Riverside Red X — the city fixture that bills itself as the home of hot fires, high waters and low prices — is celebrating the start of its golden years this month.
By MARTHA ZIRSCHKY
Special to The Star
It’s been 65 years since the late E.H. “Ed” Young founded the business as a two-pump gas station in 1948. The store has grown with the city from humble beginnings.
“He had a $150 inventory,” said Zeke Young, Ed’s son who now owns the store.
The name that led to the iconic red X towering over the parking lot came from the brand of gasoline the original gas station carried. The colorful slogan came later. It commemorates the three floods and a fire the store has survived, and pitches the store as a draw for frugal shoppers from around the metro area.
Zeke Young talked about the joined history of Red X and its town when the Riverside Chamber of Commerce attended the anniverary luncheon at the store. His father not only founded Red X, he said, but was a founding father of Riverside in 1951when he and others staved off annexation by Kansas City. He subsequently served as an alderman and as mayor. Ed Young’s wife, Clara, known as Phinney, helped supported the town’s Pride and Progress campaign in the 1980s.
“He loved Riverside,” Zeke said of his father. So much so that he gave land for a park that bears his name and made a home for the Bell Road Barn Players, among other contributions.
Today’s 90,000-square-foot store is a far cry from its first tiny home.
Yes, it includes the groceries, pharmacy, deli, hardware, liquor and a dollar store that customers expect, but then it takes a whimsical turn. There are trays of teeth and glass eyeballs — Ed’s “keeping an eye on everyone” security system. A huge collection includes bronze sculptures by Remington, a carousel horse, a crystal ball and fun-house mirrors strategically placed throughout the store. And shoppers today see the toned-down miscellany. When Ed Young died in 1999 an auction to reduce the collection lasted three days.
Ed liked shopping at flea markets because “those people need me,” his son recalled.
The stores signature collection is its assemblage of bells. What started as just one bell bought for Phinney became Ed Young’s obsession. At one time, his son Zeke said, there were thousands of bells of all sizes. Some were lost in the 1993 flood and some were sold. Today the store has 986 bells and recently Zeke gave a large one to Park Hill South High School.
Irene Paulhe, who was born in Riverside in 1925 and once served as the city clerk, has shopped at the store for decades. She remembers when people could fill up at the gas station for 20 cents a gallon, making Red X a destination for drivers who lived miles away. She saw cars queued up for blocks during the gas price wars of the 1960s and ’70s and Ed Young continually checked his competitors prices so he could undersell them by a couple cents.
Paulhe also remembers Zebra Stamps, an Ed Young creation. They were the Red X version of Green Stamps, and could be redeemed at the store for just about everything from fishing poles to couches. And like everything else, Ed Young gave his zebra stripes his own colorful twist. Just like his station wagon — which he drove around to drum up business by megaphone — they sported red and white stripes.
Ed was a natural entrepreneur and promoter, always thinking up new ideas — some good and some not so much. Zeke Young wondered if his father’s addiction to Dr Pepper — a case a day — kept his mind constantly turning over new ideas. He was known to call his attorney in the middle of the night. “Are you asleep?” he would ask innocently.
This from a man who claimed to have been rescued from the Titanic. “But Dad, it sank six months before you were born,” Zeke Young objected.
“I guess I just rowed around for six months,” came the reply.
Among the not-so-good ideas, some count the live animals in pens by the front of the store. Zeke Young grimaces, remembering the monkey.
But Zeke Young son recalls his father’s brilliant creations, too: the fireworks stand, kiddieland with two carousels and other rides for a penny, trampolines, and the quarter-mile dirty racetrack.
“I spent many a Friday and Saturday with three other fellows watering down that track,” Zeke Young said.
Of all that, only the fireworks store has survived.
Ed Young’s marketing added splashes of color to the Northland. Phyllis Reece, a long-time Riverside resident, remembers the Budweiser Clydesdales he brought in, and Zeke Young recalls the Red X commercial done by one-time Candid Camera co-host Durward Kirby.
The notions started coming when Ed Young started out as a truck driver for Curtis Candy.
“He took ideas from everybody,” Zeke Young said, “as he made his deliveries.”
Ed Young had little formal education, but Zeke Young said among the family’s colorful stories are that his father once skipped three grades in one fell swoop because he was too tall to fit into a second-grade desk. He said his father turned down a university track scholarship because he knew he couldn’t keep up academically, “but he could rattle off numbers. He was a human computer.”
Besides his enduring business, Ed Young also is remembered for his “Edisms.” A favorite was “We never had grand openings. We had grand closings.” A case in point was the French Market he opened in Johnson County in the 1950s, a venture ahead of its time, Zeke Young said. It was a bad omen, Ed told people, that the parachutists he hired for the opening landed a mile away.
Ed Rule, a founder of the Corner Café, and Mitch Burch both recall another Edism: “I can tell you how to run your business, but I can’t run mine.”
But some people would have quit running a business after three floods and a fire. The fire of 1957 drew seven fire companies, made the front page of the Kansas City Times, and caused more than a half-million dollars in loss. Ed Young was 81 when the flood of ’93 left more damage like that, but his decision to rebuild came easily because he felt a loyalty to his employees and to the town. Most of the store reopened in two months.
“By the grace of God and creditors we’re still open,” Zeke Young said.
“Ed thought of his employees as does Zeke,” said Janette Teeter, a 28-year employee. “This is one of those jobs I never ever did not want to go to. I feel at home.”
What next for Red X? Zeke Young smiles and says, “The hamster’s still turning. I have a plan.