Leonard Brothers

By: Walter L. Buenger

Type: General Entry

Published: March 1, 1995

Updated: November 22, 2020

Leonard Brothers, a downtown Fort Worth department store founded by John Marvin Leonard and Green Thomas Leonard, opened on December 14, 1918. G. T. Leonard soon left to form his own business, but another brother, Obadiah Paul Leonard, replaced him as part owner. The two brothers, known as "Mr. Marvin" and "Mr. Obie," built the store into one of the largest businesses in Fort Worth and were among the leading retailers in the Southwest. Originally specializing in groceries and salvaged merchandise, Leonard Brothers began in a twenty-five-foot storefront on Houston Street near the Tarrant County Courthouse. By 1926, in addition to groceries, the store had departments that sold meat, fresh produce, drugs, dry goods, hardware, auto supplies, and seeds. This rapid growth filled an additional forty feet of store front and a second floor to capacity. The brothers attributed their success to the company slogan, "More merchandise for less money."

In 1929 construction began on a new building a block south of the original location. The building at 200 Houston Street was ready for occupancy in October 1930. When Leonard Brothers moved to the new location a subsidiary called Everybody's took over the old site. The new Leonard Brothers opened as the Great Depression began, but the Leonards adjusted from the boom years of the 1920s to the bleak years of the 1930s. They built traffic in their store by offering services such as check cashing and by selling certain products, particularly bread, at the lowest price in town. By the end of the 1930s they were selling 7,000 loaves of bread a day. In March 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed all banks, Leonard Brothers continued to cash checks with "Leonard's Script." Local merchants accepted this paper money and eventually redeemed it at Leonard Brothers. In characteristic fashion, the Leonards made a profit and built customer loyalty by a grand gesture. People kept enough of the scrip as souvenirs to pay for the cost of printing and more. For years customers shopped at Leonard Brothers because the store had helped them out when currency was scarce.

In much the same fashion as modern discount stores, Leonard Brothers built close relationships with their suppliers and were the heaviest users of newspaper advertisements in Fort Worth. These practices allowed them to restock items daily and to sell in volume at the lowest possible price. They varied from modern discount stores, however, in that they carried a full line of products instead of just those with a high turnover rate.

By 1939 the brothers had added a new floor and air-conditioning to their building. They also expanded their product lines to include furniture and appliances. A separate building housed a farm store that sold and serviced a complete line of farm equipment. The Leonards were ready for the prosperity of the World War II years. In 1946 construction began on a new building across West First Street. A tunnel connected the two buildings. When the new part of the store opened on September 1, 1948, it featured an escalator-the first in Fort Worth. One Saturday more than 40,000 customers rode that escalator.

Such high volume and diverse product lines demanded a special management style. Department heads were virtually independent storekeepers. They bought and sold with minimal directions from the Leonards. The brothers maintained some control, however, by paying managers relatively low salaries but high bonuses based on sales. They were also careful to build up a sense of working for the same team. Years later, employees maintained a high degree of loyalty to the brothers and their business.

Leonard Brothers also was the first downtown retailer to desegregate. In the early 1960s, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the store's maintenance crew removed the designations "white" and "colored" from all rest rooms and drinking fountains. The brothers instructed the manager of the previously Whites-only cafeteria to serve Blacks. This made good business sense, because Blacks formed a significant percentage of the customer base at Leonard Brothers. Further expansion coincided with desegregation. Instead of opening a branch store in the Fort Worth suburbs, the Leonards continued to add product lines and floor space to their downtown store. In 1962 they constructed a Home Store on an adjacent block and, as in the 1940s, connected the new building to the other buildings underground. The same year construction began on a subway from the store to a parking area on the Trinity River. The M&O Subway made its first run on February 15, 1963. Free parking and a free subway ride helped the downtown store retain its customer volume even as the suburbs grew. One measure of this volume was the number of employees. When the subway opened, 2,000 people worked in the 185 departments of Leonard Brothers.

In 1965 advanced age and declining health led J. M. Leonard to sell his 55 percent share of the store to O. P. Leonard and his family. In turn, the O. P. Leonards sold the store to the Tandy Corporation on October 17, 1967, for $8.5 million. Members of the Leonard family continued to help manage the store, which still did business under the Leonard name.

After the change in ownership, the company opened several suburban stores and began to offer only products with a high turnover rate, but despite these innovations the profitability of the store declined. On March 4, 1974, Tandy sold Leonard Brothers to Dillards, and the Leonard's name came down from the stores. From the 1920s to the 1970s Leonard Brothers anchored the downtown business district of Fort Worth. Its sales volume surpassed that of any other single store in the Southwest. More significantly, Leonard Brothers' numerous construction projects and ability to draw customers helped keep the downtown area vital despite the pull of the suburbs.

Fort Worth Press, August 27, 1970. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 17, 1965, March 4, 1974. Saturday Evening Post, June 24, 1944.

  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Walter L. Buenger, “Leonard Brothers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/leonard-brothers.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 1, 1995
November 22, 2020

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