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Stripped Furniture : Barker Bros. Sells Final Items, Ends 111 Years in Southland

January 17, 1992|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 111 years, the stores were symbols of decorum and good taste, places guaranteed to make a lasting impression on generations of wide-eyed children who tiptoed around, careful not to scratch the mahogany or crack the crystal.

Yet 6-year-old Sarah Meyers and her brother, Bobby, 9, will have another reason for remembering how the end came Thursday to the venerable Barker Bros. furniture chain.

They watched in amazement as customers battled over the last leather love-seat in the stripped-bare Barker Bros. store in Glendale.

Their mother had purchased the $1,500 piece for the marked-down, bargain price of $300. But before she could carry it off, another shopper plopped herself down on it. She told horrified store clerks that she would not get up unless they sold the love-seat to her.

"She tore the back of it when they tried to get her to get off," Sarah said excitedly.

Added Bobby: "The police came and arrested her and made her lie on the floor while they patted her pockets. Then they took her away to jail."

The scene--and the sale--was a sad end to the proud company that once employed doormen to help customers out of their cars and across a red carpet leading into "the most beautiful furniture store in America."

The 10-store chain was Southern California's oldest when it filed for bankruptcy Nov. 4, throwing 250 employees out of work. A liquidation sale ended Thursday afternoon as the stores closed their doors for the last time.

A few former Barker Bros. employees were called back to work for this last sale. Some of them were bitter at having to preside over what many likened to the funeral of a friend.

"This was a wonderful place to work, a great place," said salesman Frank Kryszek, 65, who sold sofas, dining room sets and armoires for Barker Bros. for 37 years.

On his last day, shoppers were picking over the last few lamps, rugs and bedroom ensembles in the nearly empty Whittier showroom. Every few minutes, someone would try to buy the desk he was sitting at.

"You'd actually enjoy coming to work every day. It was fun working here. It was like one big family." In fact, he met his future wife at the store, said Kryszek, of Alhambra. Tea Kryszek worked for Barker Bros. for 47 years as an assistant buyer before she was fired, along with everyone else, last Nov. 1.

The word came at 1:30 p.m.; workers were to gather their belongings and clear out by 2 o'clock.

Others complained that Prism Capital, the San Francisco investment partnership with no retail experience that bought the chain in 1989, had, to their way of thinking, run it into the ground.

"Barker Bros. had been a tightly run ship," said Andrew Michaelson, manager of the Whittier store. "A couple of Wall Street punks come in and destroy all of this. It's criminal. All they saw was millions of dollars in equity in store leases."

Prism partners now acknowledge that they took on too much debt when they acquired Barker Bros. through a leveraged buyout for $18 million. When the recession struck California, Prism could no longer pay off its loans and the company was forced into bankruptcy.

The upscale furniture chain was launched in 1880 by O.T. Barker, who had stopped off in Los Angeles a year earlier for a horticulture show while traveling between Colorado Springs and San Jose.

The place was a dirt-street town of 11,138 then. But it was growing. At the horticulture fair, Barker overheard Otto Mueller complaining about the expense of furnishing his new house from the only furniture store in town.

The pair became partners and opened a 35-foot-wide store near Olvera Street. The business grew quickly. In 1926, it moved into an 11-story showplace at 818 W. 7th St., hailed at the time as "comparable to that of any known public building."

Finished with walnut paneling and Italian travertine marble, the remarkable furniture store was the fanciest commercial building in town. It featured 11 customer elevators and six freight lifts to carry furniture that was the last word in style.

Barker Bros. abandoned downtown Los Angeles in 1984, selling the building and moving to 22 suburban stores.

Many of the stores' final shoppers seemed unaware of the chain's history. But others mourned the closing.

"We've always found good quality furniture here," said R. Buxton Mading III, a retired hotel and casino owner who was spending $6,000 at the Glendale store on furnishings for a new home in La Canada Flintridge.

"I guess we'll have to go to Beverly Hills from now on."

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