Remember This: If you needed it, Van Leunens sold it – but skinny-dipping in demo pools was no-no

Local retail chain had 7 locations, lots of fans

ERLANGER, Ky. -- Before nearly every big-box store offered customers the opportunity to buy bedding and biscuits in one trip, Tri-State shoppers had Van Leunens, a one-stop shopping mega-store. 

Delivering on its “There’s so much more in store for you” jingle, Van Leunens sold groceries, sporting goods, clothing, toys, pets, hardware and home improvement products, including lumber and above-ground pools. Those pools, filled for display purposes during warm months, were more temptation than some could resist, including members of the Lloyd Memorial High School graduating class of 1967. Several members of the class got caught by police attempting to skinny dip in the display pools at the Erlanger location after their graduation ceremony.

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It wasn’t only the pools that drew shoppers. The store seemed to offer something for everyone. Touted as one of the finest home improvement centers in the country, the chain featured home and garden centers that attracted both professionals and DIYers. Its sporting goods department offered everything from bikes and basketballs to boxing gloves and guns. And for the younger set, there were toys. Lots and lots of toys.

While lots of retailers sold toys, few had the selection Van Leunens did. From its full aisle of models to its bountiful display of Barbies, the toy department was a thing of beauty for little ones. Come Christmas time, when the department was even bigger than normal, it became a requisite destination for parents looking for that must-have toy. 

The Van Leunens chain had seven local stores at its height. (Photo provided)

“I can remember a time when I was shopping at the Van Leunens on Route 4. It was probably close to Christmas in 1986. I can remember the toy department was larger than normal,” said Christopher Richter. “My grandmother and my mother were shopping in the rest of the store as I walked around the toy department.

“I remember seeing my first ever video game display. The Sega Master System had just been released, and to a 9-year-old boy, it was a thing of great amusement. Also, I remember looking at the board game Fireball Island. That was one game I really wanted as a child. I review board games for a living, so who knows, visiting Van Leunens as a child could have sparked my love for what I do now.”

Unlike the superstores of today, which house all their departments under one very large roof, Van Leunens’ different departments were often housed in multiple buildings with multiple names on the same site. These included Pets-n-Such, the company’s pet shop, All About Sports, its sporting goods department, and Food Mart, its grocery. Some locations also had a seasonal store that turned into a Christmas shop after Thanksgiving each year offering an array of trees, both real and artificial, lights and ornaments.

The chain opened in the 1950s as China-Town but changed its name in 1973, having outgrown its original moniker, according to a full-page ad taken out in the local papers by the company. Van Leunens ultimately grew to seven locations  -- Amelia, Fairfield, Mason, Milford and Monfort Heights in Ohio and Erlanger and Newport in Kentucky – before closing all locations in 1995 after years of declining sales because of intense competition from national chains. The Van Leunens company focused its attention on its sporting goods stores, All About Sports, but filed bankruptcy on those in 1997, closing all 14 locations. 

Today, the store only offers nostalgia. It is the subject of numerous online chats, with former employees and customers sharing memories. 

“I remember going to Van Leunens in 1973 to buy the new Black Sabbath album, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ and they had the album cover covered with a brown paper bag,” Tom Cason wrote online. “Made me want it even more.”

Others rhapsodize about the trendy clothes and the tropical fish offered in the store. But more than the merchandise, Van Leunens is remembered for its staff and its friendly atmosphere. 
Lynn Wheaton Colomb worked the customer service desk of the Erlanger location from 1972 to 1980 and still considers it the best job she’s ever had. 

“I was at the customer service desk in the evenings. It was a family-friendly store. Lots of family workers, like buyers’ and managers’ children, also worked there. They treated their employees and customers with friendliness and respect,” she said. 

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