Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bring Back the San Fernando Penney's!

You know, there must be some people who read this site regularly and wonder – “Dave, you’re a blogger. Why don’t you ever take a stand on anything? You never weigh in on the big issues of our time. You’re always on the fence. Asleep at the wheel. Out to lunch. AWOL!”

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The Beat Goes On" at Dillard's

Here’s a set of vintage snapshot photos I purchased several months back. Taken in Austin, Texas in April 1967, they depict famed pop stars Sonny and Cher on a bandstand in front of a Dillard’s department store. The photos are a bit overlit and fuzzy (not unusual for outdoor shots from an inexpensive Kodak 126 Instamatic – like millions of others in those days, most of my childhood photos were taken on this exact type of camera), but you can tell that Sonny and Cher seem to be having a good time and the crowd is excited.  

When I first saw these photos I was intrigued, and two questions came to mind: What brought these entertainers, L.A. denizens to the core, to Texas? And what prompted a personal appearance at Dillard’s, then among the smallest specks on America’s department store landscape? (We’ll get to that in a minute.) Through a bit of research I found a satisfactory answer to first question and reached a fairly obvious conclusion about the second.

It turns out that Sonny and Cher were in town for a movie premiere. On April 11, 1967, the world premiere for the movie “Good Times”, the first picture to feature the couple in starring roles, was held in Austin. The premiere was part of a weeklong promotional Texas trek that, according to an April 29 Billboard magazine article, included stops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Abilene and El Paso. (“A cowboy’s work is never done”, they say.) My guess is a fashion show at Dillard’s was added at some point to the duo’s itinerary.

The “rock and roll movie” was a fixture of American culture by 1967, and if an artist had a few hits under their belt (Sonny and Cher had scored a number one smash with “I Got You Babe” in 1965, one of five Top 20 hits for the pair in just a little over a year), some personality and a unique presence (Cher’s dusky voice and exotic looks, Sonny’s fur vests and bowl haircut), a movie offer was usually a solid bet. These movies varied wildly in quality, and more often than not were “star vehicles” with minimal, hackneyed plots. “Good Times” featured the rock and roll singers in a movie about…well, rock and roll singers becoming movie stars. (Viewing it today, it’s a fun, much better than average sixties romp. And the styles were incredible, topped off by George Barris-designed his-and-her Mustangs specially built for the film. Long clips can be found on YouTube, but you didn’t read that here!)

History shows that 1967 was the start of a long dry spell for Sonny and Cher. “Good Times” bombed at the box office, and “The Beat Goes On”, a number 6 pop hit, would provide the Bonos’ last Billboard chart action for a very long time. So they headed for Las Vegas. Only made it out to Needles. There, they found steady work as a casino act, and over the next few years they carefully honed their stage personas (personae?) – Sonny, the na├»ve, somewhat air-headed dreamer, and Cher, his quick-witted, sharp-tongued wife, always ready to burst his bubble with the perfectly timed wisecrack.

Audiences loved it, and in 1971 CBS came forward with an offer for an hour-long summer replacement series. “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” quickly became a national sensation, a Top 10 show for several seasons in a row, and a weekly fixture of millions of TV viewers’ homes, mine included.

When the couple announced their divorce in 1974, it was a palpable shock. Their lives took very different courses over the ensuing decades, with Sonny eventually entering Republican politics, winning the office of Mayor of Palm Springs, California then a seat as a U.S. congressman. In 1998, he died in a tragic skiing accident. Cher, no last name necessary, remains an entertainment icon, with at least number one hit in each decade since her first emergence on the scene. I still think of her 1999 hit “Believe” as “the inescapable song”, because unless you stayed in your house all year with a supply of food, windows and doors duct-taped shut and the lights turned off, you couldn’t escape it. We took a family vacation to California that year and heard it at least once every 15 minutes, including while standing in line for the mine train at Calico. Somehow it made perfect sense.

