Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sears - Canoga Park, California 1964

On October 28, 1964, Sears opened the largest store in its history up to that time, a 300,000-plus square foot colossus in Canoga Park’s Fallbrook Square Shopping Center, located in the western reach of the San Fernando Valley. Complete with a massive Disney World-esque underground warehouse and service infrastructure, the store represented a major acknowledgment on Sears’ part of the sensational population growth of the Valley.

The store epitomizes Sears’ “western look”, with an elegant, low-slung appearance, complete with palm trees towering through openings in the store awnings and a huge, upswept Sears logo sign. This basic design, in a variety of colors and building materials, was used in a large number the company’s Western and Southwestern (and Florida - not western but definitely with palm trees) locations from the late 50’s through the mid 60’s. To me, and to the extent that architecture can (many would argue a great extent), it truly reflected the optimism of the times.

The following firsthand memories come to us from Valley resident Tim of Vintage Disneyland Tickets, a great website dedicated to preserving the history of the famous bygone “Ticket Books” (among other things) that were a staple of Disneyland and later of Walt Disney World until the early 1980’s, and fondly remembered by SoCal residents and a good many out-of-towners as well. The phrase “E-Ticket” to describe something superlative originated from these books. Tim worked at the Fallbrook Square store in the early 1980’s when the store was past its prime, but many vestiges of its glory days still remained. In Tim’s own words:

“I actually worked at Sears Canoga Park, California, 1980 -1982. I worked in customer service so I got to see the whole store inside and out. It looked very much like your Sears in Phoenix 1962 photo with the Palm Trees and Green script, but bigger. Part of "Fallbrook Square" (an outdoor mall on a huge parcel of land) the Canoga Park Sears was built in 1964/65 (I think) and was supposedly the largest Sears store at that time. It was huge. Besides the main store and basement (which had everything: Vendome, a Coffee shop, a candy shop with Icees, hearing aids, optical, Allstate, and more!), it had a separate and huge Garden Center & Catalog building, a HUGE 48 bay Auto Center with a free standing Gas Station, a little key making building and we even had the LA area credit central building on the property. The warehouse part of the basement was GIGANTIC, it spanned the entire store plus 1/2 the mall parking lot and it connected the store to all of automotive and the Garden center. It was like its own city. "Upstairs" from the main sales floor was a large area the size of a school auditorium and was just for employees, it had its own full service cafeteria and a stage!!!”

“By the time I worked there it was in some decline, the "upstairs" was not for employees any more (they held microwave classes up there!) and the employee mensroom was the real sign of better times. I kid you not, it had 20 urinals and 15 stalls! and about 20 sinks! I would change from my school clothes to my work clothes before my shift and I would be the only one in there! In 1981 we replaced the old "cord board" switchboard, that was a sad day, I love working that board. We also had the Bell System chimer box. You would set it to discretely page the managers, the GM on staff was a "2-1".... "ding-ding, ding".... They took it out when they put in the new switchboard, I should have tried to keep it! The store closed in the 90's, was turned into a Kmart and it’s now a Wal-Mart with an awful facade! The Basement was turned into a Burlington Coat Factory and it still there. The Auto Center was torn down and is now a Ralphs (where I shop!) and the Garden Center building is still there and is a 24 Hours fitness center (it still has some of the Shale stone siding that the store had!). That Sears was so big it’s four places now!”

Tim also has a great story from his Sears days:

“In 1981, I had a lady try and return a pair of unworn white dress shoes that were at least 20 years out of style, the box itself was an antique. She said they didn't fit and she wanted her money back... We gave her money back, the current price for those type of shoes was about $25 and that's what she got. Amazing policy, I wonder if they still stand by that?”

Hard to say, Tim…good old Sears!

In 1996, Sears closed the Fallbrook location and moved to nearby Westfield Shoppingtown Topanga (known to purists by its original name, Topanga Plaza) in the former location of The Broadway department store upon that chain’s acquisition by Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy’s.

23 comments:

  1. Old school retailing for the modern era-service with the staff necessary to provide service to the customers, a concept lost in today's world in the latest and largest iteration of the retail store. The retailers don't want the labor expense and sadly, retail is not viewed as a career opportunity by today's society.

