COLUMN - Superior Sports Store started with cigars
Holland, MI - Remember 1978? Thirty years ago, I bought white leather, high top Converse All-Stars from Superior Sports Store. The year before that I did the same, and also picked up a high school letter jacket. The numbers and letters had been sewn and attached to the jacket by my aunt Nancy, who worked as a subcontractor for Superior. Today, my aunt is still sewing letters onto jackets, but I no longer wear athletic clothing.
A lot has changed in 30 years. Even more has changed in the 99 years since Superior's founding, but Superior's history goes back even further.
In 1906, maybe even before that, Bert VandePoel began making cigars in his basement at 70 E. 16th St. We know because he kept records, which have been passed on to three successive generations. Bert didn't keep good records. Part of the reason is that he didn't legally have to, as Congress didn't pass an income tax law until 1913. Up until that time the government relied on tariffs, excise taxes and other forms of taxation for revenue.
In 1909, Bert VandePoel and Len DeLoof purchased Boven Brothers Cigar Factory at 206 River Ave., which they renamed the Superior Cigar Store. The purchase price was $328.84. New fixtures cost them an additional $410. The partners rolled cigars and sold them to retail stores and customers. Soon they added a soda fountain.
In the early 1920s Superior added another line: sporting goods. This came about because Hugo Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith Sporting Lines, stopped in Superior Cigar Store to buy a cigar and complain about his customer - a sporting goods retailer whose store was across the street. He was so disgusted with the store owner across the street that he offered VandePoel and DeLoof the opportunity to sell Goldsmith Sporting Goods on consignment. To build brand awareness, the store sponsored a baseball team - the Holland Flying Dutchmen - which played at Riverview Park.
Patrons could now smoke cigars, drink soda and shop for sporting equipment at the same time. They could also keep up on the sporting news. Their version of the Internet was to run across the block to the telephone company to get the scores from an operator.
An additional product line was added in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Believe it or not, one of the newest sports at Superior was competing with slot machines. Customers could then play the slots, drink soda and smoke cigars. Smoking cigars was made easy by a flame that burned from a gas pipe contraption that extended down from the ceiling.
Saturdays were particularly busy days for Superior, as they were for many downtown stores, because Saturday was the day many of the farmers and everyone else came downtown to hang out and spend their "egg" money.
By the late 1930s and early 1940s, Superior was selling athletic equipment, candy products, cigars, hunting and fishing equipment, pinball machines and slot machines. The tobacco from the cigars came from Cuba and Kentucky, and had to be stripped and dried. To increase foot traffic, Superior operated a Saturday night raffle to give away a free box of cigars.
Superior also sold tickets to sporting events. By that time Russ VandePoel, Bert's son, was an integral part of the business. One of his responsibilities was to sell Superior's hand-rolled cigars to area stores. At its peak before World War II, Superior employed 13 people. We'll tell more next time.