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THE CHANGING FACE OF DOWNTOWN : Surviving Change : Old-Time Store Prospers

January 04, 1987|TIM WATERS

The cash register was purchased secondhand during World War II, and the wooden display cases were bought sometime in the '50s. The paint is a little faded, and there are no smartly dressed mannequins to eye customers.

And that's the way Bob Wilson, owner of Wilson's Department Store in Lomita, likes it.

"It's just an old-fashioned store that is overcrowded," Wilson said the other day as he kept an eye on the cash register from the rear of the store, excusing himself in mid-sentence at one point to dash off and assist his clerks.

"We have a lot of people who come in here from the Midwest and say, 'This is just like the stores I shopped in when I was a kid.' "

There has been a Wilson's Department Store in Lomita for 60 years, 33 of them on Narbonne Avenue in a building that once housed a service station. While other retail stores on the avenue have come and gone, and small, family-owned department stores everywhere have closed, Wilson's is still going strong.

A loyal clientele attracted by good service and competitive prices are the reasons, Wilson said.

"We are very fortunate we have so many customers who have traded with us over the years," he said. "It's kind of like a family. It's not like there are millions of people coming in and out of our doors. We just see the same people over and over."

Wilson, 64, said the one-story, 5,000-square-foot store was founded by his parents, LeRoy and Emily, both of whom worked in a department store in New York before moving to California. In 1920, they opened a department store in Harbor City, and six years later they moved the business to Lomita.

Wilson said he has seven full- or part-time clerks, and his wife, Evelyn, helps out when needed. He said he seldom holds sales, explaining that he prefers to price his merchandise as cheaply as possible to begin with. A good portion of the store's business is blue jeans sales.

"I always kid around and say Levi's are a sideline--the north side (of the store)," Wilson said.

Wilson declined to say how much business he does, acknowledging only that through the years it has been "very good." As for the future, he said one of his three sons has indicated some interest in working at the store once he graduates from college.

For now, Wilson will continue to run the store, opening and closing it each day, selling goods to some of the same people his parents did.

"We have people to this day who come in here who (year ago) would hold me in their arms while my mother measured yardage for them," he said.

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