    Perhaps Lampert could look to the past for inspiration on how to operate a retail store, rather than sell off the assets, cut costs, and cut labor. Return to the standard of give the customer what they want at a fair price and stand behind what you sale. I think consumers have forgot that value goes beyond price, and includes quality and service and once again expect that without having to pay an arm and a leg for tepid service at the lastest trendy upscale mart.

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  2. Super post! Great ad, wow, I still remember the phone number! I wish I had some old photo's of the place, but it just never occurred to me to take any....

    Thanks for posting my comments, working at Sears had a profound effect on my life and future careers, neat to see it Highlighted on your blog!..

    Tim (Employee #2519)

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  3. Thanks, Tim for sharing your memories. But what's a Vendome?

    This Sears store sounds incredible. I knew they had some massive stores, but this one sounds like the über-Sears of its day.

    I wonder if the two-story section of Sears at Eastland Mall in Columbus, Ohio, had something similar to the employee area at this store?

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  4. Hi Steven,

    Vendome was a chain of "Wine & Spirits" stores that I remember seeing as stand alone locations throughout the Los Angeles Area, In fact I think some are still around.

    The Canoga Park Sears had a Vendome Inside the store, right between the escalators and the coffee shop. It wasn't very big, probably a 30ft by 30ft square area with tall wine shelves along the backsides. I remember my dad charging "port" wine of his Sears card and buying .22 caliber bullets from sporting goods all in the same trip!

    Thanks for the nice comments.

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  5. Ah, the Fallbrook Square Sears. I spent many happy hours there while growing up in Canoga Park. My parents had a Sears card, so most of our major items (tires, washer, dryer, refrigerator, range, color TV, stereo console, electric organ, etc) came from Sears. While my mother bought our clothes from the JC Penney store in Fallbrook Square, it was Sears for everything else. I remember the auto center, as Mom would get new tires and batteries for the family Chrysler there; my sister and I would be searching the store while the car was serviced. And sometimes, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Food Giant across the street. All in all, I remember those wonderful times. When I returned to Canoga Park a few years ago, it wasn't the same Fallbrook Square. And the old Topanga Plaza was not what it used to be either. Sad.

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    1. LVbearAM - I grew up in Woodland Hills just West up Fallbrook Ave. My early childhood was punctuated by memories of the building of the Sears store. My mom would always bring (drag) me and my two younger siblings when we went shopping every Thursday afternoon during summer vacation. Sears was always on the shopping agenda with maybe a stop at the big Penny's store at the other end of the mall. My dad always had his new tires installed at Sears garage. When after moving out of the valley for northern CA and coming to visit my younger sister on vacations, soon after the Northridge earthquake, I was shocked while driving by on Fallbrook Ave. that the Sears building was completely raised and new inner structural beams were being installed for a new building. I never in my entire youth new of the extent of the basement though ! Sometimes my mom would take all three of us and get lunch at the Foster Freeze across from Food Giant during those shopping trips. Sometimes mom would buy ice cream cones at Food Giant for us to keep us inline and quite. Yes - very good memories indeed !

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  6. Anonymous - Great observation on the state of retail today, and great advice to Lampert as well.

    Tim - Thanks, and thanks again for sharing your great memories! I agree on how jobs during our formative years have such an enduring influence. Wine and bullets - wow, it'd be tough to buy that combination in one place today!

    Steven - I haven't seen the Eastland Sears. Was it as impressive-looking as the Northland one?

    Lvbearam - thanks for sharing your Fallbrook memories. I did one post a while back that mentioned the Food Giant chain (link below)and hope to do more on it one of these days.

    http://pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com/2007/10/vornado-to-west.html

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  7. It's been a few years since I've been to the Sears at Eastland, but it is a 278,000 square foot store that has a massive main salesfloor with a two-story portion that was on the side closest to the mall. I read on another forum that the upper story space was used for a few years as offices for Discover Card, back when Sears was directly involved in its operation.

    The two-story portion had the monumental entrances similar to Northland's, with massive columns, a tiled back wall, and likely some great script logos over the doors in its prime. When I saw it in 1996, it had been modernized with Helvetica Italic Sears logos and most of the cool, classic Sears features had been stripped away, but it was still impressive.

