a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, February 23, 2009

Author takes a friendly look at Murphy's

Jason Togyer has the potential to become one of America’s great storytellers of the working-class condition.

His new book, “For the Love of Murphy’s” carefully tells a department chain's history through the eyes of the people who dedicated their careers to the most popular five-and-dime in the Pittsburgh region.

And their stories are rich with the spirit of the nation’s industrial heartland.

Take the one, for example, from Sandra Wilson, who worked the jewelry counter in a Murphy's in downtown Washington, Pa., during the late 1950s. A hot item one Christmas was a ring bearing a giant costume diamond that her silly boyfriend used in his marriage proposal. She accepted on the spot, and he gave her the real thing on Christmas Day.

But life on the job wasn’t so romantic for the Murphy girls who worked in the flagship store in McKeesport, Pa. One discussed how she would roll soda pop bottles across the floor to scare off rats before starting her shift. Another talked about being chased around the stockroom by frisky male coworkers.

These women were required to keep their clothes starched to a crisp and merchandise counters stocked and neatly arranged.

Dorothy Everetts, who worked in Mercersburg, Pa., said she now longs for the quality service customers grew to expect at Murphy’s.

“When you ask a clerk now about an item, they look at you as if you are talking in a foreign language,” Everetts told Togyer.

He made extensive use of the company’s archives to explain how the "Macy’s of Appalachia" went on to outpace the sales of its competitors before being raided by Wall Street hounds in the 1980s.

Togyer's book was published in hardback in 2008 by The Pennsylvania State University.

It’s a nostalgic read for anyone who fondly remembers their routine trips to the local G.C. Murphy Co. store and the smell of roasting peanuts or hot dogs sizzling on a griddle. The affordable stock that was spread out in orderly fashion somehow brought a certain level of calm to the chaotic lives of steelworkers and their families.

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