Olive Kemp, 90, slowly stepped down the stairs toward the sales floor of the department store her family has owned since the 1920s. Her trusted deputy, Marta De La Hoya, 50, walked in careful lock step.
Before them, the Christmas rush at the First Street Store in East Los Angeles was in full swing. Customers eagerly picked through dresses, undergarments and fabrics, through work pants and Levis.
The store has served its working-class customers since 1924. It survived as other independent department stores -- Henshey’s in Santa Monica, Robert’s in Long Beach, Hinshaw’s in Arcadia -- fell to shopping malls, changing tastes and the deep discounters like Wal-Mart.
Kemp had counted on her loyal customer base to keep First Street going.
As she reached the white linoleum of the sales floor, two elderly Mexican American women -- both longtime customers -- hugged her. One plucked Christmas gifts from a bag, handing her a small Santa Claus ornament.
They thanked her for keeping the store open for so many years.
But they all knew what was happening. The crush at the cash registers wasn’t a sign of loyalty. First Street had cut prices by 70% and more. Kemp was liquidating in preparation for closing Dec. 31.
“I wish we could keep it open longer,” she said, pressing a hand to her chest. “But the time has come. That’s life, I guess.”
Sometimes a department store is more than a department store. It can be a gathering place and a symbol of economic independence. First Street was all of that for East L.A. It wasn’t as fancy as the department stores that once thrived downtown -- May Co., Broadway, Robinson’s. But to many on the Eastside -- immigrants without the money for downtown prices -- First Street was a touch of class within walking distance or a short ride. When people said they were “going to First Street,” it was understood that they meant the store, not the street.
It was born after Kemp’s father, Walter Dibben, brought the family from Chicago and purchased the Bijou Theater between Townsend and Rowan avenues in 1923. He remodeled it into a big store, but before the changeover, a 7-year-old Kemp “used to run up and down the aisles.”
As the store prospered, her father bought adjoining properties. That stretch of First Street acquired a nickname: “little Dibbenville.” All around it was a neighborhood of multiple ethnicities, including Mexican, Russian, Greek, Italian, Japanese and Jewish.
At its height in the 1950s and ‘60s, First Street had more than 130 employees, and “sales ladies” would take merchandise to 18 cash registers in a store that covered almost a block. The store boasted a fine jewelry department and a candy department, where customers bought by the pound.
Ofelia Esparza, 75, remembers the holiday crowds buying baby Jesus figures and other decorations for Nativity scenes. “To my mother, this was La Tienda. La Primera,” Esparza said. The Store. The First.
Female customers dressed elegantly, as if going to church on a Sunday morning.
“My mother and sister were seamstresses, and we used to run over here for materials and patterns for Christmas and Easter,” said Julia Ayala, 82. First Street, she said, “had everything.”
In the late 1950s, 16-year-old Dora Padilla got a job in the ribbon department.
“If a person came to the ribbon counter and they only wanted six inches of a particular ribbon, there wasn’t any question: Of course, they only got six inches,” Padilla said. “Service was the order of the day.”
Kemp’s father died in 1964, and her husband, Robert Kemp, took over the store.
By then, non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants dominated the neighborhood.
Robert Kemp never learned Spanish, but he understood that First Street needed to stand with its customers.
Come Cinco de Mayo, the store would be decked in the colors of the Mexican flag and entered floats in a Mexican independence parade that used to go down First Street.
In the early 1970s, tile murals depicting the creation of Mexico were installed in the front of the store, a reflection of the then-heady Chicano movement.
“We were very proud of that,” Olive Kemp said. “And so were the residents. They all thought it was a very nice tribute to them.”
One tile featured a Spanish soldier descending on horseback from a white cloud, preparing to plunge his gleaming sword into an Aztec warrior.
The image proved to be ironic in later years.
By the 1980s, customers had begun flocking to the Montebello Town Center mall or discount chains such as Wal-Mart and Target. Wholesalers in the garment district drained away more customers by selling at dramatic retail discounts. A $39 dress at the First Street Store might be $20 in one of the alleys downtown.
The First Street Store used to have a toy department, but a $49 video game at Wal-Mart, which buys in great volume, would have to sell for $89 at First Street. The community could not afford such markups. Then there were “99 cents” discount stores that increasingly peppered the landscape.
