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Final hurrah for men's retailer Kimmel-Meehan

The landmark haberdashery on Montrose's picturesque Honolulu Avenue is going out of business after more than 50 years.

March 13, 2009|Andrea Chang

For more than 50 years, Kimmel-Meehan has tended to the fine clothing needs of generations of men from its storefront on Montrose's picturesque Honolulu Avenue.

Founders Gale Kimmel and Howard Meehan are long gone, and soon their store will be too. On Thursday, the landmark haberdashery launched a going-out-of-business sale with all merchandise marked 40% to 80% off.

For its many longtime customers, the closure marks the end of an era of personal service and distinctive merchandise that wasn't exactly expensive, but wasn't particularly cheap.

"Just about everything I own comes from here," said Tom Russell, 55, who has shopped at the store for decades and owns a pet shop across the street from Kimmel-Meehan. "I can't remember when this store wasn't here. If they're gone, what's going to happen to this town?"

The demise of the 2,000-square-foot shop came as a shock to the area's residents and business owners: Despite seeing many national chain stores shutter locations, they said they didn't expect Kimmel-Meehan -- a time-honored store with a loyal clientele -- to do the same.

But retailers of all sizes are vulnerable during a recession, and smaller stores are often more at risk than big chains, said Jackie Fernandez, a retail partner at Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles.

"All the reasons to go to a mom-and-pop retailer have kind of disappeared for the customer and now they're just focused on one thing, and that's price," she said. "They're not even that concerned with quality or service anymore."

Although the Commerce Department reported Thursday that sales at the nation's retailers last month were down a less-than-expected 0.1%, the industry is still contending with some of the worst consumer spending patterns in years. Also on Thursday, San Diego-based clothing retailer Charlotte Russe Holding Inc. said it would put itself up for sale, and Anaheim-based Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. posted an 8.5% decline in fourth-quarter sales, compared with the year-earlier period.

Like many businesses, Kimmel-Meehan suffered from a bleak holiday shopping season that was hampered by the mortgage crisis and job insecurity.

"Things felt like they really shut off in September of last year," said owner Bryan Walker, 57, who has worked at the store for 33 years. "We hit a wall. It really, really got tough."

In 2005 and 2006, Kimmel-Meehan pulled in nearly $700,000 a year in annual revenue. But sales last year were only about half that, Walker said, and a few weeks ago he decided to close the store for good.

"There becomes a threshold point where you can't provide the amenities that you need to own the business, for your rent, your employees, your workers' comp insurance, your liability insurance," he said. "The expenses are really what kills small businesses."

Founded in 1955, Kimmel-Meehan sold mainly men's suits until the 1990s, when Walker became owner and expanded the store's selection to focus on casual wear such as sport coats, leather jackets, slacks, shirts and shoes.

At Thursday's sale, dozens of shoppers packed the store, which for years has been adorned with old-fashioned travel trunks, model airplanes and paintings of outdoor scenes.

Unlike other liquidation sales where frenzied shoppers push and shove to find the best merchandise, many Kimmel-Meehan customers gathered to say goodbye to Walker and to reminisce about the store's early days.

"They used to have things that were very avant-garde, like shirts with no collar," said retired architect Bruce Campbell, 65. "I'd get made fun of."

To prepare for the liquidation sale, Walker partnered with a closeout specialist and sent personal letters to longtime customers alerting them of the closure. "It has been a pleasure not only servicing your apparel needs, but truly being part of your lives," Walker wrote. The store is expected to close by the end of May.

"It obviously felt like the time was right from an economic end and a personal standpoint, but it's hard," Walker said. "I have literally gone through the five stages of grief in this process. In the beginning, there was denial, and along came anger -- I don't do anger very well -- and then the bargaining stage, and then depression and then comes acceptance."

Many customers said they were still in disbelief.

"When I got that white envelope, I had a bad feeling even before I opened it because it didn't look like their normal fliers," said shopper Brad Thesman, 58, who walked around the store snapping photos with a digital camera Thursday. "I'm going to miss these guys."

All along quaint, tree-lined Honolulu Avenue, there are signs of the economic downturn: a shoe store advertising buy one, get one free on selected clearance items; a women's and children's shop offering 30% to 70% off; a "for lease" sign where a frozen yogurt store once stood.

Donald Bilinski, general manager at two cafes on the street, said he worried that Kimmel-Meehan's closure signaled even more financial discord for nearby businesses.

"When you see something this established have a hard time, there's a ripple effect," Bilinski, 38, said. "You can just imagine what the people who have been here one year, two years, three years -- if they're still around -- are going through."

And because Kimmel-Meehan was such a neighborhood favorite, its departure will be especially difficult, he said.

"We're all worried about the economy in general," Bilinski said, "but this hits to the heart a little bit."

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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