Last week’s announcement that Buffums department stores will soon close their doors forever provoked cries of lament that another chapter in the city’s history is ending, yet there was also talk that the loss could ultimately prove a gain.
With Buffums destined to soon join the Pike Amusement Park, the Pacific Coast Club and the Rainbow Pier in the city’s memory book, business and city leaders are already thinking of what might replace the two local stores in Long Beach Plaza and Marina Pacifica mall.
“As much as we’re disappointed about Buffums leaving because of their tradition here . . . we also see the opportunity to revitalize the whole downtown mall with a new anchor store,” said Pamela Hulse Andrews, vice president of marketing and economic development for the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Founded shortly after the turn of the century in downtown Long Beach, Buffums grew to be the city’s leading department store in the first half of this century. But as the chain failed to lure new customers to replace its loyal aging clientele, its sales fell stagnant, contributing to the malaise of the shopping malls in which the chain’s two Long Beach stores were located.
“It would be much better if this hadn’t happened, but we’ll work with it,” said City Manager James C. Hankla. “Let’s face it, Buffums was not a strong anchor. . . . I don’t think as that store goes, so goes the future of downtown Long Beach.”
If stronger stores replace Buffums at the downtown mall and Marina Pacifica on Pacific Coast Highway at the city’s eastern border, both shopping centers would benefit, as would the city’s anemic sales tax income.
“Long Beach historically has not been a good place to shop,” remarked Hulse Andrews. “But with office towers going up downtown and new condominiums selling for a half-million apiece, there is a new market for a new kind of store.”
Both Long Beach Plaza and Marina Pacifica are for sale, and city officials are hoping that new owners will redesign and revitalize the malls to lure more affluent customers.
Hankla said it would be difficult to immediately replace the downtown Buffums with a store with as much or more prestige, since downtown still has a way to go before it can boast a healthy number of affluent residents to patronize upscale stores. But as residential development proceeds, the prospects will get better, Hankla said, adding that he ultimately sees a mix of upscale and more modest stores downtown.
In the meantime, Buffums’ closing is going to hurt. The city’s income already has been battered by the recession, and this will further erode sales tax revenue. Sales tax figures for the Long Beach stores were not available.
“It’s a shame to lose them,” said Manny Jones, executive director of Downtown Long Beach Business Associates. “They have been an anchor in downtown Long Beach forever. In its heyday it was the place to shop in Long Beach. I am not saying this will be a breath of fresh air. It’s a horrendous loss.”
In Lakewood, where Buffums has been a longtime tenant of the Lakewood Center Mall, there were also condolences for the passing of the dowager department store.
“Buffums has been part of the retail base for Lakewood for many years and we regret seeing them go,” said Donald J. Waldie, the city’s public information officer.
It was not a very vital part, however. In recent years, Buffums ranked 23rd among the city’s top 30 sales tax producers, and was last among Lakewood’s seven department stores in terms of sales.
Buffums started as the Mercantile Co. in 1904, when the Buffum brothers, Charles and Edwin, bought a small store on Pine Avenue to serve the village of 5,000 that was then Long Beach. By the 1920s, their enterprise had grown, along with the city, and Buffums had become a handsome, large department store at the corner of Pine and Broadway. Charles Buffum was a civic as well as a business leader, serving as mayor of the city in the early 1920s.
His department store branched into a 16-store chain from Glendale to San Diego, became a publicly held corporation and in 1974 was sold to an Australian company. In 1982, when the downtown mall opened, Buffums moved from its large department store to smaller quarters in the mall.
Buffums’ current owner, a unit of troubled Adelaide Steamship Co., decided to close the stores after rejecting a proposed $30-million program to modernize and bring in new merchandising managers. Industry analysts said the company has lost money for more than three years.
Times staff writer Michele Fuetsch also contributed to this story.