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THE CHANGING FACE OF DOWNTOWN : El Segundo Clings to Small-Town Values, Ambiance as Big Chains Claim Foothold

January 04, 1987|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO — City Manager Arthur Jones buys almost all of his shoes at a small local shop, although he suspects he could find a better bargain at a larger store elsewhere.

"Don't get me wrong," Jones said. "It is not that I like throwing away my money. But I would rather give my money to local people rather than support a large store that will do just fine with or without my business."

Customer allegiance--as well as geographic isolation--have helped downtown El Segundo thrive at a time when many of the South Bay's downtowns are dying, their customers lured away by giant malls. Indeed, El Segundo's business district looks much as it did after World War II, when it was built to serve residents drawn to the city by jobs at Standard Oil Co.--now Chevron USA--and the old Nash auto plant.

But downtown El Segundo is starting to change. Chain stores are replacing folksier shops, and increasing numbers of restaurants and service-oriented businesses have moved in to serve the lunch-hour crowd from the city's aerospace and industrial center.

Many More Restaurants

According to the El Segundo Chamber of Commerce, there are 67 restaurants in the city, compared to 25 about six years ago.

"Print shops are replacing dress shops and restaurants are popping up all over the place," said Wesley Bush, the chamber's business manager. "Things are changing, and I keep hearing people say they are afraid that downtown will lose the things that make it special. But people who think the city should turn its back on big business east of Sepulveda are behind the times."

However, Mayor Jack Siadek and many others say that El Segundo must not sacrifice its distinct character.

"El Segundo is special," Siadek said. "It's a city that has managed to keep its old-time flavor and its small-time values."

Isolation Helps

One reason for El Segundo's survival is its isolation, which encourages residents to shop in the city. El Segundo's residential areas are separated from the outside world by the Chevron refinery on the south, the massive aerospace and industrial center on the east, Los Angeles International Airport on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the west.

The city seems suspended in time. Fast-food chains like McDonald's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken have not found their way to downtown El Segundo yet. Nor have fern bars, movie theaters or malls--mini, major or otherwise.

Main Street is still primarily a collection of mom-and-pop stores and homespun diners where waitresses serve blue plate specials and fuss at customers who don't eat all their vegetables. Store owners greet customers by their first names and often trade gossip along with money and merchandise.

"There are not too many stores outside of El Segundo where you see people walk in and say, 'Hi Fred, Hi Mary, how's your kids' and expect to see them later at church," Bush said.

"It's really a very special place, and that's probably why the townspeople are good about supporting small businesses."

Loyal Customers

Taylor Boring, owner of Taylor's Pharmacy on Main Street, couldn't ask for more loyal customers. Boring, 52, said his list of patrons reads pretty much the same today as it did when he opened his store 28 years ago.

"When people like you in El Segundo they become lifelong customers," Boring said. "Once a customer establishes a bond with a business, they never break it."

Maybe that's why Boring said he is not worried about the recent opening of a Thrifty's chain drugstore less than three blocks away.

Several residents denounced city officials for letting Thrifty's take over the old Mayfair Market grocery on Grand Avenue, two blocks east of Main Street, saying an influx of chain stores could ruin El Segundo's small-town character. In the past four years, a half-dozen chain operations have moved to El Segundo, including the Boys Market and a Stuft Pizza restaurant across from City Hall on Main Street.

Loyalties Vanishing

Despite the protests, Thrifty's is doing good business, store officials said.

City and chamber officials say El Segundo's demographics are rapidly changing as older residents are replaced by younger and more affluent people who have less allegiance to local merchants.

"The new residents just don't have the kind of bond to El Segundo merchants as our older citizens did. They seem to do most of their shopping in malls," Bush said.

Retailers like Jerry's--the store where City Manager Jones buys his shoes--are finding that a shrinking percentage of their customers are from El Segundo.

"It's becoming harder and harder to do business in El Segundo," said Dave Davis, who owns Jerry's.

Vanishing Stores

In spite of the natural barriers that encourage residents to shop at home, Davis says there are no longer enough loyal residents to support El Segundo's small-time stores. "There used to be another shoe store and maybe five or six clothing stores, but most of those have disappeared. The stores that are left are going to have to specialize if they are going to survive."

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