Monday, September 3, 2007

White Front - Under the Familiar Arch

All right folks, time to grab your BankAmericard, Master Charge or just good old fashioned cash as we take a brief trip to a great discount store of the past. Since we’ve been discussing West Coast supermarket chains lately and I had yet to cover a single actual discount chain at all (save the Lucky variants from the last post), this is a good place to start – with the long gone White Front stores.

In 1959 Interstate Department Stores, Inc., led by president Sol Cantor, purchased the two-store White Front operation in Los Angeles (the next year, Cantor would purchase the ten-store Topps "Discount City" chain in the East). White Front was founded in 1929 and was known for many years as primarily a seller of electrical appliances. Interstate moved quickly to expand White Front’s retail offering to include clothing, sporting goods, automotive items, household d├ęcor and much more. By 1963, the chain had grown to 11 stores and by 1970 there were 30 stores, concentrated around the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle market areas. The new store footprints ballooned to 150,000 square feet, and in many cases a supermarket department was added to the mix.

By far the most distinctive White Front store design featured a massive arched entrance-way with the “White Front” lettering fanned out along the edge. They were spectacular looking stores, and Interstate went all out to make sure their Grand Opening festivities created a stir to match. A look through old newspaper articles on White Front grand openings shows that many stars were typically on hand – Jayne Mansfield, Troy Donahue, Bill Cosby (riding high on his early “I Spy” fame, but long before he became a legend) and Sebastian Cabot (of “Family Affair”) all did their part, along with a horde of lesser-knowns. Ah, the benefits of opening a store in Los Angeles.

In the early 70’s, the chain began a retrenchment to Los Angeles, and within a couple of years was gone. Interstate Stores folded and the only remaining vestige of the company would ultimately be Toys “R” Us.

The first photo is of the original White Front location at 7651 So. Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The store was opened in 1929, but this photo looks to be considerably more recent than that. This store was burned down during the 1965 Watts riots, and was replaced by a modern White Front at the same location which opened in March, 1967. The second and third photos are of an unknown location and are from 1968, showing the classic exterior and an interior view where customers are perusing the latest beautiful avocado and burnt sienna appliances. The final photos are from 1970, a new store at Normandie Avenue and Imperial Highway in Los Angeles. White Front had scrapped the arched look in favor of a more standard design, albeit with a “key-osk” (Sorry.) out front. Note the young ladies in the last photo checking out the groovy “tape decks”.

37 comments:

  1. Ah, there go the ladies dressed in today's modern clothes perusing through yesterday's electronics.

    I have seen pictures of different White Fronts on a website called Discount Stores of the 60s.I always marvel at the odd looking architecture.

    What is the Toys R Us connection?

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  2. "Today's modern clothes", that's for sure!

    Toys R Us was sold in 1966 by its founder, Charles Lazarus, to Interstate Stores - the parent company of White Front and Topps Department Stores. Lazarus stayed on to run the Toys division. The 1973-4 recession forced Interstate into bankruptcy, and the company was reorganized (as Toys R Us, Inc.)
    with Mr. Lazarus as the head. They ditched the department stores and kept Toys, the only profitable division.

    Being from Chicago, you may remember the "Children's Bargain Town" stores. Interstate and Lazarus bought this chain in the late 60's and operated it as a sister nameplate to Toys R Us (operating it in different markets from Toys R Us, mostly Chicago and Washington DC). Around '74 or so, they renamed them all Toys R Us as part of the reorganization.

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  3. Cool. Thanks so much for that brief history lesson. Lazurus wasn't related to the Lazuruses of the Ohio department store folks, was he? I am guessing the same last name is a co-winky-dink?

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  4. I'm pretty sure there's no connection, Didi.

    The Toys R Us Lazarus is a Washington DC native, and opened his first store there.

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  5. Here's a shot of the former Everett, Wash. White Front (built 1970): http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/hwysofwastate/BonEverettMall.html

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    1. where is the picture of the old everett, wa whitefront?

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  6. I used to buy gasoline at the White Front gas station on Florin Rd. & Stockton Blvd. Back then, gas was 25 cents a gallon for regular. I could fill up the tank on the Chevy for $2.50 when I was in high school. Better times...

