The May Co.'s announcement last week that it will close stores in West Covina and Pasadena in January as part of a companywide retrenching came as no surprise to officials of the two cities, who say they can withstand the financial setback.
Nevertheless, the demise of two of the San Gabriel Valley’s oldest department stores--the May Co. in West Covina’s Eastland Shopping Center and Robinson’s in Pasadena’s Playhouse District--has complicated plans to renovate areas surrounding both stores and caused some nearby shop owners to fear that their businesses will suffer. City officials, customers and employees at both stores said this week that they are upset by the news but are trying to cope.
The two stores are among seven in the Robinson’s chain and five May Co. stores that will shut their doors in January. The May Department Stores Co., which owns both chains, plans to open 12 stores in the Southwest under the name Robinsons-May.
May Co.'s decision to leave is the latest blow to the Eastland shopping center in West Covina, where badly needed renovation and a scarcity of customers has resulted in long stretches of empty storefronts.
At Scribbles and Giggles, a small card and stationery store next to the May Co., assistant manager Noel Renteria worried that her business will decline.
“Most of our customers are people who are leaving May Co. and stop to browse.” Renteria said. “I don’t know what is going to happen to us when May Co. closes.”
With May Co.'s departure, Mervyn’s at the other end of the mall will become Eastland’s sole remaining national retailer. Susan C. N. Fuller, the Mervyn’s manager, said May Co.'s announcement came as no surprise and added that the store’s departure will have little impact on business.
“We’ve known that May Co. would be leaving for almost two years,” Fuller said. “We’re not worried though, because most of our business comes from steady customers, not shoppers leaving May Co.”
At the May Co. store, general manager Henry Aguirre was reluctant to discuss what would happen to his 158 employees when the store closes in January.
“We’re at a very early stage of planning and it wouldn’t be right for me to speculate on what will happen,” he said.
However, employees of the store said they had been told they would be transferred to other stores or reassigned to the new Robinsons-May store scheduled to open at the nearby West Covina Plaza in October, 1993.
One employee said she was shocked by the suddenness of the announcement because employees had been told that the Eastland store would remain open until the new store at West Covina Plaza is completed.
Although the decision to close the store has some May Co. employees worried, it might trouble remaining store owners more, because many shoppers say the May Co. is the reason they come to Eastland.
Covina resident Dawn Cooper, who describes herself as a regular customer at May Co., said she will probably not shop at Eastland anymore after the store closes.
“May Co. is the main thing that brings me here,” Cooper said. “I don’t really like to shop at the smaller stores.”
Ruth Sanchez of West Covina said she has been a regular customer since the store opened in 1957. “I’m very sad that it is closing,” Sanchez said. “I’ve grown accustomed to the merchandise here at May Co.--and the way they are working over at the Plaza, it will be five years before they’re done with the new store.”
But Sanchez also said she will stop coming to Eastland when May Co. leaves.
“I would shop here, but there’s nothing here,” Sanchez said. “Just look at all the vacancies.”
West Covina’s assistant city manager, Steve Wylie, said the May Co.'s departure is nothing to get upset about.
“Any time you lose a store, it will hurt, but we’ve known about it for some time and have planned ahead,” Wylie said.
Wylie estimated that the city will lose $50,000 to $100,000 in sales tax revenues while May Co. relocates, but once the store is reopened, he said increased sales will more than make up for any loss.
“We look it as good news,” said Wylie, “because we are getting one of the three new Robinson-May stores at West Covina Plaza and it is a much better product than we originally anticipated.”
Unlike Eastland’s May Co. store, Robinson’s Pasadena is a free-standing building surrounded by towering bank offices, cafes and other small businesses. The retailer, on the 700 block of Colorado Boulevard, is at the core of the Pasadena Playhouse district.
Shoppers said the store was a longtime elite shopping destination and a distinct part of the area’s character.
“There is a lot of nostalgia there,” said Claire Bogaard of Pasadena Heritage. “People have shopped there or worked there for years and years.”
The May Co. has not yet announced plans to sell the property or demolish the three-story building. Company representatives will meet with city officials next week to discuss the site’s future, planners said.
Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole said he would have preferred to see the chain as part of the future of the Playhouse district, to give it an upscale ambience.
The Playhouse district, an 18-block area centered on the Pasadena Playhouse, has been under study by the Planning Commission since 1991 for possible redevelopment as the cultural heart of the city. Meanwhile, other nearby shopping areas such as Old Pasadena and South Lake have resurged.
“Without Robinson’s, the district will take on a different retail character,” said Bill Reynolds, city planning director. “It will now be oriented toward small shops and specialty stores.”
Cole said Robinson’s was a significant sales tax generator for the city, and possible replacements for it may include discount retailers such as Marshalls. Planning statistics indicated that Robinson’s generated about 1% of the city’s $17 million in tax revenues last year.
Although employees were concerned that they would lose their jobs, most of the 130 employees will be sent to other nearby May stores in Eagle Rock or Arcadia, said Ellen Jones, general manager of Robinson’s Pasadena.
Aside from their personal concerns, most shoppers, store employees and city leaders agreed that the city would also be losing a landmark on Jan. 31.
“It’s an institution for us in Pasadena,” said Karin Benzle, who owns two cafes near the store. “I’ve been shopping there for 30 years.”
The store--Robinson’s fourth--opened to much hoopla in 1958. Newspaper advertisements pronounced “Space for over 700 cars!” and promised a “sophisticated shopping experience.” Famed architects William L. Pereira and Charles Luckman and designer Raymond Loewy worked on the building, which cost $7 million.
It also sported the city’s first escalator, Jones said.
Benzle said women who shopped there would meet in the third floor buffet room for lunch. “It was a real treat,” she said.
Robinson’s employees lamented the closure and said the store still draws hundreds of repeat customers. They blamed the growth of big shopping centers for the decision to close.
“Whatever isn’t in a mall they’re closing down,” one elderly employee said. “I guess that’s just the way it is these days.”