End of an Era

 End of an Era

Sandy Mendelson, the unofficial mayor of Dayton, retiring after 55 yearsJim Bucher I was hanging out recently at Mendelsons in downtown Dayton—you know, the “First place to look for every last thing” store—where owner Sandy Mendelson was tooling around his electronics surplus kingdom when a customer walked by with an electric motor.

The gentleman said, “This is perfect, but wish it had a little more power.”

Without pause, Mendelson throttled up his Hoveround and scooted down one of the dozens of aisles where on a bottom rack sat a motor with more juice.

Among the millions of items the man knows where everything is, whereas this unaccompanied columnist would be forever lost in the cavernous confines unable to locate yours truly with a search warrant.

Mendelson’s foray into the electronics business began in Detroit, Michigan, 76 years ago where he was born, soon moving to Dayton with brother, mom and dad.

“My father, Harry, was a traveling salesman, pots and pans, that sort of stuff. He was a nice guy; my mother was a tough ‘guy.’ She was a staunch, Jewish woman who knew all the four-letter words in every language. She was tough, but you had to be to survive,” Mendelson says.

That was 1955. Then in the early ’60s Harry went to work for a scrap business scoring a huge deal at the old Defense Electronics Supply Center. Tons of military surplus came back from the Korean War that the company promptly bought and sold making enough to scrape by.

“Then my father passed in 1963. My mother took over, but we were dead broke. The judge said we can’t go bankrupt because you don’t have enough money to do that. Had $68 in the bank and owed $10,000,” he says.

A friend of the family decided to help out and gave Mendelson some surplus to sell and said he’d split it 50-50 to get them back on their feet. “Turned out the stuff was Cessna 180 Auto-Pilots, whole building full. Put an ad in a flight magazine and from that day on I never looked back,” he says.

He was off and running … and bought up any and all surplus from companies in the region, proudly admitting he’s a “dumpster diver.”

Mendelson says, “I’m at NCR and in their trash was all this cash register equipment because they were moving on to computers, selling it for scrap. I offered them a couple cents more and we had a deal. Had over 300,000 items.”

Now, unfortunately for them and fortunately for Mendelson, NCR came back a year later with an issue. “They offered maintenance and lifetime service on their mechanical cash registers and had no parts because I did. So, sold it back to them for a little profit and that relationship lasted 40 years,” Mendelson says.

Mendelson’s business got so big that he moved a few times until Delco shut its doors in a goliath of a factory building on East First Street which dates back to 1915. He made an offer to GM in 1980 and in about the same time frame it took to find that customer’s motor he owned the building.

“I thought, ‘This place is huge, I’ll never fill it up,’” he says. About this same time downtown, like many cities around the country, was not well. Businesses closed, retail shuddered and landowners couldn’t give it away.

“Look, I’ll be honest with you. The distressed downtown was good for me. Property was cheap so bought it up. I’m a businessman looking for a profit, but I fell in love with the city and they’ve been good to me,” he says.

Two decades later, with downtown still a bit weather-beaten, it was time to “play ball!” Mendelson says, “So, I’m coming back into town and on the radio is then city commissioner, now judge, Tony Capizzi during an interview saying, ‘I want to bring minor league ball to Dayton and put it on Mendelson’s lot.’”

Mendelson was as shocked as everyone else and called the commissioner, “Tony, you mind talking to me first? Let’s go to lunch, think we have something to discuss,” Mendelson says with a laugh.

The Dayton Dragons didn’t cure all of city’s ills. It was many years later when downtown took off in warp drive. Loft housing, condos, apartments, restaurants, bars, breweries and businesses moved to the Gem City. New construction and rehabbed older structures.

Now, it’s Mendelson’s turn to “vacate the premises.” A developer bought his building with plans for condominiums and retail.

Mendelson’s target date to clear out is Aug. 31. How do you move millions of surplus items by then? How else? A sale. “Right now everything is 50% off, soon to be 60%. We gotta’ go,” he says.

Mendelson plans to donate a ginormous amount to Goodwill and other charities, which the store has done for years. “It’s painful to close this facility. Every deal in this building for 55 years I traveled the world with many family members and bought it myself. Now, it’s just me, my wife, Bonnie, kids Heather, Harlan and Fifi,” he says.

Wait, Fifi?

“She’s my 18-pound dog. Soon as we’re finished here I’m taking Fifi and my wife and go somewhere for a couple of weeks.”

Mendelson is far from finished around here as owner of The Deli and Top of the Market banquet center on Webster Street where he dines almost every day for lunch.

So, we haven’t seen the last of Sandy Mendelson. “You may, but not.”

Happy retirement my friend.