by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As e-commerce takes up more market share, the brick-and-mortar store faces a future full of foreboding. What this means and when remains to be seen, but, as with the traditional newspaper business, the retail store may be reduced to just a handful of viable examples.
Among the earliest victims of the transformation of American shopping was the classic department store, though challenges mounted long before e-commerce, as bargain retailers like Walmart and Target drew more customers away for the old style department store. There was also an era of aggressive acquisitions of stores by others in that class during the 1970s and 1980s and one local example of a long-standing department store that quickly vanished was Bullock’s.
John G. Bullock was a recently hired protege of Arthur Letts, the very successful head of The Broadway, who installed Bullock in a store that was to cater to more upscale clientele and possibly to became a Broadway branch. The flagship Bullock’s, which opened in 1907, was in a prime location in the downtown Los Angeles shopping district at the corner of Broadway and Hill Street. Letts decided to retain both stores with their distinct identities.
The second store, which became the best known for its Art Deco architecture, was Bullock’s Wilshire. That branch opened in September 1929, just a month before the crash of the stock market in New York City that precipitated the Great Depression. A Palm Springs store opened in 1930, as did a small niche one two years later in Westwood catering to students at U.C.L.A. and nearby residents.
The post-World War II boom brought about a major expansion of Bullock’s throughout greater Los Angeles and beyond. The chain was acquired by Federated Stores in 1964 as growth continued. In the late 1980s, Bullock’s became part of the Macy’s empire, but that company went into bankruptcy within just a few years, upon which Bullock’s ceased to exist by 1996 and was absorbed under the Macy’s nameplate.
In its heyday, the Bullock’s store downtown was highly successful with its namesake owner supported by his mentor, Letts. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an issue of a company newsletter, “The Bullock Way,” from July 1922 and its a fascinating look at the corporate culture of one of Los Angeles’ preeminent department stores.
The description of the publication was that “this magazine is not dictated by the firm—it is written entirely by the people of Bullock’s.” It was typical of many such magazines in a variety of industries that sought to develop something of a family atmosphere in an interesting era in the evolution of business and labor relations. Naturally, what followed in this statement was “Boost it! Deluge your floor editors and reporters with news and photos.”
For example, the lead article concerned a garden party thrown on 17 June for Bullock’s employees at the palatial Hollywood estate of Letts. The 100-acre property’s centerpiece was a Tudor Revival mansion called Holmby House, loosely named after his English hometown of Holdenby. The estate became renowned for its spectacular landscaping.
Letts, in 1919, bought some 3,000 acres of the Wolfskill Estate on the former Rancho San José de Buenos Aires, once owned by a prominent 19th century family in the region, and Letts had his son-in-law, developer Harold Janss develop Westwood and Holmby Hills, while the University of California’s Southern Branch became U.C.L.A. on part of the tract.
As for that party, there were said to be some 2,000 persons who attended. They were serenaded by a choir of 200, including the company’s own chorus, and it was stated that “they sang as only they could sing who were happy fellow-workers with the exhilarating mountain air hovering about them and the abounding perfume of flowers everywhere.”
Elsewhere, there was the more standard fare of games and sports, including lawn bowling, horseshoes, and races “and no one was happier than Mr. Letts, unless it may have been Mr. Bullock, who was here, there and everywhere and helping others to have a good time.” The tennis court became a dance floor with an orchestra presumably performing popular tunes of the day.
Much was said about the incredible gardens, described as a “fairyland,” which would take three days of wandering to fully appreciate. The house was also made available for employees to visit and brief mention was made of Spanish dancers, the Boy Scout band, clown and the “Four Mysterious Tents.” Refreshment booths offered sandwiches, lemonade, ice cream and cake and, as the employees departed, they were handed a souvenir photo of the Letts estate. The publication included a “Pictorial Record of the Garden Party,” as well.
Of the many articles in the publication, notable ones included detailed instructions on “How to Get the Most Out of Your Radio Set,” it being recalled that radio was only introduced two years prior; a feature on employee and floor manager C.S. Goshen; another on Supply Section specialist A.J. Camp and his quest for complete efficiency and lack of waste; one on buyer Dan Whelan; a “Junior Page” for the “junior girls” who worked at the store; the Bullock’s Shoe Shining Parlor and its sextet of workers, all apparently Italians and four with the same surname; the Bullock’s Young Men’s Club, which included the store baseball team; a feature on artistic case displays by Katherine Hayes; and the July furniture catalog.
There is much more, too, in the publication, including humor; poetry, admonishments to not misrepresent company merchandise to customers; news from the seven floors of the store by reporters in those departments; and a series on shoes and feet. An editorial section had small features on friends, the power of thought through the use of words like “hate;” “love;” “success;” and “failure;” the value of good service; the importance of integrity and, not surprising for the time, a story about “a colored boy” using a druggist’s phone and who called his employer to ask for work. When he was told another young black man as working there, he asked if the employer was satisfied and learned that he was. This strange racist piece was meant to be an object lesson in customer satisfaction.
This issue of “The Bullock Way” is a fascinating and instructive look into the Bullock’s department store, its employees and managers, and the retail store industry in Los Angeles and more broadly. Notably, Arthur Letts died within a year, though John Bullock continue to find success with his namesake store which lasted for almost ninety years.