All right. Lest you think this site has turned into “Retro Entertainment Tonight”, I figure it’s about time I said something about that stately structure behind our Hollywood heroes. That, my friends, is the first “real” Dillard’s store, which opened in February 1964 in Austin’s Hancock Shopping Center.

It was a far cry from the first store opened by William T. Dillard in Nashville, Arkansas, a rural town southwest of Hot Springs, in the late 1930’s. Born in 1914, Dillard grew up in the tiny town of Mineral Springs, Arkansas, where his father owned a dry goods store. His early years were typified by hard work at the family store and a desire to learn the retailing business inside and out, the quintessential American story of a young man diligently following in his father’s footsteps.

By his mid-twenties, however, Dillard had earned a distinction that set him apart from most American young men of the day, certainly those from rural Arkansas. In 1938, he earned a masters’ degree in business from New York’s prestigious Columbia University, where he attended on a scholarship.  Valuable as a Columbia education was, however, Dillard’s exposure to the Big Apple’s legendary department stores – Macy’s, Gimbels and John Wanamaker (Dillard worked at their Manhattan branch while in school there) – arguably did as much to shape his future career.  

Leaving New York, Dillard pursued management trainee jobs with Sears, Roebuck and Co. and J.C. Penney, and received offers from both. Penney offered Dillard positions in Walla Walla, Washington, of all places, and the much closer to home Topeka, Kansas. Dillard took Sears’ offer, which was closer still –a Tulsa, Oklahoma store. He stayed there only seven months before leaving to open his own store, in Nashville, Arkansas, as mentioned.

The store did well, but over time Dillard grew restless. Most of all, he was eager to avoid his father’s mistake of “wast(ing) many of his abilities because he was confined to a small town”, according to author Leon Joseph Rosenfeld in his brief but excellent 1988 book “Dillard’s: The First Fifty Years”. In 1948, Dillard purchased a 40 percent in Wooten’s department store in Texarkana, -- miles to the southwest on the Texas border, a much larger market with a population of 55,000. The following year, he bought the remaining interest in the Texarkana store (by then called “Wooten & Dillard”) and sold off the Nashville business.  Within five years it became the leading store in Texarkana, and Dillard, who had relocated his family there, was one the area’s prominent citizens.

Interestingly, Dillard reversed course in a sense when he bought back into a small market with the March 1955 purchase of a department  store in Magnolia, Arkansas from a friend. It was back to bigger things the following year, however, when the opportunity arose to acquire a well-respected East Texas  department store. For years, Dillard had admired Mayer & Schmidt, the leading store in Tyler, Texas, a town with a population similar to that of Texarkana.

Mayer & Schmidt, founded in 1899, was a well run store with a fine reputation, drawing customers from a radius well beyond the city of Tyler. In 1956, however, they were in trouble. The previous year, Mayer & Schmidt opened a second store in town “to capitalize on its prosperity”, but the new location turned out to be a flop, and “within a year it was closed and deeply in debt”, according to Rosenberg. Based on his success in Texarkana, Dillard was able to line up financing, and in April 1956, acquired a majority stake in the Mayer & Schmidt store. Dillard immediately embarked on a complete remodeling and expansion of the store, adding furniture, appliance, jewelry, records and hi-fi departments along with leased shoe, book and fur operations. The revamped Mayer & Schmidt debuted on September 17, 1956, and would prove to be a great success under Dillard’s ownership.

In 1959, a banker friend of Dillard’s informed him of another well-regarded department store recently befallen by rocky times. Brown-Dunkin Company was Tulsa, Oklahoma’s largest department store (more than twice as large an enterprise as Mayer & Schmidt), founded in 1924 by brothers-in-law John H. Dunkin and John A. Brown, and “occup(ied) the first nine floors of the fifteen-story Hunt building at Fourth and Main streets, the city’s busiest corner”, Rosenberg states, and “had become a household word in northeast Oklahoma”.    

