After 105 years, lights go out for good at Gottschalks

Gottschalks, the department store chain that was a proud San Joaquin Valley success story for decades, passed quietly into history Sunday as bargain hunters stripped the walls bare and snapped up $68 dresses for $1 each.

It was a sharp contrast to the September day in 1904 when the business was born. A National Guard band heralded the debut of Gottschalks, which started with one store in downtown Fresno.

It grew into a regional force until becoming victim of an economic maelstrom, restricted credit and changing consumer trends 105 years later. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in January and was bought by liquidators and started closing all 61 stores across the western United States.

At remaining stores, including at Vintage Faire Mall and Century Center in Modesto, the end came Sunday with people claiming the last of the merchandise -- clothes racks at two for $15 and green binders emblazoned with the Gottschalks name that once contained company training manuals.

Vintage Faire has a tenant for its Gottschalks site, Los Angeles-based clothier Forever 21, which submitted the prevailing bid in a May 28 auction for some of the unexpired shopping center leases and real estate owned by Gottschalks. One of those leases was for the mall site.

Forever 21 typically occupies smaller stores, but company officials have said they have enough merchandise and customers to justify the move to larger sites. They said they plan to add merchandise to fill those spaces.

There was no bid for the Century Center site in east Modesto. It occupies three adjoining spaces that Gottschalks expanded into over the years as other tenants moved out. The two Modesto outlets were among the chain's top performers.

Seen as good retail site

The closure of the Century Center store leaves a major hole in that shopping center because no replacement has been lined up for all or part of the Gottschalks site.

Commercial real estate specialists consider Century Center an excellent location for a large retailer because it is in an area -- east of McHenry Avenue -- that's underserved. But there's not much expansion going on in the retail industry this year because of the recession.

For Gottschalks, headquartered in Fresno, the number of corporate employees was down to a handful Sunday. "At some point, we'll be down to a couple people left to work for the unsecured creditors committee," said Jim Famalette, chief executive officer.

Meanwhile, Gottschalks is close to selling stores in Eureka and Antioch, Famalette said. The company has received a $3.2 million offer from Hilco Real Estate LLC for its share of the corporate headquarters building in Fresno, according to papers filed in Bankruptcy Court.

Said Famalette, "It's a sad and tragic end to a wonderful company."

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