East Los Angeles misses the First Street Store…and its customers

The Eastsider ventured a few blocks outside the city limits to bring you this report:

The shell of the First Street Store contains memories for many of us who grew up in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. Mine include waiting not so patiently for my mom to pay utility bills at the store and of my grandmother coming home with oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies purchased during frequent trips to “La Primera.” Memories are all that are left after The First Street closed its doors at the end of last year, leaving a big psychic and, as it turns out, economic, hole in this part of the Eastside.

Business had been dwindling for years at the slightly dowdy, family-owned department store when owner Olive Kemp shut it down after more than 80 years in business. Still, even at the end of its life, the nearly-block long store between Rowan and and Townsend avenues anchored this strip of First Street, drawing customers who often stopped to patronize neighboring shops. With the First Street Store gone, so are many of its customers.

During lunchtime earlier this week, the sidewalk outside the closed store was a lonely stretch of pavement. Only a few people, old women shaded by umbrellas and young mothers pushing strollers, walked past the black steel gates that stretched over the store’s boarded up display windows. On the wall above, fat pigeons roosted on the arches that framed a row of tiled murals depicting Aztec warriors and other Mexican and Chicano imagery. The tattered remains of an American flag flapped over the main entrance and a large oval of tile bearing the store’s initials, “FSS,” and the words “Since 1924”.

Next door to the shuttered department store, Jose Luis Rangel, manager of the of the First Street Ranch Market, stood under a dusty pinata as he waited for an occasional customer to pay for their groceries at his check-out stand. “I didn’t think it would affect us. But they closed and business went…,” said Rangel, finishing his sentence by making a downward motion with his left hand.Across the street at Tortas Las Nuevas, customers enter to find a sign proclaiming: “Delicious!!!….Tortas.” But all those exclamation points have not helped owner Enrique Gutierrez halt a steep drop in pork, milanesa and turkey sandwiches sales that began when the First Street Store closed. Business is easily off 25% and Gutierrez said he has been forced to cut back employees hours. “A lot of people who went there don’t come here anymore. They have disappeared.”

Gutierrez said there was talk of turning the First Street Store building into an indoor swap meet. But that idea went no where. Anything, he said, is better than an empty space.

The job of filling that space has fallen to CBRE real estate broker Juan Jimenez. Some national retailers, including a chain of “small format” groceries and a clothing store operator, have expressed interest in the site, he said. The existing building is available for lease or can also be purchased to make way for potential new development. With a shaky economy, it’s not clear how long it will take to fill the void left by the First Street Store and its customers. At least we still have memories of the place. But that won’t help sell groceries or tortas on First Street. 

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