The year is 2018 and shopping malls sit empty, while once-mighty retailers like Sears shutter stores with reckless abandon.
But it wasn’t always this way. Long before Amazon Prime, residents of Los Angeles—and the United States at large—spent countless tired hours during the holiday season pushing through crowded department stores searching for gifts and the occasional bargain.
One of the fastest-growing cities on the West Coast in the 20th century heyday of the department store, Los Angeles was home to legions of towering shopping complexes that competed fiercely for customers—particularly during the last weeks of the year.
Stores like Bullock’s, Coulter’s, Robinson’s, and May Co. attracted flocks of holiday shoppers with elaborate window displays, towering Christmas trees, and the chance to speak to Jolly Old Saint Nick himself.
Here’s a look back at the LA department stores that were once go-to destinations for holiday gifts of all kinds. Dated photos are in chronological order.
On December 28, 1888, the Hamburgers store in Downtown LA (then known as the People’s Store; photographed above in 1890) explained in the Los Angeles Times that the holiday season had been such a busy one that no one at the company had found the time to place ads in the paper the week before. The store’s daily barrage of column-length advertisements continued as usual after that.
Towering Christmas trees could be found in the ornate lobby of Downtown’s Barker Bros. furniture store in 1929.
Desmond’s department store on Wilshire Boulevard, seen here in the 1930s, complements an interior palm tree display with a giant Christmas tree placed in front of the entrance.
Another Christmasy display at Desmond’s (the sign reads “Everybody wants a gift from Desmond’s”).
Crowds pack Broadway in December 1951. Even during the busy holiday season, most stores closed their doors at 9 p.m. sharp.
Department stores on Broadway competed for customers with elaborate window displays accompanied by music played over loudspeaker at peak shopping hours.
Christmas trees line the Miracle Mile in the early 1950s. In the foreground is Coulter’s, which was demolished in 1980.
May Co. opened its Wilshire Boulevard store (soon to become the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures) in 1939. It’s seen here in 1951, fronted by a tall, illuminated Christmas tree.
Most stores put out holiday-themed displays in the final months of the year.
Wilshire Boulevard’s stately I. Magnin exhibited a bejeweled Christmas tree in 1955 that the store claimed was worth $1.5 million. Once in place, the tree was given its own security detail.
In 1960, the North Hollywood Sears set up phone stations where kids could call the North Pole. The store’s resident Santa answered the phone from a nook behind the wall.
Gift shopping at the Panorama City Robinson’s store in 1962.
Bullock’s outfitted its new location at Sherman Oaks Fashion Square in 1963 with a large holiday attraction called Santa’s Castle.
In 1982, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner described the interior of Bullock’s Wilshire as “unmistakably a holiday and architectural environment.”
In the 1980s, Downtown LA’s Broadway Plaza struggled to attract holiday buyers. The shopping center became Macy’s Plaza in 1996 and The Bloc in 2016.
Christmas decorations at I. Magnin in 1988. The store closed just two years later, eventually reopening as the Wilshire Galleria.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News