Irwin Chase is the eldest son of Martin Chase, a Russian Jew who immigrated with his family from the Ukraine to Providence in 1912. The Chase family first settled in South Providence but later moved to the East Side. Born in 1926, Irwin attended Hope High School. At eighteen he joined the army and fought in World War II earning a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Bronze Star.
During the 1930s and 40s, Irwin’s father operated Marty’s Clothing Store on Eddy Street and purchased a small ribbon-making business in Norwich, Connecticut. In 1946, Martin acquired the 450,000-square-foot Ann & Hope Mill in Cumberland from the Lonsdale Company for $350,000.
Irwin joined his father in business after graduating from Brown University in 1948. By the early 1950s, however, the ribbon-making operation, which had been moved from Norwich to the Ann & Hope Mill failed.
From that apparent setback sprouted the seed for a new entrepreneurial venture. During the 1952 Christmas season, Irwin assumed the task of selling the surplus ribbon along with holiday decorations at the mill. Soon word spread about a new factory store with no frills and attractive discount prices. A new idea in consumer retailing had been born. In 1953, Ann & Hope formally opened its doors as America’s first discount department store chain. Offerings soon included housewares, toys, sporting goods, casual clothes and, later, garden supplies and major home appliances.
The Chases”father and son”were innovators in several areas. Their store was devoid of costly floor displays; there were few sales assistants; cash registers were clustered at the front of the store; the shopping experience via cart was self-service, and nearby parking was free. Ann & Hope had become a retailing beacon for a new generation of suburbanites. Today, many of these features seem ingrained in our consumer buying genetic code, but in the 1950s the Chases’ retailing concepts were truly revolutionary. Ann & Hope had become a discount retail laboratory, attracting the entrepreneurial curiosity of small Arkansas retailer Sam Walton and Henry Cunningham, President of Kresge’s, both of whom paid the Chases a visit in 1961. A year later Walton opened Walmart and Cunningham created Kmart–both modeled after Ann & Hope.
During the two decades that followed, the Chases expanded from their Cumberland base, opening five new department stores. By 2001, however, Irwin recognized their growing inability to compete with multi-national chains, so Ann & Hope exited the department store business. Nonetheless, Irwin Chase’s lifelong passion with discount retailing lives on today in the company’s nine specialty curtain and bath outlets, five dollar stores, and six garden outlets.
–Paul R. Campbell