Ode To A Great Retailer, Farewell To Dearden’s

  It was with great sadness that I heard Dearden’s was closing up. Dearden’s is a chain of retail stores located in the Los Angeles area. Founded in 1909 in downtown Los Angeles, it started as a general merchandise department store serving the general public, but evolved into something quite a bit more.

In Los Angeles, we have had a large influx of Spanish speaking immigrants for the past 100 years. This was a combination of economic and political refugees, all with a unique story of their own. They became a market unto themselves. Over time, Dearden’s, and a number of other stores like them became the first stop for these people. These stores focused their product selection on the basic necessities of life, furniture, appliances, and electronics. But there was one thing more they did that made them a crucial part of this movement. They offered credit to people who had no credit history, no real assets, and no reliable way of paying their bills. They were hard working immigrants taking whatever job came along. Job security was a luxury very few had. But Dearden’s and the others like them took a chance on these people.

Perry Goldstein, Meet The L.A. Hispanic Market

You may ask, “what’s a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee doing in a Spanish speaking business”?   In 1988, I was working for Panasonic, and was assigned the downtown L.A. territory. It was an eye opener for sure. The world of Dearden’s was a parallel world with the one I lived. The two worlds rarely met. When I was exposed to this world, I discovered a very special place. It was a place of hard working immigrants trying to make it in a new land. I stood on the sales floor and saw the families as they went about their business, buying the things they could have never afforded in their home countries, living the American Dream, thanks to Dearden’s.

Dearden’s Was a Major Player

What I quickly learned was that Dearden’s was so much more than a place to buy stuff. It was a socialization process, giving these hard working people a start, helping them furnish their homes, and build a credit history. Every other Friday, the lines at the cashier windows wound around the building. Everyone was there to cash their paycheck, and pay their Dearden’s bill. It was a sight to see. The store was packed, and the energy was contagious. Without places like Dearden’s, I don’t know what these people would have done.

Dearden’s also did something else to meet the needs of their community. They employed people who were just learning English, giving them the opportunity to earn a paycheck, learn a new skill, and learn the ways of America. The air was filled with hopes and dreams.

A Heart Of Gold

My first meeting at Dearden’s was with a guy named Ronny Bensimon. He was the buyer at the time, and went on to become the CEO. He was a fun guy, about my age, with a similar sense of humor. We became fast friends. As I was introduced to the people who worked at and ran Dearden’s, I was so impressed with the care and love everyone had for their customers, their colleagues, and their community. They were generous with their money, donating to many charities serving the neighboring community, giving scholarships to the students in their area, and quietly helping people in their times of need.

The thing that impressed me the most was the kind and gentle way the staff would treat those around them. In a world that looked down on these people as less worthy, the Dearden’s staff treated everyone with the utmost respect. And it was not just because they were customers with money to spend, it was because they truly loved and respected their community.

The Blending Of Cultures

Panasonic is a Japanese owned company. I worked there for 23 years, the best 23 years of my life. I had the pleasure of working with many Japanese executives. The Japanese companies were also victims of prejudice at that time, so bringing a Japanese person to Dearden’s was always so special. They had never witnessed anything like Dearden’s before. There was an instant bond of two groups of foreigners working in a strange new environment. I was always so proud to bring our executives to see Dearden’s.

The main office was the original Dearden’s building, a landmark in Los Angeles. It was 100 years old, with a real person operating the elevator. I’m sure they could have put in a new automatic elevator, but keeping it operating in the old fashion way was part of the charm, and created one more job they could give to someone. The physical presence of the historical structure, along with the spirit of the people occupying the building was an awesome experience. It is something one could never adequately describe. You had to be a part of it.

A Sad Goodbye

When I learned that Dearden’s was closing, it hit a very sensitive nerve. The retail world I grew up in is quickly changing, with on-line shopping putting many of the stores I grew up with out of business. I have said goodbye to many stores that I loved, sent condolences to friends that worked in those places, and grieved for a loss as if a loved one had passed, because, in so many ways, it was the same.

There are many reasons a business close, some that we know of due to mismanagement. Their demise is self- imposed. Dearden’s is quite the opposite. They closed not because of mismanagement, but in spite of qualified, dedicated, hard working employees. For many reasons, they just couldn’t swim upstream anymore, I suspect. Coming from that world, I understand that.

When I wrote Ronny to tell him how sorry I was for his loss, he responded in a typical Dearden’s way. They were going out in style. No chapter 7, everyone gets paid. And they are diligently working to help all of their colleagues get new jobs, new job skills, and helping them to transition to a life after their great benefactor, Dearden’s. They could have just walked away, but that is not how they rolled at Dearden’s.

In 1999, they gave me their annual Vendor Sales Rep of the Year award. It was a desk pen set with both our names on it. It is one of the proudest moments in my 40 + year career. Not just because it was recognition, but it came from such a great organization. I still have the award on my desk.

I will always cherish the days I called on Dearden’s. Our two hour lunches on my Panasonic expense account, the kibitzing with the sales people, the fabulous sales meetings in beautiful resorts playing golf with Ronny, and all of the energy I absorbed from their community. The world is a little more diminished with Dearden’s gone. I wish everyone the best as they move forward.

Thanks for the memories, Dearden’s.