End of an Era


Georgia Miller, who worked 46 years at the JCPenney store in Santa Monica before quitting in September, dropped by this week and reminisced about her most memorable customers.

There was the woman who used to make her layaway payments while drunk and come back later to ask how much she had paid. And the Persian princess who swept grandly around the store choosing clothes and casting them on the floor for her staff to pick up as they followed. And the shoplifter who promised to return because he was impressed with the quality of Penney’s shirts.

The parade of customers--some of Santa Monica’s most stalwart and some of its quirkiest--will come to an end Saturday when the 73-year-old store quietly closes its doors.


The Santa Monica Penney store opened on Third Street on Aug. 15, 1924. It lies, in stark contrast, at the north end of Santa Monica’s famous Third Street Promenade, three blocks of shops, theaters and restaurants dripping with trendiness. The Texas-based Penney chain says that declining sales forced it to close the Santa Monica branch.

“I’m going to miss it terribly. It keeps you young,” said one sales associate, Julie Voden, a 71-year-old great-grandmother with 21 years in the store.

“The grown-ups come up to me and say: ‘You used to fit me for bras when I was a little girl,’ ” Voden said as she deftly sorted ladies underwear marked at 30% off while answering shoppers’ questions and pointing out the excellent deals in what’s left of the hosiery department.

Lisa Schlosser, a 25-year veteran, rang up purchases for customer after customer and patiently pointed out the scant few racks that still contained men’s clothing.

Customers such as Sonia Wiatrak made special goodbye visits.

“I’m very sorry they’re leaving. It was a very handy store for us,” the 74-year-old Santa Monica resident said as she searched for a bargain-priced pink top to match a pair of pink slacks. Wiatrak said she has stopped in a couple of times a week during the eight years she has lived nearby. “Everyone that I know of used to shop here.”

Store manager Wally Kendig said he knows of one customer who furnished her entire home using the Penney’s catalog department.


Kendig, who has been manager for five years and with the company for 36, will retire after the Santa Monica branch closes. Of the store’s 46 employees, three others will retire, and many will go to other Southland Penneys, including stores in Culver City, Glendale, Hawthorne and Downey.

The store spent 30 years at its original location before moving a block away to the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Third. The once-glamorous building--built in 1948 in the late Streamline Moderne style--still bears the traces of elegance. Red marble flanks its brass-trimmed elevators, a wobbly Art Deco-style wooden handrail curves up the interior stairs, and outside the sleek initials “JCP” rise above the store’s entrance.

Customers wandered through an all-but-vacant store this week, shopping for clothes and shoes that have been marked down as much as 70%.

Although no new tenant for the Penney building has been finalized, Kathleen Dawson, executive director of the Bayside District Corp., which manages the Promenade, said the building’s owner, Federal Realty, has been negotiating with Crate & Barrel about the possibility of the upscale housewares store filling the 45,000-square-foot space.

Gwen Pentecost, a senior analyst with the city’s economic development department, said there are still about a dozen stores on Third Street that were part of the “Old Mall,” the pedestrian shopping street created in 1965 that was the Promenade’s forebear.

“I’m as sad as everybody else,” Pentecost said about the demise of Penney. “But if they get Crate & Barrel in, will it be a better thing? Absolutely.”


When the Santa Monica JCPenney opened in 1924, it was the 39th Penney store in California. Now the chain that began in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902 boasts 1,230 outlets, including one store in Chile. But that doesn’t change customers’ perception of Penney as a local institution, and it doesn’t soften the sting they feel when contemplating its loss.

“Are they going to put in Crate & Barrel?” shopper Rosa Faraj asked salesclerk Voden. “We need one of those like a hole in the head.”

Georgia Miller, who declined to give her age beyond saying she is in her 80s, started working at the Santa Monica store in 1951, holding a variety of positions before she retired four months ago. She even spent three years running the store elevator before it was automated.

When she came by the store Tuesday, she brought an envelope of old photos of her colleagues from decades past to add to a collection the employees are putting together for next week’s final goodbye party.

She sorted through them thoughtfully, pointing out the manager who had worked there 25 years, and some colleagues around a piano, sometime in the 1950s or ‘60s.

“It’ll seem strange not to have a Penney’s in Santa Monica,” she said.