Hinshaw’s Department Store has announced that it is shutting its Whittier store this month, though the Arcadia store, on Baldwin Avenue, will remain open.
Store officials blamed steadily declining sales for the Whittier store’s closure after nearly four decades as a center of Whittier commerce and social life.
Business declined by 40% after the Whittier earthquake in October, 1987, and never recovered, said Mike Marevich, the firm’s chief operating officer. Although Hinshaw’s itself sustained minimal damage, the rest of the stores in the surrounding plaza known as the Quad were a shambles.
Small, family-owned specialty shops were razed, and jackhammers, bulldozers and torn-up parking lots dominated the Quad.
“It was too difficult for customers,” store manager Bobbie Sizemore said. “It was frightening to our older clientele.”
Marevich said the current owners, San Diego-based investors Roland Colton and George Moore, believe Hinshaw’s Arcadia store has maintained the traditional customer base of the Whittier store.
Through the years, Hinshaw’s in Whittier has been 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 returned in 1958 and has worked as a sales clerk since then. “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 to 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.
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 with 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 revenue from sales taxes.
For the moment, a going-out-of-business sale has crowds flocking in and cash registers ringing just as 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 Whittier 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.
Through promotions and full-page ads in the local newspaper, Hinshaw’s quickly became a household word in the Whittier area.
Although the store bore the name of Ezra B. Hinshaw, he was not the founder, contrary to local legend. 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 and offered promotion after promotion, but the store’s business did not come back. To the end, however, 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.”
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?’ ”
On the other hand, payroll manager Virginia Hartwell will make the move to Arcadia. She has worked at Hinshaw’s since 1965, and over the years so have 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. I think people are going to miss it when it’s gone.”