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History : SANTA ANA : When Downtown Was the Hot Spot

In the Orange County that existed before there were malls and freeways, the place to be on Saturday evenings was downtown Santa Ana, where people from even the most far-flung farming communities would converge to shop, eat, catch movies and--most important--schmooze.

Among the county seat’s lures were the grand department stores that dotted Main and 4th streets. Those stores, along with other specialty shops in Santa Ana, offered fashionable goods that in the 1930s and ‘40s were not available elsewhere in this still-rural county.

“Saturday night was shopping night. All the shopping you had to do waited until Saturday night because you saw people you knew,” said Constance Becker, a lifelong Santa Ana resident and vice president of the Santa Ana Historical Society. “A lot of people had worked during the week and had just gotten paid. They’d come downtown and park and socialize with people.”

Among the most striking of the department stores was Buffums on Main Street, which opened in the early 1940s and served Santa Ana until it closed in 1987.

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Buffums occupied an imposing white two-story building with a beige rock facade and several giant planters filled with tall palm trees. It covered a full city block between 9th and 10th streets. The store’s wide back entrance was colored with bright orange flowers and led into an airy main lobby and mezzanine.

“It was always very beautiful. They kept it very high-class until the closing,” said Becker, who worked at the store in the 1980s and shopped there for several decades before then. “They always had it decorated beautifully during Christmas.”

The store boasted of a restaurant called the Yorba Room, which was decorated with an early California motif and featured ornate light fixtures, Becker said. For many years, the Yorba Room played host to a fashion show at noon each Thursday, when models wearing the latest styles would roam the restaurant.

While many of the older department and specialty stores in Santa Ana closed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Buffums stayed in business. But the neighborhood continued to change in the 1980s, with more office buildings being constructed and fewer shoppers venturing down Main Street.

Then the nearby Main Place/Santa Ana shopping mall was renovated and Buffums’ owners decided it was time to sell the Main Street building.

“This was the last one to go around here,” said Lina Garcia, who works at an escrow company across the street from the Buffums building. “I used to go there after work to shop. . . . Now all we have around are office buildings, not so many shops.”

Soon after Buffums left, the building was converted into office space for the Orange County Department of Probation.


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