News Column

Dave Gold, '99 Cents Only' Founder, Dies at 80

April 28, 2013

Dave Gold launched his 99 Cents Only Stores empire in Los Angeles at age 50 after mulling over the idea for over a decade. The thrifty entrepreneur took the dollar store concept and introduced it to middle-class and upscale neighborhoods. In the process, he created a chain that has become a mainstay for families squeezed during hard times or those who simply love a good bargain.

Gold died Monday at his Mid-Wilshire home from an apparent heart attack, said his son, Jeff Gold. He was 80.

Long before dollar stores dotted many street corners, Gold opened the first 99 Cents Only store in Los Angeles in 1982. It was the beginning of a chain that would exceed 300 stores in California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

At the time, he'd been working at a liquor store originally started by his father in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market. But Gold was itching to try out his deep-discount vision -- an entire store full of merchandise priced at 99 cents.

"Whenever I'd put wine or cheese on sale for $1.02 or 98 cents, it never sold out," Gold recalled in a Times interview in 2003. "When I put a 99 cent sign on anything, it was gone in no time. I realized it was a magic number. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to have a store where everything was good quality and everything was 99 cents?"

Family and friends thought the idea was ludicrous. But the City of Commerce-based chain quickly caught on, expanded briskly and in 1996, went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

The chain added a fresh spin to the dollar store concept, which at the time was perceived as retail graveyards for expired or broken products. The 99 Cents Only stores were bigger, brighter and better organized, analysts said, and cultivated a friendly relationship with vendors, sometimes by plying them with bagels and cream cheese.

"My dad really loved the merchandise. He would come home at the end of the day when we were younger and say, 'Look at this beautiful shampoo,'" said his daughter Karen Schiffer. "He would say, 'We have 50 truckloads of this Kleenex coming in.' He would get excited and pass it out to everybody."

His sense of humor was evident in their ads: One congratulated the "Dodgers on Losing 99 Games." Another wished television personality Joan Rivers "Happy 99th Facelift."

But Gold never adopted the outward flash of a multimillionaire despite making the list of Forbes 400.

He lived in the same middle-class home for nearly five decades with his wife of 55 years, Sherry. He was known for wearing rumpled clothing and picking up trash around the parking lot in the mornings. An early adopter of hybrid cars, Gold drove the same Toyota Prius he purchased in 2000 (although he quietly bought Priuses for "hundreds" of friends over the years, Jeff Gold said).

"You would never think in a million years that he was a wealthy man," Schiffer said.

Born June 5, 1932, in Cleveland, he was the youngest of three children. He grew up working at the general store operated by his Russian-immigrant parents, Schiffer said. In 1945, the family pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles.

Gold attended Los Angeles High School but dropped out of Los Angeles City College to take over the family liquor store after his father suffered a heart attack.

The 99 Cents Only chain was a family endeavor -- Gold's four children all worked there in some capacity. Eric Schiffer, his son-in-law, eventually took over as chief executive, and Karen worked in the buying department. Jeff Gold served as chief administrative officer , and another son, Howard, worked as executive vice president of special projects. Daughter Sheila died of leukemia at age 27.

The company was acquired in 2011 by Los Angeles equity firm Ares Management and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board in a deal valued at about $1.6 billion. The family left the chain in January.

But Gold was doing business right up to the very end. His wife, Sherry, said he died while on a work call.

"He worked constantly, around the clock," Schiffer said. Gold used to start work at 4 a.m. and finished the day at 7 p.m., she said, and joked that he "worked a three-hour day."

Besides his wife and three children, Gold is survived by five grandchildren.

shan.li@latimes.com

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