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Monday, April 04, 2011

Born grocerymen: A. J. Bayless and Smitty

The two greatest grocers from the past to do business in the Phoenix area are Clyde “Smitty” Smith and A. J. Bayless. Both had great success but they also came from totally different backgrounds.

I’ve talked about Smitty in previous blogs (August 6, 2010, December 7, 2010). He was born in 1919 and grew up dirt poor in Iowa. He fell in love with the grocery business at an early age and through hard work built a chain of stores in Phoenix from 1960-1980 that eventually controlled 35% of the Phoenix market.

A.J. Bayless, center with derby.

A. J. Bayless’ rise through the grocery business took a different route. He was born into a family of grocers according to historian Jack August. His grandfather had owned a store in Tennessee and his father, J. B. Bayless, opened his first store in Phoenix at Van Buren and Grand in 1917.

By 1930, J.B. had opened 18 stores but was getting a bit long in the tooth so he decided to retire and sell off his holdings. Meanwhile, A. J. had spent his entire youth working in the stores so he knew every aspect of the business. When his father sold his stores, 21 year old A. J. Bayless opened a store of his own. Throughout the Depression and World War II, the Bayless chain continued to grow as A. J. had an uncanny sense of finding good locations. He saw the postwar suburbanization of Phoenix taking place so he put stores in new areas, especially in strip malls. In 1948 alone, he opened three stores using that philosophy.

It helped that Bayless was in tight with some developers who realized they could sell homes faster if a mall, especially a mall with a grocery store, was located near the newly built homes. A good example of this was West Plaza Shopping Center at 35th Avenue and Bethany Home which opened in 1959. That center had the largest Bayless store up to that time and it contributed to making West Plaza the second largest shopping center in Arizona behind only Park Central.

A. J. Bayless was riding a wave of success in the early 1960s when he began to experience medical problems. By 1962, he radically slowed his activity with the stores and in March of 1967 at age 58, he died. The A. J. Bayless chain had lost its leader and although it contained 47 stores, The Bayless family eventually sold off the stores to other chains or independent groups.

Many of you probably remember the layout of the Bayless Stores. Some were sold to Bashas’ and re-named “A. J.’s” There is one in particular in Carefree that I remember as a Bayless store. It is still operating as a Bashas' and I shop there often.

To summarize, Smitty and A. J. Bayless were both born grocery men who achieved success from different sides of the tracks. A. J. Died too soon at age 58. Smitty is long retired and living in Texas at age 91.


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