For the Vanished Discounters of Suburban L.A., Retail Nostalgia

The first real job I had -- that is, the first job with an actual paycheck -- was at the White Front store in Downey. It was a summer job shagging shopping carts from the parking lot that islanded the store from Imperial Highway.

I wore a short-sleeve white shirt and dark pants on the job. It was hot, sweaty work that lasted from early afternoon to after 10 o'clock at night.

White Front was founded on Central Avenue in 1929 and sold appliances. Stoves and washers were mostly white then. Lined up in the store window they presented a "white front" to the street.

In 1959, along with second location in Van Nuys, White Front was sold to Interstate Department Stores. Interstate specialized in selling moderately priced merchandise in working-class neighborhoods.

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The expanding White Front chain still sold appliances, but they now had clothing departments, a household goods section, jewelry and watch repair concessions, and a grocery, like today's Target stores.

The new owners opened stores on the edge of suburban tracts, often with a ribbon cutting attended by "personalities" like Jack Benny and George Jessel. Charles Phoenix remembers going to a White Front in his hometown of Ontario in 1970 because the Brady Bunch were there, signing copies of their Christmas album.

White Front was unionized, and after a couple of weeks pushing carts, I signed up at the Retail Clerks offices in Buena Park. A month later, White Front workers went out on strike, and I gave up shopping carts for a picket sign. When I realized that I was making more per hour walking a picket line -- and the men and women among whom I walked needed their strike fund money more than I did -- I quit.

I came back the next summer as an odd jobs worker in the store's snack bar and donut shop. I wiped tables, picked up litter, refilled things that needed refilling, and occasionally cooked burgers and gilled cheese sandwiches. I was there mainly to clean up in the evening just before the store closed.

Part of cleaning up meant leaning over the hot plain of the grill with a brick of foamed glass -- gray and gritty -- to scrape off the day's accumulated grease. The process involved several passes over the grill, using both hands on the brick, going from front to back to front. The black muck of burnt grease, crusty cheese, and abraded glass from the brick fell into a trough at the front of the grill and into an underworld I did not know.

As I scraped I sweated. Drops of sweat would accumulate at the end of my nose. The drops would eventually fall on the hot grill and sizzle and dance for a moment before evaporating.

The snack bar closed when the grill was clean, but the store was still open. My station shifted to the donut counter by the front door. The donut man worked from 3:00 a.m. to noon, frying and decorating donuts, filling the glass-fronted cases, and ringing up sales. When he left, the women at the snack bar spelled each other selling donuts. When the snack bar closed, they left and my job was to sell as many of the remaining donuts as I could.

White Front was spectacularly successful in its discount niche, but the market for stand-alone retailers at the low end was always volatile. Who remembers Zody's? When White Front failed, it begat Two Guys, which begat FedMart and Toys R Us, and begat (in a roundabout way) Target.

I found it difficult to sell what were nearly day-old donuts at 9:30 p.m. There wasn't much selection; the donut man was good at estimating. I did have access to the store's PA system, and I could spiel a line into the fluorescent brightness of the store about donuts as a late-night snack. I also was given leave to make up a dozen donuts with 13 or 14 items. But my customers, many of them older Midwesterners and Southerners, were skeptical. A free donut was a suspect donut, and my offer of more for the same price was often turned down.

As a dealer in discounted donuts, I found that customers were fickle and that the margin of success or failure -- measured by donuts -- was narrow. With bankruptcies, mergers, and store closings, suburban discounters and their thousands of unionized employees learned an even harder lesson.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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