite your success, the North Division store hasn’t changed much in six decades. Why?
Pat: We talked to an architect about rebuilding, but because of Spokane’s zoning laws, we wouldn’t have enough parking spaces even if we tore down the building. So we’re working internally – things like adding lights to brighten it up.
S-R: White Elephant didn’t accept credit cards until 1995. Was that a painful transition?
Rich: It was for Dad.
Pat: We had the credit-card deal all lined up for three years, but we had to wait until he went on a 12-week trip to Europe to activate it.
S-R: How’d he react when he got back?
Pat: He just groaned – until he saw the first (sales) totals.
S-R: Any more changes on the horizon, such as Internet sales?
Pat: We installed a POS (point-of-sale) system this year for better inventory control between our two stores. That, in turn, will help us get onto the Internet. We’re also trying to organize the two stores the same way, so when customers come into either store they can go to the same area and find the same products.
S-R: Is your 84-year-old father still involved in the business?
Rich: Yes. He pays all the bills from home. And whenever he comes down to the store, customers line up to shake his hand.
S-R: Could someone today do what your dad did in 1946?
Pat: No, because of all the big-box stores out there. He didn’t have to compete with that.
S-R: With so many businesses failing, what’s your secret?
Pat: We own the property, so our overhead is low. And we have a long outlook. We’re trying to make this a next-generation business for our family and our employees’ families. People are constantly wanting to buy us out. But this is our livelihood, and our kids’ and their kids’.
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