Brown-Dunkin’s problem was one of succession. Dunkin had passed away in 1958 and Brown some years before that, and the store went into decline under the management left in place by the founders’ widows. Intrigued by the challenge of running a well-known store and the chance “to prove his abilities before a national audience” as Rosenberg put it, Dillard set off on an arduous seven-month process of negotiations with the Brown and Dunkin widows and numerous banks. Ultimately, he was required to put up the Mayer & Schmidt store as security for the transaction. Knowing he could fall back on the Texarkana and Magnolia stores should things go awry, Dillard pressed forward confidently. On the last day of February 1960, Dillard took control of the Brown-Dunkin store.

Initially there were headaches – after the ownership change was publicized, picketers from the local Building Services Union showed up on the sidewalks outside the Brown-Dunkin store. Unbeknownst to Dillard, the previous ownership had recently dismissed the store’s cleaning ladies and elevator operators, contracting out those functions to outside firms. Dillard refused to reopen the issue and eventually the picketing stopped. Then there was the matter of $150,000 worth of unpaid invoices discovered in a drawer, which forced Dillard to obtain an additional line of credit.

On top of these hassles was one more that ended up turning into a considerable plus. In sharp contrast to today, mid-20th century America was dotted with department store companies that ranged in size from single-store outfits to 20-plus-unit multi-regional chains, with most falling somewhere in between. To increase their negotiating power with clothing manufacturers and other suppliers, many department store firms signed up with (usually New York-based) buying cooperative agencies. These agencies strove to represent one department store chain in each major city, while doing their best to avoid any competitive overlap between clients. When Brown-Dunkin’s buying agency, Mutual, caught wind of the buyout, they figured Dillard wasn’t capable of pulling the potatoes out of the proverbial fire and dumped Brown-Dunkin in favor of Vandever’s, another Tulsa department store.

Not long afterward, Dillard joined up with the Frederick Atkins Company, “one of the more prestigious buying houses in the country”, as Rosenberg put it. The Atkins firm represented a host of marquee names including John Wanamaker (Philadelphia), B. Altman (New York), Hochschild-Kohn (Baltimore), Miller & Rhoads (Richmond), Ivey’s (the Carolinas and Florida), Pizitz (awesomely-named, Birmingham), Chas. A. Stevens (Chicago – did you really think I’d leave that out?) and The Broadway (of latent “Mad Men” fame, Los Angeles), among many others. When he signed on with Atkins in 1962, Dillard was their smallest client. By the early 1980’s, he was their largest.

Two years on and these problems behind him, Dillard was eager to expand.  Dillard had “recognized the shift of the population to the suburbs and the need to provide stores close to them” as far back as his brief tenure with Sears, Rosenberg noted, and he “had wanted to open a unit in a mall for some time to see if it would work”.  For this exciting new venture he partnered with Homart, a recently created mall development subsidiary of Sears, then ferociously active in the Southwest.  Dillard initially considered Homart’s first mall project, the just opened Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas. (Many years later, in 1987, Dillard finally put in a store there.) Also in the running was Homart’s still-in-development Coronado Center in Albuquerque.

Instead, he chose a third Homart project, the Hancock Shopping Center, to be located in Austin and co-anchored, of course, by Sears (second photo here). Dillard’s methodology behind this choice was novel, to put it mildly. From Rosenberg’s book: “Dillard had been visiting in the city (Austin) and was waiting for his flight to Albuquerque when he happened to thumb through a telephone book. He noticed there were more Lutheran churches in Austin than any other denomination and associated the churches with Germans, who had always impressed him with their work ethic and honesty. On that basis, he decided that Austin would be an excellent place for his store.”  (And here I always thought the Methodists were the benchmark for retail site selection. Shows you what I know.)

