John Conley Sr., Founder of Spokane’s White Elephant Stores

You can tell John Conley Sr., founder of Spokane’s White Elephant stores, is an unusually crafty individual by the way he slipped past the draft board and enlisted for WWII duty despite being only 17 and blind in one eye.

“He read the sight chart both times with the same eye,” his son, Pat, said recently at the Valley store. “He just put the opposite hand over his bad eye both times and no one noticed.”

Two years later, in 1946, upon returning to Spokane John discovered his good eye had a knack for spying bargains. “Dad went out to the base to buy an Army truck and it had a bunch of surplus in it,” Pat said. “He decided to buy all of it because he thought he could sell the stuff in town and that’s how it all started.”

His timing could not have been better. The term “white elephant” had been applied to military surplus since WWI and in no time in our history did the American government have more of it to sell than 1946. And so at age 19, John opened his first store at Sprague and Napa, peddling Army leftovers he was able to buy for pennies on the dollar.

“Dad’s area of expertise has always been knowing what will sell and how to buy it right,” Pat said, explaining that his father soon moved the store to north Division and branched out buying large closeout lots from larger stores.

Meanwhile, John and his new wife Mary began having kids, lots of kids – 11 by the time they were done. Supplying this small army with

toys moved John into a new direction at the store.

“Most of the evolution of the store happened because of us kids,” Pat said. “Dad wanted to save money and so he would buy our toys direct from the local wholesalers.”

With his personal test market at home, John Sr. decided to he could sell toys at his store and so he opened his “Toyland” section.

Living on acreage in Colbert adjacent to the Little Spokane river, the kids loved the outdoors and so John Sr. herded his White Elephant store in that direction as well.

“When my brother Gil and I took a scuba class, we loved it so much we got the whole family into it,” Pat said. So the White Elephant got into scuba gear in a big way and sold more scuba gear than anyone else in the area.

After nearly 30 years of success at the Division store, John bought a small house on Sprague just east of Pines in 1974  and converted it into a toy store. Two years later, they built their current 10,000 square foot Valley store and tore down the old house in front to make their parking lot.

For several years, John Sr. ran the two locations with the help of three of his sons, Rich, Pat and Ed.  Last year Ed , who had been managing the Valley store, sold out to his brothers and father and opened the Elephant Boys, a boat and marine equipment store located next door behind his wife’s restaurant, Conley’s.

Without the marine business, which took up sizable floor space, Pat had to make a few adjustments at the Valley  White Elephant that he now manages. “We have gone back to the basics. What you see now is very similar to what we did in the little house we started out in back in 1976 when we had a heavy emphasis on toys,” he said as he looked down on the store from the second-story lunchroom area.

From this vantage point you can see that there is a strategic layout to the store despite it’s somewhat crowded and chaotic feel. The back three aisle are loaded with all the popular toys for toddlers like Playmobil and Leap Frog. Then there is an aisle for young girls in their Barbie years and then one for the boys into Hot Wheels and Star Wars followed by a transition to camping and sporting equipment and finally fishing and hunting gear.

“What we really are is a discount toy store for boys and girls of all ages,” Pat said, adding that closeout items have become a small part of their business and that their ability to sell at bargain prices and compete with the big chains comes from other strategies.

“For one thing, we stick to one name brand per item so that we don’t have to waste time selling customers on off brands,” he said. “If a person is looking for a good rod, we offer them Shakespeare or if they want a camp stove we have Coleman. People already know these are good companies with good products.”

Another competitive edge comes from buying direct from the manufacturer and getting their items shipped direct from the factory. “The big outfits have a lot of buying power and buy direct,” Pat said. “But then they have it shipped to their central warehouse where they store it and then re-distribute it to their stores and all of that extra handling and shipping is overhead we don’t have.”

Perhaps their biggest overhead advantage is their building which they own out right. “I can’t imagine the cost to build and lease those big buildings let alone the heating and electrical bills,” Pat said, adding with satisfaction that his competitor’s pricey locations do not always produce more traffic.

“We recently hired a guy who came from Outdoor Sportsman,” he explained. “The guy was a amazed at our business. He told us we had more customers in our little place than they had customers and employees combined and they have a lot of employees.”

Pat’s staff at the Valley store is relatively small with five full time and a few part time employees. But they are all long term and like family to him and they are his main concern during the current slow economy.

While he is cautious, Pat is confident The White Elephant will not become extinct. “We have no big plans for expansion right now. If I can just keep all my people employed, I’ll be happy,” Pat said. “I think we are in a good place to weather hard times because we’re a discount store and when people have less to spend they trust that they can find good deals at The White Elephant.”

PS.

The Mom from the movie The Christmas Story was not that crazy when she kept telling Ralphie that he would shoot his eye out if he got the BB gun for Christmas that he wanted. That is exactly how John Conley Sr. lost the the sight in one of his eyes, which is ironic considering he may have sold more of them than anyone in Spokane over the last 60 years.

The Elephant and Expo
John Conley Sr. has bought some interesting closeouts. He was there to scoop up the left overs from the 1959 Oregon Centennial and the Seattle World’s Fair. But Expo 74 is where he really hit the motherlode. He picked up all the souvenirs after the fair for $28,000.
” I don’t know how many 40 foot trailers of that stuff we took away,” Pat said. The count was 280,000 items but that only counted the boxes, some of which some had as many as 5,000 items! The Conley’s stored the stuff in every place available including their employees’ garages.
Pat said they still have a 10 x 20 foot storage area full of the Expo 74 booty and both stores still sell memorabilia from Spokane’s finest hour.

The Tooling Elephant
John Conley Sr. bought the white elephant that eventually made it’s way to the roof of his Valley store from the Armour Meat Packing company in the 60’s. Armour used it at their displays at grocery stores. It originally had several moving parts including the trunk, tail and ears and it made elephant noises.
John  placed it out front of the Division store to attract attention on special occasions, but mostly it was stored at home.
“Back when I was young and dumb,” Pat Conley said, “I had a friend with a pick up and we would load it up in back and we hooked it to a generator and went cruising down on Riverside with that thing moving it’s trunk up and down and making a bunch of noise.”
Pat said that it was made of some kind of heavy paper meche but not meant for the outdoors and so they did a quick fiberglass job to it and put in a time capsule before placing it on the roof in 1976.
After 30 years it had deteriorated to the point they had to take it down. “We’ll fix it in the spring and open the time capsule,” he said. ” I can’t remember what the heck we put in it but I know there was some Expo 74 stuff.”

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