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At Liebergs, Taking Stock in Memories


ALHAMBRA — You name it, Bill Hutton sold it during his four decades at Liebergs Department Store.

"Daniel Green" slippers were the rage for Christmas, 1950, the year Hutton, now 78, started as a shoe salesman. Then came Levi's blue jeans, which went for $3.45 a pair.

When muu muus were trendy, Liebergs carried them. And, of course, there were alligator shoes.

"Hilo Hattie bought a pair of alligator pumps," Hutton chuckled, remembering the '50s, when the Hawaiian singer and dancer would shop on Alhambra's Main Street. "I never could figure out how to get her feet into a size 7. They were so wide."

Nowadays, Hutton said, the same people who bought penny loafers and poodle skirts in the old days are bringing their children and grandchildren to Liebergs. But sometimes, instead of greeting them with a smile, Hutton said, he hands them a handkerchief to wipe the tears away.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 17, 1991 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part J Page 2 Column 5 Zones Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Liebergs Department Store--A Jan. 6 article, "At Liebergs, Taking Stock in Memories," incorrectly reported the location of Liebergs Department Store. The store is at the corner of Main and Almansor streets. Tom's Men's Wear & Uniforms, which is at Main Street and Chapel Avenue, will not be replaced by redevelopment.

After all these years, Liebergs Department Store is quietly passing into oblivion, marking its final months with heavily discounted sales racks and dwindling stocks of merchandise. It will close its doors for good sometime this spring.

The 65-year-old store, the last of four Liebergs branches, will be edged out by a modern, Mediterranean-style commercial strip that city officials hope will lure back shoppers who, over the years, deserted Main Street for shiny new malls.

Members of the Lieberg family, who still run the department store and a nearby Hallmark card store, say they hope to open a women's clothing store in the new shopping center, but it would be only one-sixth the size of the existing building.

The city's Redevelopment Agency is contributing $8.5 million to help the developer, Dicker Warmington Properties in Fullerton, acquire land and clear the site, 6.25 acres of commercial land on the north side of Main Street between Almansor Street and Chapel Avenue.

The city has agreed to pay the Liebergs an undisclosed sum of money for their property and relocation costs. Family members said, however, that they are uncertain they can afford to rent any space in the new center, which is scheduled to open in about two years.

But one thing is certain: The passing of Liebergs marks the end of an era for shoppers at what was once one of the West San Gabriel Valley's most prominent business establishments.

"It used to be the best store in the area," said Alhambra resident Helen Wysong, 88, an honorary board member of the Chamber of Commerce and friend of the Lieberg family. "They had quality merchandise, good service, friendly employees. People came from all the surrounding towns (to shop)."

The Liebergs chain--which at its peak included stores in Pasadena and Temple City, a clothing shop for young adults in Alhambra called The Round Corner, and the Hallmark shop--began humbly as a dry-goods store.

In 1903, Peter Olaz Lieberg, a Cottonwood, Minn., banker, moved his family to Pasadena to escape the Midwest's harsh winters and improve his declining health. Eight years later, he opened the first Liebergs in a small building at 161 E. Colorado Blvd., where he sold lingerie, hosiery, silk, fabric and bedspreads.

In 1919, Lieberg opened a second store in Exeter, in California's San Joaquin Valley, but closed it five years later.

However, back in Pasadena, business was booming. Liebergs expanded, then in 1965 moved to 911 E. Colorado Blvd., where the establishment remained until 1973. Meanwhile, the family opened department stores in Alhambra and Temple City, stocking popular brands such as Munsingwear underwear and Pendleton sportswear.

When Lieberg died, his four sons inherited the business, and as they, too, retired or passed away, their offspring took over and brought their families in.

"You'd work in the store for a salary, then they'd make you a partner, then you'd stay in the business and buy out other partners who were retiring," said Leland Lieberg, 28, great-grandson of Peter Lieberg. He and his cousin Bill now run the store.

"When I was 12 or 13," he said, "I started marking merchandise and working in the shipping and receiving room, after school or on summer vacations. I got a dollar an hour. It came straight out of dad's pocket."

But time, and the advent of the regional shopping mall and its "everything under one roof" concept, crippled businesses on Main Street. One by one, such popular retailers as Butler Brothers and JC Penney shut down, leaving empty storefronts in downtown Alhambra. Meanwhile, Liebergs in Temple City began to lose money as rising property values drove up taxes on Las Tunas Drive. The family closed that branch in 1989.

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