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Tear Down, Ring Up, Clear Out

Wistful staffers at the once-chic Beverly Hills Robinsons-May are dismantling and selling fixtures before it's replaced by condos.

April 08, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

There were bittersweet memories Friday at the Robinsons-May department store in Beverly Hills as one last sale sent bargain-hunters roaming among gleaming display cases -- and sent veteran sales clerks hunkering down in back stockrooms.

The shoppers were there to snap up suit racks and display shelving -- not designer clothing or high-fashion accessories. The clerks, some of whom have worked there three decades, were there to dismantle, not to sell.

The 54-year-old Wilshire Boulevard store that once stood for the ultimate in Westside chic has closed to make way for a condominium tower. And with it, the last of the once-mighty names in Los Angeles shopping is disappearing.

Robinsons-May was formed when the venerable May Co. merged with the elegant J.W. Robinson's in 1993. Now, it is about to go the way of Bullock's, Broadway, I. Magnin and Buffums.

The Beverly Hills Robinson's was the chain's showpiece. It was built in 1952 from travertine stone from Peru, rose marble from Portugal, black granite from Brazil and rosewood from Madagascar.

"When it was the old Robinson's we had the best clothing designers and the best customers," said a wistful Augie Marin, an East Hollywood resident who for 33 years worked on the sales floor.

"I did ladies' shoes and later men's shoes and clothing. Now I'm doing demolition. We're taking metal shelves apart."

Designer suits saleswoman Marie Velasquez, a 19-year store veteran who lives in Brentwood, said she was selling $10,000 worth of clothing a day right up to the end.

"I'm heartbroken. This was my home. These people were my family," Velasquez said. "Customers were so loyal. On the last day, some came in just to say goodbye. I was crying."

Merchandise was liquidated when the store closed March 18. Eventually, the four-floor, 240,000-square-foot building will be replaced by condominiums. But for the last three weeks, employees have been emptying out equipment rooms and storage areas and tossing away the remnants of what had thriving retail careers at one of America's most glamorous department store sites.

In one rubbish cart, a poster listing employees of the month stuck out from a pile of trash. Luggage salesman Nate Gleiberman's photo was among those visible on the poster among the debris.

One floor down, Gleiberman was disassembling shelving.

"We'd thought we'd made the cut, that this would become a Macy's," said Gleiberman, of Westwood. "We didn't see this coming."

Film stars, diplomats and other celebrities often shopped at the Beverly Hills store, he said. Sometimes luminaries who parked in Robinson's vast parking lot while attending events next door at the Beverly Hilton would slip in unnoticed to have their parking tickets validated.

"If I was selling Michael Caine a suitcase, no one would even be paying any attention," he said.

Many of the old-timers purchased souvenirs of their Robinsons-May days for themselves. The public sale of fixtures and equipment, meantime, continues at the store today and Sunday.

The store's tailor, Ausberto Lucero of Bell, got the vintage Singer sewing machine that he used during his 19 years of altering customers' garments. "I bought it for $125. It was a part of me, a part of what I did here," Lucero said.

Cosmetics counter manager Ronda Paperny, an 18-year veteran, acquired her counter's mirror.

"I got to thinking how many people have looked into it -- Joan Collins came here all the time, Nancy Sinatra, Frank's first wife, so many people. Leaving here is so sad for us and a personal thing. We'd be invited to customers' weddings and bar mitzvahs. It really was like a family around here," said Paperny, of Sherman Oaks.

Those shopping Friday for store fixtures were only slightly less nostalgic.

"My mother took me to my first tea here when I was 6. This was the primo department store in Beverly Hills," Judie Fenton said.

Now a Beverly Hills resident and owner of an events and marketing service, she was looking for display stands to use at charity auctions.

In the former women's handbags section -- "I know that's what was here because I know every inch of this place," she said -- Fenton found elegant-looking, gold-colored stands. She said the lunchbox-sized stands would be perfect for a June 6 gala she is helping stage at the Petersen Automotive Museum. "I could put a $1,000 bottle of wine on that," she said as an assistant, Miles Lee, climbed a stepladder to retrieve a row of the stands from atop display cabinets.

On the other side of the second-floor showroom, Julia Diamond was searching for mannequins on which to photograph vintage clothing she sells on the Internet. "I shopped here as a kid. I never thought I'd be here at a time like this," said the Carthay Circle resident.

She wasn't the only one.

David Skeen, the department store's men's clothing and shoe manager, shook his head at the cleanup work being done by colleagues who have become friends. "I never thought we'd ever be doing this," said the Simi Valley resident and 28-year veteran of Robinson's sales work.

A lifetime's worth of elegance and memories -- dismantled and discarded.

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