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A Dream Goes Up in Flames in Highland Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walker Dibben had worked for Carson, Pirie, Scott, an upscale Chicago department store, but when he opened a business in Highland Park in 1938, he had a different sort of shop in mind--selling affordable merchandise to the working-class immigrants who lived nearby.

He called the place on Figueroa Street “The People’s Department Store.”

On Monday afternoon, fire erupted in the domestics department, spread quickly and People’s was destroyed, leaving Dibben’s daughter, 73-year-old Olive Kemp, in tears.

Kemp and her husband still ran the store, catering to the same type of clientele, though the customers’ ethnic origins were more likely these days to be Latino, or Asian, than Byelorussian.

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One regular, Kathy Borjorquez, stood by the front entrance on Figueroa, shaking her head.

“I was just going in to buy my mama a house dress,” she said. “People’s was the only place that had a good selection of that easy-wear stuff that Highland Park’s been wearing for years.”

Around the corner, on Avenue 59, Kemp clutched her spectacles and watched flames dance on what had been her store’s roof.

“It hasn’t been easy the last few years,” she said.

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Business had not been booming. None of her three children was interested in carrying on the tradition. And then, the fire.

Kemp’s husband estimated fire damage at nearly $1.5 million.

Los Angeles city fire officials said four customers were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation and one employee, an asthmatic, was hospitalized. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Kemp sighed.

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“It’s the end of a chapter, I’d say.”


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