Dearden’s employees, customers mourn furniture chain’s end after 108 years

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Standing behind the cosmetics counter at Dearden’s in Van Nuys, Morena Rodriguez wiped away tears, smudging a tissue with tan foundation.

“I’m going to cry because I love this job,” she said, her voice cracking. “All the salespeople and the manager, everybody, make you feel like a family. And the customers, too.”

A lot of tears are being shed as the last remaining Dearden’s stores — in Van Nuys, Huntington Park and downtown Los Angeles — prepare to close for good Sunday, ending the company’s 108-year run in the home furnishings business.

Even longtime customers are feeling emotional.

“I’m sad because it’s closing,” admitted Henri Burgos, 52, of Van Nuys. “No other store can take its place.”

Burgos said he has shopped at Dearden’s for about 20 years.

“I’ve (bought) beds, stove, refrigerator, TVs,” he recalled. “This is the first place that ever gave me credit. … If it wasn’t for Dearden’s, I wouldn’t have nothing.”

RELATED PHOTOS: Dearden’s to close after 108 years in Southern California

Extending credit to low-income customers was one of the retailer’s hallmarks. For many Latino immigrants, credit from Dearden’s allowed them to set up homes in a new country.

“Even though they were high risk, they were very good customers, excellent customers,” noted Marta Martinez, the Van Nuys store manager. “We have customers that have been with us 30, 40 years. And now their kids are our customers and their grandkids are our customers.”

With 35 years of service at Dearden’s, Martinez is still a relative newbie compared to Raquel Bensimon, who began working for the company in 1961, in accounting. The octogenarian — she is “proudly 83” — rose to chairman of the board and part-owner of Dearden’s. Her modest office sits in the middle of the sales floor at the store on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles.

What set Dearden’s apart

The company’s special bond with the Latino community dates back decades to a time when many recent immigrants worked in garment factories downtown, Bensimon said.

“Those customers were paid by check weekly. They didn’t have a bank account. Dearden’s cashed checks for a fee — 10 cents. Can you believe it?” Bensimon marveled. “They trusted Dearden’s, and we treated them right.”

Dearden’s hired many Spanish-speaking employees — often immigrants themselves — to serve their growing Latino clientele. Bensimon said the company offered benefits not normally seen, to help its personnel get ahead.


“Giving them loans to buy a home, giving them loans to help them put their kids through universities,” she stated, adding that Dearden’s also funded 800 college scholarships for children of employees and paid funeral costs for any employee who lost a loved one.

On the brick exterior of the downtown Dearden’s, a faded mural depicting a large family is emblazoned with the words “Generación tras generación… una tradición familiar desde 1910” (“From generation to generation, a family tradition since 1910”).

What went wrong

That long tradition is coming to a close for several reasons, Bensimon explained — growing competition from online retailers like Amazon, the lingering effects of the 2008 recession and, perhaps surprisingly, the pro-business president of the United States.

The anti-immigration policies advocated by President Donald Trump struck fear into the company’s customer base, prompting many Latinos to cut their spending dramatically, said Bensimon, an immigrant herself, from Morocco.

“It’s like the scare was so big in this community. July, August (2016) was dead” in terms of sales, Bensimon said. “September, October (2016), it started picking up. November, a disaster.”

Instead of trying to ride it out, Dearden’s management elected to close its eight stores and warehouse in Rancho Cucamonga. The company is entertaining bids for the Van Nuys property, on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Kittridge Street. Bensimon said a sale of the downtown building is pending.

As closing day approached, Evelyn Marquez, 30, of Pacoima, looked for one of the last remaining tablet computers at the Van Nuys store. She said once Dearden’s closes, she will do her shopping at Best Buy or Curacao, another retailer that caters to Latino customers.

Pedro Cortes, 60, of Van Nuys, had his eye on a discounted TV.

“We live nearby, so it was convenient” coming to Dearden’s, he said in Spanish. “Now we’ll have to go farther away to another store. Mostly Latino people came here to shop. They treat people well, and they’re quite friendly.”

Uncertain future for employees

One of those friendly faces belongs to sales associate Jackie Torres, a 20-year veteran of Dearden’s. In between helping customers with final purchases, she reflected on what the future may hold.

“It’s tough,” she acknowledged. “I’ve got a few options. One of them is to study for another career.”

Martinez, the store manager, is contemplating her future, too.

“I have to look for a job. I’m not too young and I’m not old enough to retire. So it’s like, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ I have to reinvent myself and see,” she said. “I have to find another company that makes me feel at home like I did with this one.”

RELATED VIDEO: Dearden’s to close after 108 years in business

Dearden’s offered job placement services for its 420 employees, Bensimon noted.

“Some of them are getting really good offers,” she said.

After nearly 57 years with the chain, Bensimon isn’t planning to embark on a new career herself, but said she will devote time to charitable activities. She has been stockpiling merchandise, including mini-grills, that she planned to donate to the needy.

“We’re very, very saddened that this day had to come,” she said, looking out on a depleted showroom of mostly empty shelves. “But this is life. Everything has a beginning and an end.”

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