Vera Joseph needed only one store. But all that changed when the Hollywood Sears outlet that she had frequented for 25 years became a casualty of last spring's riots. Back-to-school shopping for her five children became a grueling experience.
"I like to go to one store," Joseph said. "I have three boys and I always bought their jeans here. I like the guarantee." Joseph had hoped the store would reopen in time for the back-to-school shopping season, "but at least I'll be able to come here for Christmas," she said.
Joseph was back at the store Friday, along with about 3,000 other shoppers who endured the heat and holiday-sized crowds, for the reopening of the Hollywood Sears, Roebuck & Co. outlet, five months after it was gutted.
Some Sears loyalists began lining up outside the store on Santa Monica Boulevard before 8 a.m.--more than four hours before the store was to open.
The first patron to arrive was 64-year-old Hollywood resident Rose Clark, who came early because "I knew there would be a mob here."
"We expected a bunch of people, but not this many," said the store's general manager, Mike Morgan.
He was amazed by the turnout, saying that promotional advertising for the event began only days ago.
The store suffered extensive damage, including looting and five separate fires. There was also severe flooding, because the sprinkler system remained on for two days straight to prevent fires and discourage looters.
"Inside the store was like a rain forest," Morgan said.
Wooden floors in the 64-year-old building had warped and buckled. The original concrete had to be replaced. "We went through three jackhammers," Morgan said.
Sears turned to the United Minority Contractors Assn., which employed about 160 inner-city young people to refurbish the store.
Most of the young workers had no experience in construction, said Jim Griffin, Sears' project manager of construction.
Sears also used some of its own employees, who took off their name tags and donned work gloves.
"A lot of guys learned a skill," said Al Williams, vice president of the United Minority Contractors Assn.
"We worked a lot of overtime to get the store in shape for the grand opening," said Juan Frias, 19, a Sears salesman-turned-handyman during the store's refurbishment. "It looks like a totally new store."
Said another employee, Jose Lara, 23: "I'm glad it's back to normal."
Morgan said Sears was able to retain the store's 153 employees by sending them to other stores in the Los Angeles area while the Hollywood outlet was closed.
The refurbished store is 15% larger, with more than 66,000 square feet and a much-needed new look, according to some shoppers on Friday.
"It (Sears) had an old look," said Jeremiah Lyles, a UCLA student. "It really needed redoing."
Morgan said he hopes the excitement generated by the new store--in addition to its loyal customer following--will enable it to return to its previous level of success.
And while most early customers seemed more interested in the free mugs than actual purchases, the size of the crowd bodes well for the revitalized store.
"Our commitment to rebuilding and expanding here is good for our customers, good for the community, good for L.A. and good for Sears," he said.