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  7. Definitely were, in many ways. Both White Front and 25 cents a gallon gas(or $2.25 a gallon, for that matter)are but memories.

    Thanks-

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  8. In a Jayne Mansfield biography, there's a story of her opening a White Front in the LA area and at the end of the autograph signing, she strolled around the store with her kids, filling up a shopping cart and then sailing right through the checkout without paying. Though it was not part of the deal, the manager let her go. Great Blog! I have only just started looking through your site.

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  9. Scott - Thanks very much, and glad you found us! I think I would have let Jayne through without paying as well. :) I understand that she did a lot of corporate work as her "A" film opportunities dwindled in the early 60's. I have a book on the history of Publix, a Florida grocery chain, that features a photo of Jayne embracing George Jenkins, president/founder of Publix and then head of the Super Market Institute.

    Sol Cantor, head of White Front's parent company, was big on celebrity openings at his stores - Jack Benny, Bill Cosby and the obligatory George Jessel all did their part at different store openings. No one called it "selling out" then.

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  10. The second picture is the White Front store that was located in Covina California on Azusa Ave. I remember the store so well. The building is still standing there today. After White Front closed a few years later Taget purchsed the property. Later Target moved and the building sat vacant for a few years Now it is the location of the largest Motorcycle and Watercraft dealer in the world, Bert's Mega Mall

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  11. Anonymous - Thanks so much for identifying that White Front location for us! That's one I've always been curious about, since I've seen a number of WF exterior pics with locations identified, and none looked quite like this one. I'll make a note on the post, and thanks again!

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  12. Dave my name is Daryl Erbe and I was the one that gave you the bit about the White front in Covina just forgot to give my name. Glad I was able to help.

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  13. If my decrepit memory is correct Livermore, California had a White Front though my once nubile mind recalls a store smaller than the size mentioned in the essay and recollections of an untidy store seep through the cobwebs embedded in my once semi-agile brainlet.

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  14. I used to buy all my jazz records there in San Francisco, before I started shopping at Tower Records. They had a lot of discounted LP's there, and some that Tower Records didn't even carry. I think I bought my Keds there, too.

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  15. PatNava - From jazz records to Keds - these places had it all! Seriously, I doubt that many people buy these things under the same roof today. Thanks for the comment!

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  16. Yea I remember the Bay Area stores mainly El Cerrito (now an asian store) and Oakland. Funny they build a store in East Oakland right during the white flight and the neighborhood was going down fast. I heard stories of out of control shoplifting and I think someone was shot there. East Oakland, imagine that!! White Front does sound like a ayrian race store lol...

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  17. Anonymous - Everything I've read about White Front's NorCal expansion leads me to believe it wasn't the best planned thing in the world.

    And as far as the name goes, you're absolutely right, it would never fly today as the connotations are completely different. The origin of the name is innocent - Woolworth and Kresge stores were called "Red Fronts" in the first half of the 20th century because of the sign color. Kresge even had a secondary line of "green front" stores in the 30's, I believe. The "White Front" name was a response to that.

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  18. I just purchased 10 glass storage bottles from a local thrift store and they had the original White Front price tags on them. I was not familiar with that name so ended up here after a search, thanks for the information. The jars are stamped made in Japan so I felt they were older.

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  19. Jacque - Glad to have been of help!

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  20. The second photo is the store in Canoga Park (at Roscoe & Canoga) which is now a Costco... I remember going to the store and entering thru the "arch"... it was very modern architecture at the time.

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  21. The last photo, showing the more modern outside design, taken at imperial and normandie, eventually became a Los Angeles county welfare office. I was not familiar with whitefront until I was assigned here in the early nineties as a security guard, and would listen to people and recipients reminisce about shopping here. This photo is amazing it looks so tranquil depicting just another normal shopping day in southern California, well fast forward 20 yrs later, crowds, fights, and more crowds gathered out front and along the walls, where the kiosk once stood, and lots of trash covering the parking lot. A totally different scene not depicted in the photo. Unfortunately, this grand structure now sits alone and empty, a mere shell of its former self, as is the memory of whitefront. Fortunately, this photo has forever captured a moment in whitefront's heyday taken on that long ago day in 1970 when business was good, life was great and America was greater.

