The Wal-Mart Supercenter that opened in Great Bend in 2004 is a monstrosity. Biggest building I’ve ever seen in Great Bend. But the first, the original, discount house in Great Bend was Gibson’s Discount Center.
The original Gibson’s store in Great Bend was located on Washington St. But in 1965 Gibsons built a huge building on W. Tenth and reopened Gibson’s there. Although the building was dinky compared to our current Walmart Supercenter, the Gibson’s store opening was a big deal, a veritable circus atmosphere. The sign in front of the building was called “The Biggest Outdoor Sign in Kansas.” To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain in describing the Mississippi River, “it was a monstrous big sign.” Gibson’s Discount Center…The Best For Less.”
At the grand opening, they sold big tubes of Crest toothpaste for a nickel apiece. My Dad was crazy about Gibsons. He even had a nickname for the store: “Gibbies”. He would say, “Anybody wanna go to Gibbies?” We would jump at the chance. Dad explained to me once that a federal law at one time required retailers to sell items for the price dictated by the manufacturers. But the repeal of that law made Gibsons possible. I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, and I still don’t know what law he was talking about. All I knew was I liked Gibsons.
I wasn’t just a customer. I got to work there. I worked there three summers, 1977, 1978 and 1979. The store was owned by a “Mr. Stockton.” We referred to him behind his back as “Old Man Stockton.” He was like the Loch Ness Monster—-everybody talked about him but he never seemed to appear. When he did appear, the word spread like wildfire: “OLD MAN STOCKTON IS COMING!” We would act really busy. His son in law was the manager at one point—Bob Clement, a pilot and Vietnam war hero. When Old Man Stockton came around, I prayed: “Dear Jesus, please let him not notice me and ask me questions.”
Gibson’s had an elaborate anti-shoplifting tool: fake cameras. These video cameras were mounted at the end of each aisle. I found one in the back room, hollow as a tin can.
Gibsons was very concerned about the environment: we burned all the empty merchandise boxes in an incinerator, sending plumes of stinky smoke into the prairie sky. I liked putting stuff in the incinerator. It was like an indoor camp fire.
My first year at Gibsons was 1977. I started in the Springtime. Cindy Lloyd was my boss in charge of toys and garden supply. She was a great boss. I got to stock the latest toys, and I worked outside at the Garden Center. “All rosebushes guaranteed alive at the time of sale,” I was told to say. The next year people brought back the rose bushes in droves and got replacements for free. I guess alot of the rosebushes were dead at the time of sale. Who knew?
The next summer I worked in the Camera and Record (Music) Department. My boss was Wendy Karst, later known as Wendy Thomas. She was good looking and very nice. One afternoon I was getting ready to go to work at Gibsons and I turned on NBC Nightly News. David Brinkley started the broadcast with these memorable words: “Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, is dead.” That night when I got to Gibsons, customers were buying Elvis Presley albums like crazy. We could hardly give them away before that. People acted like they were not going to make any more of them.
I remember when the album “Grease” was so popular that the only copy we had left was in the record player. A lady lifted the lid to our record player and wanted to buy the demo that was spinning round and round in the record player. I turned her down. I wanted to listen to Olivia Newton John belting out “Grease” tunes. To heck with the customer!
Once, Miss Kansas (Jill Dirks) came to the camera department for two hours for a scheduled appearance. She posed for pictures with dozens of people. With only 5 minutes left, I sheepishly asked her if I could have my picture taken with her. She knew I had wanted one the whole time. Maybe she noticed me staring at her for two hours.
In the summer of ’79, I finished my final exams at KU and went in to see the boss at Gibsons, just assuming they would have a job for me. I had prayed that God would provide a good summer job for me. I was stunned to be told that they had no openings. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I went home with a hangdog expression on my face, and told my mom that Gibson’s didn’t need me. God had let me down, I thought. (Back then I thought God was a celestial vending machine, and I was genuinely surprised that there wasn’t a job for me.) Mom had me go to the Unemployment office in Great Bend immediately. I had barely sat down with the unemployment representative when the phone rang. “Are you Marty Keenan?” said the worker. “Yes,” I said. “Your mom is on the phone.” I picked up the phone, and my mom said: “Marty, Gibsons just called and they have a job for you.” It was a sign, a miracle. I raced straight back to Gibsons, and the same guy who turned me down 45 minutes earlier said: “Marty, I have created an opening.”
He fired a guy. I still don’t know who got fired or why. All I knew was that God was good, and that I had snared a job in the best department of all—-Sporting Goods.
Ron Tournear was my immediate boss in Sporting Goods. He did little to put me at ease when he grabbed a .357 magnum from the gun case, pointed the weapon at my feet and shouted: “DANCE, BITCH!” Of course, the gun wasn’t loaded. Tournear was hilarious. His trademark phrase that summer: “WHAT IT IS!” I never knew if it was a question or a statement. One of my old chums from St. Pats Grade School, Eddie Bianchino worked in hardware, which was near Sporting Goods. Eddie was one of the only Italians in town, but he was half German, too. His mom was a Bieker. (Eddie’s first cousin is radio personality Scott Donovan, and their laughs are identical.)
When Eddie Bianchino was gone, I would sometimes work in the hardware department, and I’m not very mechanical. A customer asked me to spool out 10 feet of wire, the flat kind of wire. He said: “I’m getting HBO.” I naively said, “Wow, Home Box Office. How much is that gonna cost you?” The man gave me a did-you-just-fall-off-a-turnip-truck look and said: “Son, you’re missing the point. With this wire I’m going to get HBO FOR FREE!” He grinned like a possum with a sweet potato. In a low, conspiratorial voice, he explained to me how to hook the flat wire to the back of your TV set, and to get some tin foil and slide the tin foil up and down the wire until—VOILA—-free HBO.
There were so many great people working at Gibsons: Ron Tournear, Eddie Bianchino, Vicki Sheets, Vicki’s mom, known as “Granny,” Carrie Bodine, Gayla Gore, Jerry Ming, Steve Thier and so many others. Paul Berscheidt, Marilyn Rivers. There was a girl who worked there named Eckert whose Dad was the custodian at St. Pats. There was a dude, an older man—-BILL BIDWELL!—who worked in shipping and was very funny. He didn’t say much, but when he said something it was funny. There was a Santa Claus/Berle Ives-looking character named Barraclaugh. Cindy Lloyd told me in a respectful voice:: “Mr. Barraclaugh, WWII.” I said, “What’s that, a form?“, cluelessly thinking of the W-2 form I got from Gibsons at tax time. In fact, he was a war hero.
Today the Gibson’s building sits empty. K-Mart built a store next door. K-Mart ate Gibsons, and then Wal-Mart ate K-Mart. All a part of the natural food chain in commerce, I suppose. But “Old Man Stockton” was a pioneer. Like Neil Armstrong, he was there first.
Left: One of my pay stubs from Gibsons. We got paid in cash, with all the proper withholding done. Payday was fun, because you would get an envelope full of cash. I made $2.65 per hour in 1978.