Well, friends, I want you to know that I hear you, and today I’m answering the call! And the issue I herewith weigh in on is one that is, or should be, near and dear to our classic retail-loving hearts. It can be summed up in one phrase:
Bring back the San Fernando J.C. Penney.
When a national retail chain closes shop in a long-standing location, it’s typically news – in the local area, that is, and not far outside it. But this summer, when J.C. Penney ended an 80-year tenure in San Fernando, California (the city of San Fernando, specifically, which lies within the San Fernando Valley, part of Greater L.A.), it set off a furor that popped in and out of national headlines for weeks.
On Saturday, July 28th, despite rallies in the local community, online petitions, celebrity pleas, tons of local news stories and national coverage from the likes of the Huffington Post, the public radio show Marketplace, Bloomberg Businessweek (Plain old “Business Week” was much more concise, right? But hey, it’s his magazine now!) among others, J.C. Penney shuttered the San Fernando store, which had existed in its current location since February 1953.
Official comment from JCP on the matter has been terse, putting it charitably. “We would not have moved forward with this difficult decision if we did not believe it was absolutely necessary for the future growth of our company”, the company’s press response read.
Speculations behind the closing have been raised (and shot down) from several angles, with some alleging the closing was part of an effort to trim costs in light of huge losses JCP has experienced this year as a consequence of its controversial rebranding/repositioning efforts. Others contend the small store (60,000 square feet with just over half of that space devoted to selling, three floors, no escalators), long an anomaly for Penney, is a poor fit for the rebranding concept. Still others claim the San Fernando location itself has been unprofitable for years.
It’s easy to understand why San Fernando residents are upset about losing their Penney store, an obvious point of pride for the community. The store has been an anchor for their downtown at a time when most big-name retailers long ago abandoned downtown locations for the “wide open spaces” we refer to today as malls and shopping centers. Certainly it was handy – while Penney has no shortage of huge stores in The Valley, it’s hard to beat “down the block” for convenience, even though selections were limited compared to standard Penney stores. There’s the longevity factor – the San Fernando location far outlasted the hundreds of downtown Penney stores built through the decades up until the late 50’s. Indeed, had JCP opted to close it down in 1970 or 1980, the uproar might never have materialized.
Lastly, the store’s timeless deco-influenced facades, front and rear, remain a thing of beauty. Most late 1940’s/early 1950’s Penney stores across the country were very plain in appearance, while the San Fernando unit exemplifies the extra effort that many national retailers poured into their California locations. Just two years ago, the building’s owner, Ashkenazy Development, spent some $350,000, including the services of a historian, to restore the facades and the “Penney’s” blade sign, which reportedly hadn’t worked for nearly forty years.
The story took a nasty turn on the second night after the store’s closing, when residents discovered sign crews (after dark, with the company name on their truck covered up) pulling the “J.C. Penney Co.” lettering off the back of the building and one worker preparing to go after the neon blade sign with a torch, all in violation of an order to leave them alone pending a historical preservation hearing. The removed letters were reinstalled the next day.
At this late date, it seems unlikely that J.C. Penney will reopen the store, but you have to admit it would be a great public relations gesture and would serve to counteract some of the negative publicity the company has received in recent months. The “Save San Fernando’s JCPenney” site features a couple of interesting concepts for expansion, should JCP reverse their decision. At any rate, the store’s designation as a historic site appears to be assured. Rightfully so.
Our goal here, of course, is to depict great stores like this in their heyday, and once again I thank the J.C. Penney Archives at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University for their invaluable cooperation in supplying these photos – festooned in Grand Opening glory, followed by an interior view, then front and rear facade views from after the festivities cooled down.
As a postscript, here’s a sidenote from the “Basic Data Sheet”, a centrally-maintained dossier of sorts, for this store, last updated in 1971 and now part of the JCP archives. It’s interesting to note who Penney’s regarded as competition in those days -within a four-mile radius, there were department stores: Ohrbach’s, The Broadway, Robinson’s, a small Sears “hard-lines” store, discounters White Front, Kmart, Gemco and Cal Stores (sister division of Baza’r stores). “Fantastic Fair” one of my ultra-faves, is also listed, but I’m pretty sure they were gone by that time. (I’ll have to do a 10-part series on that one someday.)There were also the variety stores Grants and Newberrys, and apparel stores Scotts, the Melody Shop and Sally Dresses. The Penney’s unit outlasted them all.