Spokane Memories: White Elephant Stores

  • By Sharon DeMills-Wood
  • Posted 11/13/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22850
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The White Elephant stores began in Spokane in 1946 when John R. Conley Sr. started selling Army surplus materials before converting his business into a sporting goods store. As he began to welcome the first of his 11 children, Conley added toys to the store, and eventually opened a second store. As Spokane historian Sharon De Mills-Wood writes in this original essay, the White Elephant stores attracted loyal, happy customers for 74 years before the business closed in 2020.

Familiar Sight on Division Street

Driving down Division Street in Spokane, one would see that old familiar landmark of the White Elephant store at 1730 North Division Street enticing folks to come in and check out the fun to be had. It was such an interesting place to shop with a mix of toys, sporting goods, and even Expo ’74 souvenirs. I can remember back in 1965, shopping with my parents close to Christmas. I loved seeing the brightly painted outside of the store and how excited I was to go inside and look at all the toys. The experience made for wonderful memories.

John R. Conley Sr. opened the first White Elephant Surplus Store on East Sprague Avenue in 1946 after he served two years in the Navy during World War II. The East Sprague Avenue store was closed for a time but was re-opened in 1976 at 12614 East Sprague Avenue and operated there for 44 years. The original store on North Division Street, which opened in 1948, was relocated two blocks in 1951 to 1730 North Division Street. The North Division Street store expanded over the years, incorporating adjacent buildings; even a two-story apartment complex was used to house inventory.

The look of the stores evolved through the years. The frontage on the first buildings had pictures of elephants on the roofs with the words "War Surplus" and signs painted in the windows. The elephants eventually became the center-stage theme. The idea for the friendly and fun appearance of the stores came from the billboard and painter contacts of John Conley. The colorful fronts differentiated the stores from competitors, a strong point in their favor. 

Elephants Everywhere

I was particularly intrigued by the outside of the building on North Division Street with the elephants surrounding it with their trunks intertwined much like what you would see in a circus. Each elephant would have a sign indicating a specific item that was sold inside, such as fishing tackle, hunting supplies, camping tents, boats, model trains, and toys. The white and red colors of the building along with the elephants were eye catching. The elephants were outlined in black holding multi-colored balloons and even a few carried Canadian and U.S. flags in their trunks. They all made the building stand out. For added emphasis, the words "White Elephant" and "Toyland" were also included on the front and sides of the building in big letters. The store on East Sprague was decorated in the same manner.

The namesake elephants conveyed the image of fun for the stores. There were elephants both inside and outside. Those inside would direct customers to shop for specific things on certain isles. A small white elephant named Isidore was at the front entrance outside of the North Division Street store. Kids could ride Isidore for the cost of a dime that added to the store’s appeal. There was also a small elephant on the roof of the North Division Street store and at the entrance of the East Sprague Avenue store. John Conley purchased the elephant rides from Natatorium Park.

The largest 10-foot-tall elephant was originally made in Germany of paper mache and painted gray; it was owned by the Armour Meat Packing Plant on Trent. It used to be taken to various grocery stores as part of "Safari Days" promotional campaigns. There was a basket on top in which children could sit as if on safari. It was acquired by Conley as a store mascot and painted white. "Ellie the Elephant," as she came to be called, was quite the mechanical marvel outfitted with gears and a motor. Her head and trunk moved, her ears flapped, and her eyelids blinked. Ellie was put into the bed of a truck with a generator to keep her moving and displayed in parades. When the second store on East Sprague Avenue was opened in 1976, the family decided Ellie should have a permanent home on the roof. She was covered in fiberglass; but as a result, she could not move any longer. Unfortunately, she broke off in a windstorm. She did, however, make a comeback in February 2020. The "new Ellie" was driven around Spokane to promote the stores rather than being mounted on the East Sprague Avenue store roof again.

Unusual Beginnings

The business began in 1946 when John Conley’s uncle sent him to buy Army surplus toilet paper in the Tri-Cities. John used his $300 discharge compensation and bought leftover canvas and wood truck coverings called "woodies" for $6 each. He later sold them in Spokane for $100 each. The business philosophy has been to buy cheap, buy closeouts, and buy discontinued items – white elephants.

Conley initially sold war items the military didn’t want any longer, including blankets, helmets, and even trucks. The mix of offerings evolved over the years, expanding into sporting goods, as the outdoors was John’s passion. After the kids came along, he added toys to the stores. According to the eldest son, Rich Conley, the family has taken great pride in the stores. They bought quality merchandise and sold the items at affordable prices. These exact stores would be hard to duplicate again. 

John Conley spent a lifetime of finding deals and offering things that interested him. He was living proof that timing is everything in business. He was given the opportunity to purchase the leftover Expo ’74 souvenirs after the fair closed in the fall of 1974. He purchased 280,000 souvenirs and paid only a fraction of the retail value. It took him only three months to get his money back and the profits from sales thereafter helped put his 11 children through college. I also expanded my collection of Expo ’74 memorabilia at the White Elephant.

Family Involvement

Members of the family were actively involved in the day-to-day operation. Rich’s brother, Pat Conley, recalled that he and Rich started working at the stores as soon as they could sweep. They cleaned out the coal furnace and swept the floors at night. John always had them carry a pan of sawdust and sand with oil on it. Pat and Rich would spread it down the aisles –they called it "feeding the chickens" – and then they would sweep it up. Rich also remembered his daughter would spend Sundays with him while stocking inventory; she would hang up all the Barbie doll clothes.

The first job for one of the grandsons, who was around 12 years old, was to count and package fishing worms, which were shipped in boxes. He would separate bunches of worms and put them in cups for sale. From that job he moved into selling fishing equipment as he got older. It was a way for him to learn the retail business. He graduated from college and works in software development but continued to be involved in the business over the years.

An Interesting Mix

The loyal customers saw the White Elephant stores as selling an interesting mix of quality items not found elsewhere and at good prices. John Conley always wanted to keep the business a small, local operation. He died in 2017 and ownership went to sons Rich and Pat and John’s wife, Mary. 

The stores were known for providing an interesting shopping experience in a traditional selling environment; they even marked sale prices with black sharpie pens on the merchandise.

The family tried to restructure its business model but decided against it, given the competitive on-line market. After a temporary closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the family agreed it was best to permanently close the stores. A huge sale was held to clear out the inventory, bringing an end to 74 years in business. The stores officially closed on July 26, 2020. 

One small part of the White Elephant stores will live on for the enjoyment of the community and future generations. The Conley family generously donated the small white elephant, Isidore, to the Spokane Riverfront Park. She is on wheels, so she can be indoors near the Looff Carrousel or outside depending on the weather and will remain a 10-cent ride, as part of the gift agreement. Isidore will be reunited with her animal friends at the Looff Carrousel, which was also at Natatorium Park. They all will be on the former grounds of Expo ’74, which the Conleys continued to popularize by selling the souvenirs.

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