It’s the end of an era, the death of a business credo, the extinction of a 67-year-old Santa Monica tradition.
Henshey’s, the Westside’s first department store when it opened in 1925, is closing at the end of the month.
“Closing has been in the works for the last couple of years,” said Henshey’s President Ralph DeMeglio. “It has been pretty tough for independent (department stores) for the last couple of years. We had been losing considerable amounts of money, waiting for the economy to lift, but we just couldn’t do it.
“The cost of staying open has been prohibitive,” he said. “We could make more money closing.”
The store’s closure was announced June 1 to the 80 full- and part-time employees (far smaller than the staff of 200 who worked there during Henshey’s prime). The “end-of-business” sale started June 24.
“We have some customers who have been shopping here for 50 years, and they are in tears at our closing,” said DeMeglio, who has been company president for 34 years. “It’s difficult, having been part of the community for so many years and knowing it’s time to go. It’s very emotional.”
Many independent department stores nationwide have succumbed to competition and economic conditions in the past decade. This month alone, it has happened to two independent stores in the Los Angeles area. Henshaw’s, founded in 1952 in Arcadia, also announced plans to close this month.
DeMeglio said the death of other small businesses surrounding Henshey’s along 4th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard portended the store’s demise.
“It’s all around us,” DeMeglio said. “Campbell’s Men’s Store closed about four years ago--they were the finest men’s store on the Westside before World War II. Kearley’s jewelers closed (early this year), and Clark’s Furniture closed two years ago. They started business in 1925. Retailing on the Westside is just very difficult.”
DeMeglio acknowledged that Henshey’s problems did not begin with the recession. The store had a narrow customer base of mostly older patrons. Its modest advertising budget could not compete with those of national department stores that occupy the malls throughout the region, including Santa Monica Place, just across 4th Street from Henshey’s.
Henshey’s could not afford the more efficient computerized cash registers used by large department stores, DeMeglio said. And it could not match the merchandising sophistication of the big retailing chains, nor the prices of the region’s myriad factory outlets.
Originally called Bay Department Store, Henshey’s made quite a splash when it opened. It was only the second building on the Westside to have elevators, and, at 25,000 square feet, was enormous for its day. It has since expanded to 65,000 square feet--and is still dwarfed by the Broadway and Robinson stores in the nearby mall.
Owned by Henshey, Antwerp & Murdoch Inc., the store was renamed when Harry C. Henshey bought out his partners in the 1930s as the store struggled through the Depression. It is now owned by 12 stockholders.
A second Henshey’s opened in Ladera Heights in 1966 but went out of business two years ago for the same reasons that the Santa Monica store is closing.
Customer service was the store’s underpinning philosophy set forth by Harry Henshey and carried on through the decades by his successors.
“Our emphasis has been service,” DeMeglio said. “We have probably more salespeople per square foot than the big ones.”
Still in question is what will happen to the land Henshey’s occupies and owns, a plot of nearly two acres, including the parking lot on 5th Street, east of the store.
“The property is worth somewhere around $12 million,” DeMeglio said. Because of the economy and a moratorium on commercial development in Santa Monica, “there are no interested parties right now. We are looking for a buyer who’s willing to work closely with the city over a long period of time, because that is what it will take to develop the property in Santa Monica.”
The Santa Monica City Council extended the moratorium for another year in February.
“The property is on the market, but there really isn’t a market out there,” DeMeglio said.