One Neiman Marcus complaint: It’s a chain store! But wait, Broadway Plaza has always had chain stores…

A common refrain I read in some of the complaints about Neiman Marcus: It is not “local.”

Since Neiman Marcus is part of a chain with headquarters based far away (Dallas, Texas), readers ask why the city is working so hard to bring this high-end, chain department store to Walnut Creek—when it could be doing more to support local businesses?

Yes, a reasonable question: Certainly, it would be nice to know that the city is supporting the business needs of local, home-grown merchants. Perhaps city and business leaders could fill us in on what they are doing to support “local.”

As I said, one strong objection to Neiman Marcus is that it is not local. This objection suggests that the more than half-century of retail success in Walnut Creek’s downtown is due to local businesses.

Is that really true? The above photo of Broadway Plaza in the 1950s, with national chain JC Penney’s serving as the shopping mall’s anchor suggests that things have been rather complicated, even from the beginning.

I’m sure that Walnut Creek’s downtown thrived on a mix of “chain” retailers, like JC Penney’s, and local merchants—with those local merchants selling unique and targeted products to their hometown Walnut Creek consumers.

Still, I have to confess, as a native of Walnut Creek, I mostly remember shopping at the downtown chain stores, and depending on those retailers for basic needs: clothing, housewares, toiletries, groceries.

Speaking of clothing, there was always Capwells, an Oakland-based department store that operated in the space now occupied by Macy’s.

Capwell’s later became the Emporium, based in San Francisco. There was also the above-mentioned JC Penney (in the former David M. Brian location), again for basic clothing needs. For everything else—pet supplies, sewing supplies, little gifts—there was Woolworth’s, the original five-and-dime. I also recall shopping at our local Gemco on North Main Street. This discount department store, owned by San Leandro-based Luckys, was later sold and taken over by Target.

Speaking of JC Penney’s, its desire to have a store in Walnut Creek was the genesis of Broadway shopping center in 1949. This information about Penney’s wanting to establish an “outpost” in the post-World War II East Bay suburban frontier comes from Brad Rovanpera, who, up until Thursday, was the public information officer for the City of Walnut Creek. He’s retiring from the city after 24 years.

He has also served as Walnut Creek’s official historian. As Rovanpera tells me, JC Penney’s desire to push into the fertile but still undeveloped lands east of the Oakland Hills “prompted a search for a suitable site, and [Broadway Plaza] was born.”

He notes that other chains also made their way into Walnut Creek: Sear’s, Smith’s, and I. Magnin.

I don’t remember Sear’s being in Walnut Creek, but I do remember shopping with my mother at I. Magnin, which was considered something of a special treat, as San Francisco-based I. Magnin was considered rather posh. I also have a vague memory of when another chain, Bullock’s, based in Los Angeles, arrived in town. This was around the time of the 1976 presidential race, when Gerald Ford was running against Jimmy Carter for president. I remember when Gerald Ford came to Walnut Creek to give a brief speech. The afternoon of Ford’s speech, we got out of school early to head down to the area in front of the new Bullock’s (now the site of Nordstrom) to hear Mr. Ford speak.

Flash forward from Walnut Creek’s past and to our current growth and retail controversy:

So, the word “chain” has a negative connotation for some people. In the debate about Neiman Marcus, “chain” equates to “outside influences”—deep-pocketed outside influences that are trying to bend the will and needs of a local population to their self-interest and greed.

Of course, Neiman Marcus wants to promote its own self-interest. That’s capitalism, isn’t it?

Probably everyone engaging in this Neiman Marcus debate has some kind of self-interest at stake, proponents and opponents alike, including rival mall developer, Taubman Centers.

(Oh, and don’t get me started on my basically cynical view of human nature and self-interest.)

But just because Neiman Marcus is an “outside” chain, and Macerich is an “outside” Southern California-based owner of Broadway Plaza, and they want to promote their financial self-interest by opening a Neiman Marcus in Walnut Creek–is that bad for Walnut Creek?

Isn’t that, more or less, how things have always been done in Broadway Plaza’s 60-year history? The outside chain coming in to provide that retail anchor?
Anyway, thanks Brad Rovanpera, for this fun photo of Broadway Plaza in the 1950s. And good luck in your future post retirement.

10 thoughts on “One Neiman Marcus complaint: It’s a chain store! But wait, Broadway Plaza has always had chain stores…

  1. For me at least the the “chain” issue is more along the lines of how much preference they get. For example I know somebody that tried to open a shop in the plaza, where there was space but I believe it was openly stated that there was a preference for an established chain/franchise type store. And when that preference is combined with incentive seeking from the local gov's, it really is unfair to the mom and pops.

    In one of yesterdays comments there was a back and forth about walmart. Walmart is a great example of how a single large business can kill off multiple small shops across swaths of markets, taking advantage of size, varied inventory, tax incentives, and red tape cutting that the local mom and pops just don't get.


  2. Precedent does not always prevail in good judgement. Before I go on a long rant about womens sufferage and slavery, let me point out a chain that takes seriously their corporate responsibilities.

    My favorite chain is Trader Joes. Trader Joes buys from local suppliers as much as possible. This saves on gas (good for environment), is macrobiotically acceptable (good for you), and boosts the economy locally (good for your pocket book).

    So this is actually better than most local businesses who buy from out of the country goods that they add no value towards. Simply markup and resell. Scavengers!

    I go to Starbucks WAY too much. But I like my coffee to be reliable and open at late and stable hours. Sorry La Scala.


  3. If someone opens a mom and pop for US-made toys or other products, I'll shop there. In a heartbeat. I rarely shop in downtown WC, but I'd come just for that particular store.


  4. Maybe you're seeing some reaction all of the locally-owned stores leaving or being driven out for huge national chain stores.

    There are a few exceptions, but most of the stores are chain stores. And, where are those locally-owned stores located in Walnut Creek? Are they in Broadway Plaza?


  5. There is currently no place to buy high end designer clothing and accessories in Walnut Creek. Not a single boutique downtown carries the type of merchandise you can buy at NM.

    Nordstrom is not even as high end as NM so the store is fulfilling a need in the area. Why cant people recognize this and move on?

    If they dont like high quality designer clothing, then they dont have to shop there. Target or Macys is always an option for these people. Why do they want to spoil it for everyone else??


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