Mega Stores and the Hawthorne Curse

August 12, 2010 at 10:47 pm 2 comments

Mayor Isen, Jonny Weissmuller, Ricardo Montalban, and Soupy Sales entertained thousands at its opening. Its iconic façade was hailed as a mod masterpiece. Its 130,000 square feet, 1,500 parking spaces and 45 departments selling everything from electric fans, fashions and flashlights, right in the center of Torrance was seen as a plum city asset. It even had a grocery store and a place to redeem Blue Chip stamps. It was hoped that it would attract shoppers and their money, from as far as Inglewood and Palos Verdes. It was not dogged by anti-development or NIMBY protesters. It was the White Front and it was 1963.

I remember Mom taking me to the White Front (or “white elephant” as we called it while it sat empty) to cash in her Blue Chip stamps. It was a great place for a kid, large enough to run around in and made of material that echoed well when young lungs needed testing. I remember it only in its decline. When it opened in 1963, it was the leader in large scale “bargain” retailing. In short, it was the Wal-mart Superstore of its time.

Torrance Herald, 1963

But it didn’t last. White Front was only in business from 1963 to 1974. The famous façade came down in the early 80’s while the Marriott Hotel went up in the late 80’s. The bankruptcy of the parent company, not the indifference of Torrance shoppers, was cited as the reason the store closed.

It was the largest store Torrance had ever seen. It was 180,000 square feet (a Wal-mart Superstore is about 185,000 square feet and Costco is only 147,000 square feet). It boasted 350 employees and had inadequate parking. It also had an unique silhouette with the tag line of everything “Under the squiggly roof.” When it closed, it had room for three large “big box” stores to move into the space. It sat on one of the busiest corners in the city, just blocks from the White Front. It was the Treasury and it was 1970. The Treasury, like White Front, would also last little over a decade.

Ground breaking at the Torrance Treasury, Los Angeles Times - 8/31/69

Skip forward a few years.  It was one of the first “membership discount department stores.” It anchored one of the most ambitious and successful redevelopment schemes in the city (Meadow Park). It cost over two million dollars to develop and at 102,000 square feet was one of the larger retailers in the city. Like its competitor a few miles north on Hawthorne, it sat on one of the busiest intersections of the city. It was Gemco and it was 1973.

I loved Gemco. We always tried to sneak in without Mom’s card. Usually walking in behind another family worked. The snack bar and toy section were first rate. (Of course the best greasy spoon around was any of the three Newberry lunch counters! But that’s another story). Opened just one year before the final collapse of White Front and eight years before they shuttered the Treasury, Gemco closed its doors in 1986.

From ad in the 10/23/73 Los Angeles Times

Mega stores have not done very well in Torrance.  With an average life expectancy of a decade, one wonders if the owners of Costco (1998), Sam’s Club, or Home Depot (early 90’s) are worried. Of course, judging by the traffic in the Costco parking lot located near the intersection of Lomita and Crenshaw, it looks like these stores will be with us for a long while. Maybe only mega stores located on Hawthorne Boulevard should worry.

Do you have any memories of the early mega stores? Shopping in Torrance before the Del Amo Fashion Center? Trying to find parking by Sam Levy’s store? Please feel free to share your memories.

– mg


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim Weyant  |  August 24, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    I began my career with the Torrance Police Department in1962 and well remember the White Front store. It was built on land that had once been a company town – little bunglaows that were overgrown with weeds. What I remember most about the White Front store the many arrests we made of male homosexuals that rather consistently performed “nasty” acts on one another in the men’s room which angered the customers that walked in on them. THe White Front store dsidn’t last very long; however, another “discount” store (Certi-Bond) which was on Van Ness, across from US Steel (where the Honda headquarters now sits) was there for quite some time.

  • 2. Mary Moreno  |  August 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I loved Whitefront! I still have a lampshade in my living room I purchased these in the 60s. It’s still beautiful & unique. It was made by Rosanna Originals. The prices were great & the merchandise was good. Mary Moreno


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