Obviously the Lutherans and a great many others liked Dillard’s store. It was an unqualified success, resetting the template for all of the company’s future growth. From that point forward, Dillard “took every opportunity in subsequent years to co-anchor new malls with Sears or Penney’s”, Rosenberg wrote, “…he was not in direct competition with either store, and they both made good mall partners for him”.

Importantly, the store was the first to carry Dillard’s own name, not counting his early dry goods stores in southwest Arkansas. (As a side note, Dillard sold the Texarkana and Magnolia stores in 1962 to Aldens, a Chicago-based catalog retailer then seeking a piece of the brick-and-mortar side of the business. Aldens had recently bought out Shoppers World, and would itself be absorbed by Gamble-Skogmo in 1964.) Although he would continue to put his own name on stores in markets that were new to the company (Austin, for example), for years he maintained the names of acquired companies in their respective markets, such as Mayer & Schmidt and Brown-Dunkin, even when adding new mall-based stores in their areas.

As mentioned, the Austin, Texas Dillard’s store opened in February 1964. Later that year saw the return of Dillard and his family (from Tulsa) to Arkansas, this time to Little Rock, the state capital, where he had recently assembled a considerable retail enterprise. Over the previous year, Dillard bought out the Gus Blass Company and Pfiefer’s, two of the three largest department stores in the area, the other being M.M. Cohn. The buyouts were carried out with the help of funds from the Mayer & Schmidt stockholders and $1.5 million kicked in from Sperry & Hutchinson, who invested on the condition that Dillard hand out their S&H Green Stamps in his stores. Both Blass and Pfeifer’s were large downtown stores with one branch apiece – Blass in Pine Bluff and Pfeifer’s in Hot Springs. In 1965 a mall-based Blass store was opened at Park Plaza in Little Rock, and two years after that, another at the then new (and just recently torn down, except for Sears) Indian Mall in Jonesboro. Starting in 1967, Dillard’s Little Rock-based operations were combined under the name of Pfeifer-Blass, although I don’t know for sure whether this change was extended to store signage.    

The late 60’s and early 70’s were a furious period of growth for Dillard’s companies, and virtually all of it took place at the malls. 1965 saw a Brown-Dunkin store at Southland Shopping Mall in Tulsa, followed by another at the Northland Shopping center the following year. In Oklahoma City, he opened a “Dillard’s Brown-Dunkin” store at the Sheppard Mall, “a first step in phasing in his own name for all his stores”, according to Rosenberg’s book. In 1968, two Dillard’s stores were opened in San Antonio, at Central Park Mall and what is now known as South Park Mall. And the growth continued from there – the first Missouri location, at Springfield’s Battlefield Mall was added in 1970, as was the first Louisiana location at Shreveport’s Shreve City Center.

In 1974, the various Dillard-controlled stores all took on the “Dillard’s” name, reflecting the incorporation of Dillard’s enterprises under one financial umbrella. More importantly, it provided a consistent brand image for marketing purposes. While many (including me) lament the passing of so many great department store nameplates in recent decades, it has proven to be an unstoppable, irreversible trend.  It’s interesting to note, however, that even Macy’s, the proverbial poster child” for department store rebranding, owned Davison’s (Atlanta) for 61 years before converting them to Macy’s in 1986 and Bamberger’s (“New Jersey’s greatest store, and one of America’s finest”) for 57 years before finally hanging the red star on its front door that same year. 

When William T. Dillard passed away at age 87 in 2002, his namesake company that began so humbly was America’s third largest department store chain, according to his New York Times obituary. Today, among “luxury” department stores (i.e.: not including Sears, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney), they remain number three, behind Macy’s and Nordstrom and ahead of Neiman Marcus and Belk, per Stores Magazine’s latest rankings. Today, Dillard’s boasts over 300 stores in a coast-to-coast empire. And the beat goes on.

Below, a 1972 newspaper ad hailing the new Dillard’s store at the Northwest Arkansas Plaza, as reproduced in the Rosenberg book - an enjoyable hodgepodge of names and architectural styles if there ever was one.