    A good portion of the salesfloor had been walled off towards the center of the building, so I have no idea whether they had escalators there. I did see an elevator, but it apparently was disabled for customers, as it didn't work.

    I'll try to jog my memory some more, but you could probably find it on Windows live local or Google Earth and see how truly massive and cool this place is.

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  8. Steven - Sounds like another great, (huge) Sears that I'll have to check out. Of the classic ones I've seen, even though the main signage has been changed on virtually all of them, I'm often surprised at the little details - railings around the escalator areas, etc. that remain as original.

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  9. Wow, thanks for all your work on these super old Sears stores! This is why blogging is catching on – the ability to read about what you want in a narrow niche. I'm a big Sears fan from my childhood in the 80s – I'd love to see it return to an even earlier time of service and care for the customer. Keep it up!

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  10. Terrorclaws - Thanks! In their heyday, there was really no one like Sears. I'd love to see it return to its former glory, but the world is differnent in so many ways now.

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  11. About the geographic regions where the old-school Sears stores had palm trees around them, don't forget the Sears at Honolulu's Ala Moana Center, the largest Sears in the entire chain!

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  12. Randy - You're absolutely right on the Honolulu store, thanks for catching that. I'm a big fan of that style Sears store.

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  13. Does anybody remember what those tone sounds (circa 1976) were that were heard in Sears? They'd go like 'da da' 'da da da da' like a doorbell?

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  14. Anonymous - I remember something like that, although I can't recall if it was in Sears (probably was) or some other store. My guess is they were some sort of code to the store employees on the floor.

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  15. I worked in the Canoga Park Store's Customer Convience Center from 1979-1983. I still remember my employee number 1933. I dated a lovely girl in the Womens department. Many of us young kids met and dated because of working at Sears. I wonder where Vicky is these days?

    Chris 1933

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  16. Hey Chris! Employee #2519 Here! Email if you would like to talk over old times (vintagedisneylandtickets@gmail.com)

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  17. Chris and Tim - Reminds me of that Bob Seger song "Feel Like a Number!" :)

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  18. My Dad worked at this store in the Stock Rm for years...until the Northridge store was built, he was part of setting up that stock rm.

    I remember visiting both stores - loved the candy counter and the smell of the freshly popped popcorn!

    Most had a restaurant/cafe in them too.

    I'll see if I can squeeze a story or two out of my Dad

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  19. I heard that this particular store closed in 1994 following an earthquake and was only functionally replaced with the Broadway at Topanga becoming Sears.

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  20. I worked at Sears in Torrance,CA during the early '80's which was in most of its original state from what I could tell. Most of the Los Angeles area stores built during this time were almost identical. The stores in Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Pasadena, Canoga Park, North Hollywood, Glendale, and Chula Vista to name a few all still resemble this style from earlier days. It would be cool if they still used their older font, with the big "S". At the Del Amo (Torrance) store, it was still a full-service store with a huge basement and many underground passageways, until around the mid 80's when the store received a "store of the future" makeover. They lowered the ceilings, put in central checkouts, and got rid of the candy/popcorn counter, I believe this was the beginning of the end to Sears as we knew it. Too bad.

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  21. I was hired at the Canoga Park Sear's store as a Security Door Guard while the store was nearing completion for the Grand Opening in Oct. 1964.

    When the store opened I was running the freight elevator and assembling bicycles in between floors.
    I ended up spending 10 years with
    Sears in Credit and last worked at Sear's Cerritos as Credit Manager. In 1975 350 Credit Managers were layed off the same day due to Computerization and Centeralization of Credit.

    It was a good 10 Years.

    Tony C.

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  22. Tony - Thanks for sharing that with us! I've got to think it was very exciting to be part of that's store's opening crew. Such a huge, beautiful store. Sears was the undisputed king of the hill at that time!

    That had to be a tough break when the credit functions were automated and so many people were out of jobs. I was just a kid then, but remember the headlines about that sort of thing popping up with increasing frequency in those years. Of course, this stuff has happened so much in recent years that it barely fazes us anymore.

    It's great that you can look back on your years there with fondness, though. Thanks again!

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