“There’s so many, and they don’t care what the neighborhood looks like,” groused Esparza. “There’s no elegance. I don’t think it’s respectful to the community.”
Like the Aztec warrior in the tile, First Street was cornered.
In 1992, as his health declined, Robert Kemp talked to his wife about selling the store. She became the owner when he died that April, but she decided to keep the store going.
“It was just, how should I put it? My generation expected to carry on the tradition,” she said.
The store began to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. In 1999, Kemp named a new general manager: Marta De La Hoya, a former illegal immigrant who had joined First Street 21 years earlier. To De La Hoya, the store had been a passport to a new life. Before being hired, she used to stop by the store after school and always marveled at it. “It seemed so beautiful,” she said.
They became a team. De La Hoya ran the store, and every Friday, Kemp made the trip from San Marino to go over the sales numbers and discuss what they could do.
“I’ll bring the store back,” De La Hoya said to herself at the time.
She went to work on new ideas. For many years, customers could pay utility and other bills at the First Street Store. She gave customers who paid their bills there coupons for 20% off anything in the store. But it didn’t work.
“A lot of people didn’t even bother to go inside,” De La Hoya said.
She sought less-expensive merchandise. She opened a junior’s section to attract young buyers. The response was a big roll of the eyes.
“Youth are a bit vain,” De La Hoya said. “They don’t want to tell friends, ‘I bought these jeans or this skirt at the First Street Store.’ They want to say, ‘I bought this at a mall’ or at a brand-name store.”
Three years ago, De La Hoya took a trip to her husband’s Mexican hometown. There, a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe caught her eye. She bought it for the store, where she placed it in a glass case by the front door. “Maybe it’ll bring us some luck,” she half-joked. Now, laughing to the point of tears, De La Hoya concedes it brought no such thing -- though she hardly blames the Virgin.
“It was a little too late for here,” she said. Last year, the First Street Store had its worst Christmas. The sales floor was nearly empty. The sales force of 17 employees often outnumbered the customers.
The store offered weekend discounts of 30% to 40%. It didn’t work. The men’s department was eliminated, and other departments, including lingerie, shrank. Then there were the parking lot sales. Employees lugged racks and registers and tables out to the parking lot. That didn’t make a lot of money, and some merchandise was stolen.
In May, De La Hoya lost hope. At one of the weekly meetings in the upper-floor wood-paneled office, “I told Mrs. Kemp that I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, her voice choking. “I told Mrs. Kemp, ‘If you can bring someone else to bring the store back, please do so.’ ”
Her general manager was in tears, but Kemp remained composed.
“You know, if you don’t want to continue with the store, then I don’t want to bring anybody else,” she said. “I trust you. I don’t think I can ever find another person like you.”
Later, Kemp described De La Hoya as “my rock and my salvation. She really cared and wanted to make this store a success. But we had three strikes against us.”
In August, De La Hoya broke the news to the employees one day as they gathered before work in the snack bar.
“Less and less people were coming around. Mainly elderly people,” said Rosemary Garcia, 56, an employee for 17 years. “This was the mall for them. For me, I loved the unity here. It was like a family, a home away from home.”
The loss was particularly stinging for Lupe Guerrero, 65, because her job at the First Street Store allowed the single mother to put her only child through UC Irvine.
“Here I got my little girl ahead,” Guerrero said.
Today, almost all the merchandise is gone, leaving vast spaces of smudged linoleum floor. The display windows that span almost a block are empty, except for one headless mannequin wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt.
Last month, the last of the fedora hats -- favored by elderly men, aging gang members and aficionados of lowriders -- sold out like everything else: at a steep loss.
On Dec. 12, the store had a celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe in the front of the store, with mariachis dressed in burgundy uniforms and old customers and employees performing folkloric dances.
De La Hoya will take the Virgin statue and her memories with her.
“To me, getting a job here seemed like a dream,” she said. “I saw this store and I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to work in a place like this.’ ”
The property is in escrow to a group of buyers. Kemp said she doesn’t know what will happen to it, but she is pretty sure it won’t return as the First Street Store, and that’s fine with her.
“It’s just sentiment, I guess,” she said. “My father’s dream came true for him here. And in deference to him and his memory, I think it should be a dignified exit.
“It’s a new era, so that’s the end of the First Street Store.”