The victim of steadily declining sales, Hinshaw's Department Store will shut its doors in mid-January after nearly four decades as a center of Whittier commerce and social life.
Through the years, Hinshaw's was more than the place to buy housewares and suits. It was the place where community members learned to play bridge, where mothers charged their daughter's prom dresses and then signed them up for modeling lessons, where a young woman would get a sales job and keep it for 25 years.
Lynne Hall went to work at Hinshaw's the day it opened in 1953, and will be there the day it closes.
"We're all very sad," said Hall, 68, who quit that first year to start a family, but came back in 1958 and has worked as a salesclerk since. "Hinshaw's has been a home away from home for a lot of us. I'm going to be at a loss."
Hinshaw's opened at a time when a store earned customers by becoming part of the community's social fabric. The store sponsored annual pioneer night parties, with barbershop quartets and refreshments, for couples married at least 50 years. In the upstairs auditorium, community members met to sew quilts or square-dance or to learn about genealogy. Hinshaw's also donated gifts and door prizes to a multitude of community organizations.
Hall remembers when Hinshaw's was a bustling full-line department store and customers shopped for anything from Mr. California sport shirts to Ethan Allen coffee tables. Others crowded in to eat at the red-boothed Trolley Stop restaurant, or to sit by the indoor fountain.
In recent years, there were few customers to be found on the 120,000 square feet of waxed linoleum and beige carpeted floors.
Business declined by 40% after the Whittier earthquake in October, 1987, and never recovered, said Mike Marevich, chief operating officer. Although Hinshaw's itself sustained minimal damage, the rest of the stores in the surrounding plaza known as the Quad were in shambles. Small, family-owned specialty shops were razed, and even the most loyal Hinshaw's customers found it difficult to battle jackhammers, bulldozers and torn-up parking lots.
"It was too difficult for customers," store manager Bobbie Sizemore said. "It was frightening to our older clientele."
City redevelopment funds lured national discount chains into the plaza. The Quad was transformed into a discount mall, putting the final nail into Hinshaw's coffin, Marevich said. The neighboring discounters offered many of the same products at less than department store prices. Hinshaw's also had to compete with a larger, newly remodeled Whittwood Mall less than two miles away and the Puente Hills Mall as well as other department and clothing stores that catered to a younger clientele.
Even in decline, the grand old department store contributed about $75,000 in sales tax revenue, a little less than 1% of Whittier's annual sales tax revenue.
For the moment, a going-out-of-business sale has crowds flocking in and cash registers ringing just like in happier times.
Norma Berumen, a longtime customer, went to Hinshaw's recently to shop for some Spode china. "It's a shame they're going out of business," she said. "I always hoped I would work here after I retired. These ladies look like they have so much fun."
The average salesclerk is older than 50, and many are in their 60s and 70s. Customers wait patiently as some veteran clerks struggle with computerized cash registers.
They work together in an almost clubbish atmosphere. A breakfast group of 10 has met at 8 o'clock in the morning for many years to "talk about everything under the sun" and "to put on a little fat," Hall said.
"We're all like sisters here," she added. "We know about each other's families, each other's lives. We share each other's problems and joys."
Hall and many of her customers vividly recall Hinshaw's grand opening on March 13, 1953. That evening, children's television star Sheriff John was on hand to sign autographs, and a lucky shopper won a pair of chinchillas and a year's supply of feed. With promotions and full-page ads in the local newspaper, Hinshaw's quickly became a household word in the Whittier area.
The store bore the name of Ezra B. Hinshaw, but contrary to local legend, he was not the founder. Texas investor Benjamin Clayton lured Hinshaw away from his job as president of an Idaho department store chain to run Clayton's department stores in Whittier and Arcadia. The final offer included naming the stores after Hinshaw. Clayton built the Arcadia store in 1952 and the Whittier store a year later. Hinshaw never owned more than a third of the company.
In recent years, later owners remodeled the store and offered promotion after promotion, but the store did not come back. To the end, Hinshaw's prided itself on having the largest prosthesis department in the area, a full-service Boy and Girl Scout department and a wedding salon.
"We offer the kind of service department stores traditionally provided," Marevich said. "But the big guys have walked away from service."
The current owners, San Diego-based investors Roland Colton and George Moore, plan to keep Hinshaw's Arcadia store open. That store has maintained the traditional customer base that the Whittier location lost after the 1987 earthquake, Marevich said.
About 20 of the 100 Whittier employees will transfer to the Arcadia store, but not salesclerk Hall, who does not want to commute to Arcadia. She worries about finding a job in another store with the same qualities.
Hinshaw's is "really not like a lot of other department stores," Hall said. "Customers come in every day and say 'how will we live without you?' "
Payroll manager Virginia Hartwell will make the move to Arcadia. She has worked at Hinshaw's since 1965, and over the years so has her husband, two daughters, two nieces and a nephew. "It's always been sort of like a home. It's a family-oriented company and I want to stay with them as long as I can.
"I'm sorry to see it go," Hartwell said of the Whittier store. "It was part of the community."
Facts About Hinshaw's
Opened: March 13, 1953
Closing: Jan. 18, 1992
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Shopping Area: 120,000 square feet on two floors
Location: Intersection of Laurel Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in Whittier
Owners: Roland Colton and George Moore, San Diego-based investors
Other Location: corner of Baldwin Avenue and Duarte Road in Arcadia
Local Impact: recently contributed $75,000 a year to Whittier in sales tax revenue, slightly less than 1% of the city's annual sales tax revenue.