Before the days of Target and Walmart, when residents of working class neighborhoods needed to shop for clothes, they had small family owned neighborhood department stores to turn to. Here in Lincoln Heights, we have one of the last remaining examples of this bygone era, Frieden’s Department Store. It was with dismay that I recently spotted a big sign outside the building proclaiming “Retirement Sale.” After 61 years in business, the 91 year old owner Leon Frieden has decided to take a long overdue retirement. Throughout the years, Mr Frieden who can usually be found keeping accounts in his small back office, has displayed respect and affection for his customers by offering quality merchandise and personal service in a time when these practices seem to matter little other businesses.
Don Jose and Francisca with Mr Frieden in the background (probably wondering why I’m taking photos)
However, the backbone of store operations and the public face of Frieden’s has been the handsome husband and wife team of Francisca and Jose “Joe” Rocha. “Don Jose”, as Joe is affectionately known by long time customers, has dedicated 50 years of service to Frieden’s and Francisca an impressive 32. It is rare these days to find sales people as knowledgeable and as familiar with their clientÃ¨le as these two. For my generation, shopping means visiting a big box stores with an ever rotating workforce of wage slave strangers. I would never expect the a clerk at Target to know my size or preferences, to help me pick out a gift or extend me credit. Nowadays, these kinds of shopping experiences are reserved for the wealthy. Luckily for the working class shoppers of Lincoln Heights, such amenities and luxuries are offered at Frieden’s. In fact, Joe explains it is this kind of service and their ability to adapt to the changing neighborhood, that has contributed to the success and longevity of the store. Offering credit to people who otherwise might not have access to traditional credit sources is one of the sustaining practices that has helped keep the business afloat. Joe proudly recalls customers coming in and thanking him for extending them their first line of credit. When customers urgently need a gift for some celebration or other, they can pop in the store and not worry about having cash on hand. Joe estimates they have a current roster of about 2,000 credit customers. They are crossing their fingers that accounts get settled before they close the doors. “There are some good people out there” says Joe referring to those clients that pay their debts regularly. Then he jokingly adds “And then there are the others.”
After talking with Joe and Francisca, it is obvious that their personable demeanor and customer service talents have kept the clientÃ¨le coming in. They are so important to the store, that Francisca says some of the customers refer to the place as “Don Jose’s.” Joe is a Lincoln Heights native, growing up just a few blocks away from the area and both now live nearby in Hillside Village. Like many other young Mexican-Americans in Lincoln Heights, Joe attended Cathedral High School (class of ’61). He fondly recalls catching 10 cent Saturday matinÃ©es as a child at the now defunct Starland Theater across the street from Friedens. Not having a television, ten cartoons for 10 cents was a real treat. Joe has watched not only just his own children but his customers grow up in the neighborhood. One most notable client is Councilman Ed Reyes, who shopped for school clothes at Friedens as a youth.
On the counter is a collage of photos, highlights of their years at the store and a testament to the many friendships and ties the couple have to the community. Francisca mentions they have already taken home one of their treasured photos: Don Jose, Antonio Villaraigosa and Vincente Fernandez, wow! The peeks into the past remind me very much of the old photos of Zellman’s in Boyle Heights, also one of the last family owned department stores. Sadly that neighborhood fixture closed when Mr. Zellman passed away.
Proudly displayed in the store is a faded newspaper clipping of a Los Angeles Times article on the store written about ten years ago. Here’s an excerpt:
Ruben Lugo, 39, and his family have been shopping at Friedenâ€™s for decades. His mother bought the children clothes there when they lived in Lincoln Heights. Now, he comes to the store weekly from his home in Highland Park.
â€œThe prices are good and they have a lot of variety,â€ Lugo said. But most of all, Lugo, an air-conditioning repairman who was hurt on the job, appreciates the credit. With his account, he can still buy school clothes for his sons.
Lugo turned and greeted his neighbors Nora and Gus Cortez as they entered the store.
â€œEvery time we come in here, we run into somebody we know,â€ laughed Gus Cortez, 33, who works at a tire store. He and his wife also make weekly visits to Friedenâ€™s to pay their bill and browse.
Even when customers slack off on payments, Frieden and his employees rely on faith to bring them back.
Rocha got a call one recent morning from a young man who had missed the last few payments. He called to apologize.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it,â€ Rocha said. â€œI just want to see you back here regularly, like you used to do.â€ The young man murmured his grateful thanks and promised to be there.
Rocha hung up and smiled. â€œIâ€™ll bet heâ€™s back here this afternoon.â€
These interactions, Frieden said, are what make his business work.
In these last weeks, the stores racks and fixtures are looking bare. Much different from years past, when fine displays of clothing and shoes could be seen through the large storefront windows. Unlike the other clothes stores on North Broadway, which sell cheap, poorly tailored clothing, Frieden’s seemed to sell higher quality apparel. The kind of clothing that lasted past one season.
Sadly neighborhood department stores have become anachronistic, reminiscent of the days of soda fountains and shoe repair shops. Our consumer habits are different now, dictated and coerced by large conglomerates and multinationals for whom profit is the only motive for existence. The future for the Frieden’s building (already sold) is unclear. What do we Lincoln Heights residents have to look forward to in it’s place? More junky and useless bric a brac stores? Stores that sell apparel that fades and falls apart after one wear? I’m not hopeful for the future of the building or the North Broadway business corridor. On a brighter note though, I am thankful for people like Don Jose, Francisca and Mr. Frieden who valued their community and contributed to the stylishness of Lincoln Heights residents. Best wishes to them all for a successful and fruitful future!
Frieden’s Department Store
2619 North Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90031