Goodbye Frieden’s Department Store

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 clientèle 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 clientèle 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 matinées 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 Frieden’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.

“The prices are good and they have a lot of variety,” 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.

“Every time we come in here, we run into somebody we know,” laughed Gus Cortez, 33, who works at a tire store. He and his wife also make weekly visits to Frieden’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.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rocha said. “I just want to see you back here regularly, like you used to do.” The young man murmured his grateful thanks and promised to be there.

Rocha hung up and smiled. “I’ll bet he’s back here this afternoon.”

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

16 thoughts on “Goodbye Frieden’s Department Store

  1. the very first time i went to LH, i remember driving through Frieden’s and the first thing i saw was the florsheim shoes sign on the outside of the store. I thought that was kind of odd because I had the impression that all the stores on broadway sell cheap shit. So all you have now is the mini mall, right?

  2. It’s hard to express how important these types of stores are to the community, where the owners treat you with respect, extend you some credit, cash your checks, sell you some quality supplies, and they can still make a decent profit. I hope Joe and Francisca get to do something similar in the neighborhood, they are certainly an asset to the community.
    Great post by the way, all journalist like!

  3. Great post!

    “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.”

    I stopped into Dearden’s on 7th and Los Angeles this weekend and it’s the same deal. Dearden’s seems to be doing well so I don’t think this kind of store will completely disappear just yet.

  4. Although growing up the closet thing I can remember was going to Department stores like “The Broadway or Sears” which already had the time and feel of the big shopping mall explosions of the 80s
    I really never got to go to a real store like that, the closest thing was only the old Mexican Zapaterias where they would still put the shoes on for you, but I was always so curious to learn and read about the days of “Real Department” stores, many places if not all in my town are gone and pretty much replaced by he brick brac stores you mention.
    Times have changed unfortunately but thank you for documenting the past as you do, I always appreciate it!

  5. Sad to see Frieden’s close, as a youngster in the early 50’s my abuela would take me to Frieden’s to get my shoes for school (Sacred Heart/Albion, and they were always nice (Abuelita didn’t mind spending feria on good shoes unlike my jefito you was so “codo” he thought getting me those ripple soled Japanese $2.00 tennies at Thrifty’s 5 points was ok!),
    and they always fit right (one size too big so I wouldn’t outgrow them), and they fit right because at Frieden’s they had one of those atomic age X Ray machines so that when you put on the new shoes and stuck them into the bottom slot you could peek through the window at the top and the X Ray machine would give you a look at all your foot bones in the new shoes. Always insuring a perfect fit.
    After I got older, I along with all the other little chuco’s from Downey Playground would go to Frieden’s to get our Khakis, County’s or Frisco Jeans. And if you could scam up enough hondo, a pair of bonaroo Florsheims (que suave French Toes Carnal!).
    For our de rigueur fine “Sir Guy” lisa’s though it was down the street to Biamonte’s Mens Clothing Store, although most of the time it was the streetcar Downtown to Hope St and the cut rate rack of flawed shirts at the Sir Guy factory.
    And Jose was right about spending a Saturday at the Starland Theatre with about a thousand other pre teen screaming kids. But I must correct Jose on one point, it was not 10 cartoons and a movie for a quarter but a whopping 20 or 25 Cartoons and a classic movie of the 50’s genre, such as “The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Creature of The Black Lagoon or my all time favorite, Invaders from Mars”, with all the giant green Martians (and the exposed zippers up their backs), and led by an evil Martian whose ugly head was in a glass bowling ball.

    RIP Frieden’s

  6. Thanks to everyone for your comments! I especially enjoyed your reminisces Don Quixote, thanks for sharing.
    There’s still time for one last look around the store and to say your so-longs to Joe and Francisca.

  7. I remember as a kid….(4-5 yrs old, we’re talking early 70’s) I would ride the bus with my aunt or unkle and we would make our way down North Broadway. One of our stops would be Friedens! Friedens was very important, it gave credit to my newly arrived aunts, unkles, cousins….(even my parents) With credit for clothes and nice shoes finding a job, getting your kids ready for school, was alot easier! It was the highlight of my day (week) just to stop in. Sometimes we would just say hi, sometimes it was to make a payment. Best of all was when we got to shop and get clothes or shoes. I remember we would stop and just hang out there! Everyone there always made us feel like one of the family. A stop there and a hot dog from “Dino’s” and i was good to go for the rest of the day.
    RIP Friedens, you will be missed.

  8. What a nice place and an interesting store. Many of the comments note how important the credit system was to the good feelings related to the store.

    Do you think that small family stores today can operate a similar system and make it work?

    I never borrowed from an individual shop the way they run it there but I can imagine there must be a cost to the credit as well as some type of system for collecting regularly.

    How did it work there?

  9. We’ll I’m Glad to say that Don Jose and Francisca decided to purchase the store and rename it Don Jose’s Department store. Grand Re-Opening is for Dec 13th @ 12:30. So join them in keeping the tradition alive in Lincoln Heights.

  10. Reminds me of the First Street Store in East L.A., which closed last Christmas season.

    Except it sounds like this store is getting a reprieve thanks to Don Jose and Francisca. Good luck to them. It’s going to be tough.

  11. If you decide you want to carry the Sir Guy shirt once again
    please contact us.
    Currently theres only one store in L.A. that sells The Famous SIR GUY. We have alot of customers in your area!!!

    Thanks, Michael SGS Nevada.

  12. Good people…Would offer me credit when I didn’t have enough to pay for sneakers.

  13. I remember this and many other stores in Lincoln Heights. Unfortunately its the same old trashy neighborhood with high crime and its only getting worse. The high shoplifting crime continues to be a problem in this neighborhood. Customer service was never that good, too. I moved to South Pasadena area and feel much safer.

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