I've got credit down at my grocery store, and my barber tells me jokes. . . .
The Westward Ho Market in Sherman Oaks is the capital of the country that is my neighborhood. To contemplate life without it is like contemplating the Dodgers without Vin Scully, a record store without the Beatles, the modern media without arrogance. It's been the center and anchor of this little vaguely defined pocket of homey abodes and flower beds since 1963. It belongs.
Thanks to surreptitious things bearing such cold, doggedly neutral names as "leveraged buyouts," "economic pressure" and "corporate restructuring," the eight-aisle Westward Ho at 4520 North Sepulveda is gone. Sold its last can of beans in mid-January. I should have known something was wrong when they didn't bother to replace the T in \o7 "Thank You for Shopping at the Westward Ho" \f7 above the exit.
Now, romanticizing something as undistinguished--as banal--as a chain supermarket, some might say, is pathetic. But they would be missing an important (possibly \o7 more \f7 pathetic) point: that in the big, impersonal city, there often isn't anything much more personal than a supermarket. As far as I'm concerned, you could add the letters \o7 me \f7 to the \o7 Ho \f7 in Westward Ho. I shopped there for 21 years.
Am I overly sentimental? I think not. There have been many, many days when the only person to say good morning to me, or to ask how I was feeling, or how my work was coming, or to wish me a good day, was ever-chipper Vera Remagen, a checker there for 17 years. Or her longtime, now-retired colleague, Verna DeBarbie, who sometimes dropped by my apartment building to deliver used magazines and books to an elderly retired cashier.
The homey aspect got to be almost ridiculous. One evening, when I was writing one of many thousands of (mostly good) checks, this burly, bearded guy in a grocery apron announced, "Don't take his check!" That's it, I thought, bounced one too many. And then . . . "We don't take checks from people who went to Venice High School." Turns out the burly guy, assistant manager Mike Collier, was a year behind me in school--and remembered me from the pinnacle of my journalism career, editing the Venice Oarsman. Nice of him.
Put simply, the Westward Ho was a mom-and-pop store in disguise. When, after all, was the last time a Ralphs or a Pavilions or a Lucky let you owe a buck till next visit? Oh, they tried to gussy up the place last year with a slick interior make-over, a billowy green awning and outdoor cappuccino bar, but it was like dressing Will Rogers in a tuxedo: You couldn't hide the unpretentiousness. (Besides, they forgot to take down the vintage '60s Van de Kamp's bakery windmill logo jutting from its west wall.)
Even the fact that the rich and famous shopped there was somehow . . . casual. Wilt Chamberlain would drop in late at night clad only in gym shorts to grab a couple cans of chicken noodle soup. Olympic great Rafer Johnson was a regular. Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows quietly pushed carts, as did Annette Funicello, Alan Young, Bonnie Franklin, Steve Guttenberg, and the star I most looked forward to, er, bumping into--Angelyne. You know, the ubiquitous billboard blonde with the black sunglasses, intestine-pink mini-dress and breasts as expansive as Utah. Seeing her at midnight in the produce section was about as surreal as I like things to get.
Seeking a flowery epitaph for the market, I phoned some of the more famous shoppers, but will let one speak for them all. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of the Lakers, 20-year Westward Ho shopper Chick Hearn:
"It has served us well, and Marge and I will miss it. One of the things that we enjoyed a lot was a gal by the name of Vera, one of the cashiers. She makes you feel at home. She wants to know all about you--in my case, the Lakers. I think she'd be a coach, if she could. (Vera is perhaps one of the few people ever to bet Hearn on a Laker game and win; he awarded her a couple of tickets.) I guess everything comes to an end, but it doesn't seem possible that a store of that importance to the area could."
In a way, Chick, I suppose, it isn't. A Mrs. Gooch's Natural Foods Market will rise from the ashes of the Westward Ho in a few months--an organization hailed by some and branded by others as a dispenser of "politically correct" aliments.
For an official comment, I phoned Westward Ho owner Jerry Preston, who acquired the little four-store chain in 1969 (it's now down to two; the equally loved store at National Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in Westdale is closing too).
He seemed mostly concerned with trying to get publicity for the liquidation sale, but did, after some prodding, say he was sorry to lay off the newer employees. (Most of the others will go to the Brentwood store.) Perhaps his most telling comment was, simply: "After being in Chapter 11 for 16 months, you don't have a lot of sentiment."