Ethel Queen takes her job seriously. The 82-year-old woman, known affectionately as Queenie, has operated the manual elevator at Henshey’s department store every Saturday for the last 38 years and considers it part of her job to make her riders feel at home.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” she says to one man.
Later, when the lift is empty, she explains, “a lot of people are afraid of the automatic elevator, especially the older people. They just love this.”
Queen and her job epitomize what customers seem to like about the Santa Monica department store: personal service and consistency.
Henshey’s is one of the last of a dying breed of independent department stores. Henshey’s and others like it are faced with increasing expenses, zero growth and stiff competition from chain department stores.
“There aren’t any stores left like this,” said Henshey’s customer Beverly Bullion, a Canoga Park resident. “There is always a clerk to wait on you, and there isn’t a line.”
Bullion said the commitment to personal service and attentive clerks is the same today as when Bullion grew up in Santa Monica. Indeed, when one walks into the store, there is a sense of being in a time warp. There is none of the glitz found in the newer chain stores at malls.
“That’s the nice part,” said Bullion. “It doesn’t change. I keep holding my breath that Henshey’s doesn’t go, that it survives,” she said.
Queen remembers the store in its heyday. She recalls the days when so many customers crammed into her elevator that Mr. Henshey gave her his riding crop to keep the people back from the sliding doors.
Now, only a few customers at a time take the manual lift in what was once Santa Monica’s shopping mecca. Queen keeps a box of books in the elevator to bide the time during slow periods.
Originally called Bay Department Store, Henshey’s opened at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 4th Street 65 years ago.
At its opening in 1925, the store sold no merchandise, but instead opened its doors for the public to inspect it while an orchestra played throughout the day. A special section of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook dedicated to the opening, which is now framed and hanging next to the automatic elevator, touted the store as providing “an assortment of dry goods, clothing and home furnishings that answers every need of humankind.”
The new, fireproof department store was built by local labor, warmed by 19 gas-steam heaters and had “drinking fountains of sanitary type installed on each floor,” the article said.
Bay Department Store, owned by Henshey, VanAntwerp & Murdoch Inc., was renamed when Harry C. Henshey bought out his partners in the 1930s. The store is now owned by 14 stockholders.
Time has brought other changes. Large appliances were gradually discontinued, and an auto service center that operated across the street for 10 years is no longer open.
A second branch was opened in Ladera Heights in 1966 but went out of business last year.
But, according to customers and employees alike, what has remained the same is the quality of the merchandise and the personal service they say set Henshey’s apart from other department stores.
“We give more service,” Henshey’s President Ralph DiMeglio said. “We do have more clerks per square foot than The Broadway, Robinson’s, Bullock’s, May Co.”
That service has built an intensely loyal, mostly older customer base that has been key to Henshey’s survival.
“The local people have supported us. We all grew up together,” said credit clerk Anna Holdorf, who started working at Henshey’s in 1978.
DiMeglio believes that loyalty should cut both ways. Rather than trying to change to attract younger customers, “we’ve stayed with the older customer,” he said.
Catherine Barbazon, 78, is one of the loyal customers. “The styles they have are for the mature ladies, styles you can’t find any place else,” she said. “Henshey’s is the same as it’s always been. This is my store. And they have such marvelous sales.”
On the mezzanine is a beauty parlor that seems to cater to the older woman as well. White-haired ladies sit under dryers reading magazines, while others have their hair rolled for permanent waves. There’s no cappuccino or sparkling water served here.
Despite customer loyalty, Henshey’s future does not look promising. Survival is “getting difficult as the older customers die off,” said DiMeglio. “It’s more difficult to get newer people in with a single store operation.
“The last couple of years, our figures have been just flat. We have not increased at all,” DiMeglio said. “Our expenses continue going up, and we don’t have the volume that keeps up. That’s the general problem the small independent does have.”
DiMeglio said that last year, the store lost money, but he declined to give specifics on the amount or about his plans for Henshey’s. In its economic favor is the fact that Henshey’s owns 50% of the land it sits on and holds a long-term lease--with 20 years left--on the other half.
According to Robert Kahn, a San Francisco management consultant who publishes the monthly newsletter, Retailing Today, independent department stores are dying off because they haven’t kept up with the times.
“Many of them stayed without computers, were late getting into scanning . . . and didn’t keep the stores modernized.”
But, he pointed out, sluggish growth is not unique to the independents.
“Remember that even the department store chains that are more sophisticated and more willing to put in the tools are not doing so well,” Kahn said.
DiMeglio points out that all retail trade in the area is sluggish and hopes for a surge of retail stores on the relatively new Third Street Promenade.
“The restaurants, theaters and night life don’t help,” he said. “Whether we’re able to survive is questionable. Until we start getting more retail, it will become more and more difficult to survive.”
Although Henshey’s customer base has remained loyal, even with the rise of chain department stores and malls, manufacturers have not.
“When everyone was an independent, you were important to manufacturers for their products,” said McCormick. Now manufacturers look to the chain stores to market their goods.
“We’re able to compete (for) the customer, but it’s getting rougher and rougher to cut the same deal with the manufacturer,” he said. “We don’t get the basic raw price.”
Increasing costs and decreasing competitiveness are “spelling the end of the independent,” McCormick said.
But for now, Henshey’s continues to serve its customers as does Queen, perched on her chair in the elevator every Saturday, greeting people in her Scottish accent and giving her personal service.
“To operate the elevator, you have to be a mind reader,” she confided after a woman got in, and, without a word, Queen took her to the second floor. “I can usually tell.”