"There's so many, and they don't care what the neighborhood looks like," groused Esparza. "There's no elegance. I don't think it's respectful to the community."
Like the Aztec warrior in the tile, First Street was cornered.
In 1992, as his health declined, Robert Kemp talked to his wife about selling the store. She became the owner when he died that April, but she decided to keep the store going.
"It was just, how should I put it? My generation expected to carry on the tradition," she said.
The store began to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. In 1999, Kemp named a new general manager: Marta De La Hoya, a former illegal immigrant who had joined First Street 21 years earlier. To De La Hoya, the store had been a passport to a new life. Before being hired, she used to stop by the store after school and always marveled at it. "It seemed so beautiful," she said.
They became a team. De La Hoya ran the store, and every Friday, Kemp made the trip from San Marino to go over the sales numbers and discuss what they could do.
"I'll bring the store back," De La Hoya said to herself at the time.
She went to work on new ideas. For many years, customers could pay utility and other bills at the First Street Store. She gave customers who paid their bills there coupons for 20% off anything in the store. But it didn't work.
"A lot of people didn't even bother to go inside," De La Hoya said.
She sought less-expensive merchandise. She opened a junior's section to attract young buyers. The response was a big roll of the eyes.
"Youth are a bit vain," De La Hoya said. "They don't want to tell friends, 'I bought these jeans or this skirt at the First Street Store.' They want to say, 'I bought this at a mall' or at a brand-name store."
Three years ago, De La Hoya took a trip to her husband's Mexican hometown. There, a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe caught her eye. She bought it for the store, where she placed it in a glass case by the front door. "Maybe it'll bring us some luck," she half-joked. Now, laughing to the point of tears, De La Hoya concedes it brought no such thing -- though she hardly blames the Virgin.
"It was a little too late for here," she said. Last year, the First Street Store had its worst Christmas. The sales floor was nearly empty. The sales force of 17 employees often outnumbered the customers.
The store offered weekend discounts of 30% to 40%. It didn't work. The men's department was eliminated, and other departments, including lingerie, shrank. Then there were the parking lot sales. Employees lugged racks and registers and tables out to the parking lot. That didn't make a lot of money, and some merchandise was stolen.
In May, De La Hoya lost hope. At one of the weekly meetings in the upper-floor wood-paneled office, "I told Mrs. Kemp that I didn't know what else to do," she said, her voice choking. "I told Mrs. Kemp, 'If you can bring someone else to bring the store back, please do so.' "
Her general manager was in tears, but Kemp remained composed.
"You know, if you don't want to continue with the store, then I don't want to bring anybody else," she said. "I trust you. I don't think I can ever find another person like you."
Later, Kemp described De La Hoya as "my rock and my salvation. She really cared and wanted to make this store a success. But we had three strikes against us."
In August, De La Hoya broke the news to the employees one day as they gathered before work in the snack bar.
"Less and less people were coming around. Mainly elderly people," said Rosemary Garcia, 56, an employee for 17 years. "This was the mall for them. For me, I loved the unity here. It was like a family, a home away from home."
The loss was particularly stinging for Lupe Guerrero, 65, because her job at the First Street Store allowed the single mother to put her only child through UC Irvine.
"Here I got my little girl ahead," Guerrero said.
Today, almost all the merchandise is gone, leaving vast spaces of smudged linoleum floor. The display windows that span almost a block are empty, except for one headless mannequin wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt.
Last month, the last of the fedora hats -- favored by elderly men, aging gang members and aficionados of lowriders -- sold out like everything else: at a steep loss.
On Dec. 12, the store had a celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe in the front of the store, with mariachis dressed in burgundy uniforms and old customers and employees performing folkloric dances.
De La Hoya will take the Virgin statue and her memories with her.
"To me, getting a job here seemed like a dream," she said. "I saw this store and I thought, 'I'll never be able to work in a place like this.' "
The property is in escrow to a group of buyers. Kemp said she doesn't know what will happen to it, but she is pretty sure it won't return as the First Street Store, and that's fine with her.
"It's just sentiment, I guess," she said. "My father's dream came true for him here. And in deference to him and his memory, I think it should be a dignified exit.
"It's a new era, so that's the end of the First Street Store."