The origins of the Sidewalk Sale

When Don McDow first suggested the idea of a “sidewalk bazaar” in 1959 to other business owners in downtown Lawrence, he got a mixed reaction.

“Some people are opposed to a new idea no matter how good it is,” McDow said, noting that while some were on board, others were hesitant.

At the time, McDow was the manager of the Ben Franklin Store, an arts and crafts supply store that was located at 805 Massachusetts St.

The Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale, now in its 56th year, has been held ever since, and about 100 businesses now participate. But that first year in 1960, McDow said, only about a dozen businesses took part.

“I said, ‘Hey, it’s sure a good way to clean out your basement,'” McDow said of his appeal to other shop owners.

In addition to clearing out merchandise, McDow said he wanted the event to have a carnival atmosphere. The day included the sale of fried bread by Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) as well as cotton candy and popcorn stands.

As far as the items for sale, he and his fellow businesses put merchandise out on the sidewalk, selling some items for as low as 15 cents. McDow said he put his items out at 8 a.m. and that by noon several other stores had joined him — “and we were sold out by 4 or 5.” After the initial success, the sale continued to expand.

“It just got bigger every year,” McDow said.

One of the stores that participated that first year was Weaver’s, 901 Massachusetts St., which is operated by the Flannery family. Joe Flannery, current president of Weaver’s, who ran his first sale in 1973, said the amount of merchandise and size of the crowd has more than doubled since then, and more food, music and activities have been incorporated.

“You can see or buy just about anything imaginable during that day — it’s become quite a festival,” Flannery said.

McDow, 86, said that while he doesn’t get around as well, he still likes to drive downtown the day of the Sidewalk Sale to see how many people turn out.

“I like to see what the crowd looks like,” he said.

And every year, the crowds do come — from 10,000 to 20,000 people from Lawrence and surrounding areas — even some from hours away, said Sally Zogry, director of Downtown Lawrence, Inc.

“People plan for it, put it in their calendars,” she said.

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