THE WHITE ELEPHANT
HERE JUST FOR FUN SINCE 1946
The White Elephant at 1730 North Division St. in 1951
"The Family Behind White Elephant Stores" by Mark Carter from Nostalgia Magazine June 2004.
John Conley likes to point out that his was not the first family in the Inland Northwest to use the White Elephant moniker for a place of business. It was actually Wyatt Earp. Back in the late 1800s, the legendary Earp and his brother ran the White Elephant Saloon out of a tent in Northern Idaho. But since 1946, the Conley family's White Elephant surplus stores in Spokane have drawn many more customers than the Earps did out of their tent — and the Conleys even sell the tents.
John Conley was born May 4, 1927, in New Jersey, and he was raised in Lower Manhattan, New York. As a barefoot boy in a one-room apartment, he didn't know how bad he had it. Life was a great adventure.
His father, James R. Conley, ran a cigar store in the CBS Building in New York City, and at the time that area was just about the center of the world for entertainment celebrities, as well as a clearing house of news from all over the world.
World's Fairs have influenced the lives of both John Conley and his father. The elder Conley made a gamble on some land believed to be needed for New York's World's Fair parking. The gamble didn't pay Off, and, with the CBS Building changing course, the elder Conley brought the family to Washington state. And it was his son John Conley who thirty years ago took a chance on 280,000 leftover Expo '74 World's Fair souvenirs. His gamble paid off, even though many of those brand new souvenirs are still on the shelf at White Elephant Stores.
Living in Washington state, a teenaged John Conley dropped out of school. He later joined the Navy. At nineteen years old, he opened the first White Elephant Surplus Store in Spokane, and his stores are still moving merchandise.
Conley opened the first White Elephant Surplus Store in Spokane in 1946. In 1948, Conley opened a second Store on North Division. It was right after the big war, so at that time his stores sold mainly military surplus items. They soon added more general merchandise and in just a few years the White Elephant became the areas favorite discount toy and sporting goods store.
Neither of the first two stores remained in the same location. The Sprague store was closed and, for a while, the Division store was the only White Elephant Store operating, Eventually, son Ed Conley revived White Elephant in the Valley, and both stores are operating today. And, chances are, the lady or gentleman behind the counter is a Conley family connection.
"Only in the U .S.A. could a with only seven years of school and the help of God be this lucky," says John, looking back on his life. "I've had a great life."
In December of 1975, John Conley took his employees and their children, a dying man, a policeman, his banker, and a nurse on a Hawaiian vacation. "l never visit the same place twice unless I can bring someone new with me, " Conley says. His passion for showing folks around has won him many friends around the country and overseas — not to mention millions of Worldperk air miles.
White Elephant moved to 1730 North Division in 1951. In the early years, John's wife, Mary, ran the second store on North Division, while John ran the Sprague store. When Mary would need help, John would take the quickest route to her store, leaving the Sprague store open, but unmanned. One time, Conley returned to his Sprague store to find a man trying on pair after pair of surplus shoes. The man had many pairs untied and lined up down the aisle. When Conley came in, the man said, "Hey, where've you been?"
Think About White Elephants
Where did they get that name? "Some people thought it was a little crazy. I thought it just fit," muses John Conley. The white elephant in front of the North Division store used to be one of the rides at Natatorium Park. The big White elephant on top of the Sprague store was once motorized for articulation and it even trumpeted. And then back at the Conley home there's the White elephant fountain, the white elephant picture on the wall..
"My kids are always bringing me white elephants," laughs John Conley as he walks across a giant white elephant rug in his living room.
John Conley fishing
Idaho's Priest Lake. Late 1940s.
"Conley Family Serves up 65 Years worth of White Elephant Deals" by Michael Guilfoil from Spokesman-Review Newspaper.
19: John Conley’s age when he started White Elephant
65: Years the company has been in business.
48: Number of employees
$1.6 million: Annual toy sales (40 percent of overall sales)
280,000: Expo ’74 souvenirs White Elephant bought after fair closed.
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’.
The second and third generations of the Conley family stand outside the iconic store on North Division for a family photo on Dec. 5. From left: Rich Conley with his daughter Katie Conley Mustered, and Ben Conley with his father Pat.