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  22. My Father worked at White Front for about a year in 1970 after leaving Sears (where he worked throughout the 1960s as a store manager). He left White Front, believing their business model was unsustainable. I still have a couple of old "White Front" shirts of his (they are short sleeve, white shirts with "White Front" in red lettering across the back).

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  23. I remember growing up in Oroville, Ca. with someone named David Witbacher who I was told later became manager of the White Front in El Cerrito. Back in the Sixties, that was.

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  24. Best Buy will be this generation's White Front.

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  25. Hi, I'm a little later here but I think that the second pic is from the Anaheim location at Chapman Ave and Harbor Blvd. Right next to it was a classic Toys r Us.
    Also, Best Buy will not go the way of White Front.
    John

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  26. Very interesting to discover the parent company history. It explains why the Sunnyvale, CA White Front also had a Toys "R" Us in their parking lot!
    (PS: That Toys "R" Us is the haunted one!)

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  27. And let's not forget the Newbury Park/Thousand Oaks store off of the 101 Fwy at the Ventu Park Rd exit. It was the first big box discount store in the Conejo Valley (Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Westlake Village. It opened in the late 60's, and I had a job there helping to close it down in December of 1972. It was the best place to bu 8 track tapes and gasoline (.29 per gallon in 1971). It sat vacant for years until an investment group purchased it and converted it into a mega indor sports complex with tennis and racquetball courts, weight rooms,large whirlpool spas and a restaurant. I was a member until that closed in 1979 I believe.

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    1. I worked at the Thousand Oaks White front store off and on from the time it opened until the time it closed. It was my first job out of high school and I loved it. Made a lot of good friends and had some fun times. Wonder if we ever met, Anonymous.

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  28. I am relying on my memory from when I was six years old here...

    We lived off of Harbor Blvd in Anaheim in 1968, and I remember my mother allowing us to walk (my sister who was 9, and I) to the White Front store on Harbor because I think the circus had come to town and they had camel rides in the parking lot. I was petrified to ride because of my dread fear of heights, (I would freak out if my dad picked me up over his head) but I did it. In retrospect, all I can think about is how miserable that poor camel probably was.

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    1. Wow, a very cool memory! White Front (along with their Midwest/East Coast cousin, Topps)was really huge on carny-type promotions and other hoopla.

      Does make you feel sorry for the camel, though! :)

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  29. The second picture is the Fresno, Ca. White Front store located at Blackstone & Ashlan Ave. After White Front went away it became a Mervyns Clothing store until they went out of business about 3 or 4 years ago.

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  30. We had a White Front Store in Sunnyvale, CA which also had a huge super market attached to it. It was wonderful to be able to buy everything in one place. As teenagers we would walk down there about 2+ miles from where we lived just to go through the records and buy some. They did have good products there. Bought my first wedding rings there. Still have them and the stones are of fine quality according to todays jewelers. They are better than most stones you can buy today.
    The groceries were fresh and of good quality not like what we get today. The meat was good quality and good cuts. The butchers knew what they were doing. Loved White Front!
    Sorry Sorcerer Mickey didn't see your post on the in Sunnyvale until I was publishing this... Yes Toys "R" Us was in the parking lot with White Front and still is in the same spot today.

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    1. My late brother used to work for White Front in Sunnyvale in the early to mid 1960s, (1963 or 1965 maybe?). He was a mechanic. I think he changed oil and put on tires, that kind of thing. Is that Toys "R" Us the one that is on El Camino Real just off Matilda? Was that the only White Front there was?

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  31. I remember the one in Sun Valley on Laurel Cyn and Osborne St..It had the big dome - like pic #2.

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  32. Funny how many of us are sure we recognize the second store. I personally thought it was the one in Pleasant Hill Ca. I was there for it's opening as a young child. Korla Pandit (not sure of spelling) was the featured celebrity. He played organ music, sometimes two at the same time. I was also at the closing, buying housewares for my first apartment. Sad to see it go.

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  33. I would say it's safe to say that White Front had several stores with the arched entry. Picture #2 looks just like the WF in Anaheim on Anaheim Blvd. just south of Disneyland. It closed around 1970 and for awhile was a Cal Stereo.

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