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COLUMN ONE

Store is selling all but the memories

The East L.A. landmark thrived for decades. But unable to compete with malls and discount chains, it will have no new year.

December 21, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Olive Kemp, 90, slowly stepped down the stairs toward the sales floor of the department store her family has owned since the 1920s. Her trusted deputy, Marta De La Hoya, 50, walked in careful lock step.

Before them, the Christmas rush at the First Street Store in East Los Angeles was in full swing. Customers eagerly picked through dresses, undergarments and fabrics, through work pants and Levis.

The store has served its working-class customers since 1924. It survived as other independent department stores -- Henshey's in Santa Monica, Robert's in Long Beach, Hinshaw's in Arcadia -- fell to shopping malls, changing tastes and the deep discounters like Wal-Mart.

Kemp had counted on her loyal customer base to keep First Street going.

As she reached the white linoleum of the sales floor, two elderly Mexican American women -- both longtime customers -- hugged her. One plucked Christmas gifts from a bag, handing her a small Santa Claus ornament.

They thanked her for keeping the store open for so many years.

But they all knew what was happening. The crush at the cash registers wasn't a sign of loyalty. First Street had cut prices by 70% and more. Kemp was liquidating in preparation for closing Dec. 31.

"I wish we could keep it open longer," she said, pressing a hand to her chest. "But the time has come. That's life, I guess."

Sometimes a department store is more than a department store. It can be a gathering place and a symbol of economic independence. First Street was all of that for East L.A. It wasn't as fancy as the department stores that once thrived downtown -- May Co., Broadway, Robinson's. But to many on the Eastside -- immigrants without the money for downtown prices -- First Street was a touch of class within walking distance or a short ride. When people said they were "going to First Street," it was understood that they meant the store, not the street.

It was born after Kemp's father, Walter Dibben, brought the family from Chicago and purchased the Bijou Theater between Townsend and Rowan avenues in 1923. He remodeled it into a big store, but before the changeover, a 7-year-old Kemp "used to run up and down the aisles."

As the store prospered, her father bought adjoining properties. That stretch of First Street acquired a nickname: "little Dibbenville." All around it was a neighborhood of multiple ethnicities, including Mexican, Russian, Greek, Italian, Japanese and Jewish.

At its height in the 1950s and '60s, First Street had more than 130 employees, and "sales ladies" would take merchandise to 18 cash registers in a store that covered almost a block. The store boasted a fine jewelry department and a candy department, where customers bought by the pound.

Ofelia Esparza, 75, remembers the holiday crowds buying baby Jesus figures and other decorations for Nativity scenes. "To my mother, this was La Tienda. La Primera," Esparza said. The Store. The First.

Female customers dressed elegantly, as if going to church on a Sunday morning.

"My mother and sister were seamstresses, and we used to run over here for materials and patterns for Christmas and Easter," said Julia Ayala, 82. First Street, she said, "had everything."

In the late 1950s, 16-year-old Dora Padilla got a job in the ribbon department.

"If a person came to the ribbon counter and they only wanted six inches of a particular ribbon, there wasn't any question: Of course, they only got six inches," Padilla said. "Service was the order of the day."

Kemp's father died in 1964, and her husband, Robert Kemp, took over the store.

By then, non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants dominated the neighborhood.

Robert Kemp never learned Spanish, but he understood that First Street needed to stand with its customers.

Come Cinco de Mayo, the store would be decked in the colors of the Mexican flag and entered floats in a Mexican independence parade that used to go down First Street.

In the early 1970s, tile murals depicting the creation of Mexico were installed in the front of the store, a reflection of the then-heady Chicano movement.

"We were very proud of that," Olive Kemp said. "And so were the residents. They all thought it was a very nice tribute to them."

One tile featured a Spanish soldier descending on horseback from a white cloud, preparing to plunge his gleaming sword into an Aztec warrior.

The image proved to be ironic in later years.

By the 1980s, customers had begun flocking to the Montebello Town Center mall or discount chains such as Wal-Mart and Target. Wholesalers in the garment district drained away more customers by selling at dramatic retail discounts. A $39 dress at the First Street Store might be $20 in one of the alleys downtown.

The First Street Store used to have a toy department, but a $49 video game at Wal-Mart, which buys in great volume, would have to sell for $89 at First Street. The community could not afford such markups. Then there were "99 cents" discount stores that increasingly peppered the landscape.

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