Best Of Tucson®

Retail Movement

Albert Steinfeld got his start in business in Tucson before the railroad arrived in 1880 and became a successful mine owner and banker. But he was best known for his downtown department store.

The track-laying had brought many Chinese men to town, and it was more than three decades later that Gin Soo arrived. He opened a small store at South Third Avenue and 17th Street in the Armory Park neighborhood and continued in business for many years.

By 1926, Steinfeld had retired and turned over his retail interests to his son, Harold. Before that, he operated a commercial complex which sprawled over two blocks downtown at the intersection of Stone Avenue and Pennington Street. It contained small brick buildings, selling groceries and hardware items, along with a larger department store.

After his retirement, Steinfeld recalled Tucson was once lit by candles, then coal oil, later gas lights and finally electricity, which he remembered "had a hard time getting a foothold" here. The community also had been without telephones in the 1870s, but 50 years later, the department store which bore Steinfeld's name had four lines. It also sold canary cages made in Japan, while in New York, the National Broadcasting Company was established to bring the country electronically closer together.

Even though his stores were concentrated downtown, Steinfeld's forecast for the community was that retail establishments in the residential sections of town "have a place in the economic scheme" of things. Because of that, he predicted, "they will probably stay."

Among those scattered businesses by 1926 were 50 Chinese grocers. At the Gin store in Armory Park, there was merchandise stacked to the ceiling, with people using a "grabber" pole to snag stuff off the high shelves.

The store also sold vegetables obtained from a farmer's market, along with other food items supplied by wholesalers located in the large warehouses next to the railroad tracks along Toole Avenue. Gin's additionally carried fresh meat, which the proprietor butchered himself.

Back downtown, as the community grew, major retailers such as J.C. Penney, Rebeil's and Jacome's stretched east along Congress Street toward the railroad station.

To connect Congress Street with the expanding retail district on Fourth Avenue, an automobile underpass had opened a decade earlier, and eventually, three more would be built to allow motorists to avoid the railroad tracks.

One of those underpasses was constructed in 1930 on Sixth Avenue, and it provided easy access to the new O'Rielly Motor Company showroom near Sixth Street. Four years earlier, the firm had been located in cramped quarters south of the tracks and was selling '26 Chevrolet coupes for $645.

After it relocated, O'Reilly's occupied a modern-looking curvilinear structure with huge display windows. The building's design demonstrated one of the latest evolutions of retailing in Tucson, changes which had been going on continuously since the railroad came to town many years before.