Central Valley

Ex-CEO plans Gottschalks comeback

Hobby Lobby will occupy the old Gottschalks building on Olive Avenue.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Hobby Lobby will occupy the old Gottschalks building on Olive Avenue. Merced Sun-Star

FRESNO -- A former chairman of Gottschalks Inc. wants to resurrect the venerable retail name with a new chain of department stores.

Joe Levy, whose great-aunt was the wife of Gottschalks founder Emil Gottschalk, said Monday he has formed a new company -- called Gottschalk by Joe Levy Inc. -- with plans to open stores in the Valley and beyond.

The original Gottschalks started with one store in downtown Fresno in 1904 and eventually expanded to dozens throughout the western United States -- many in smaller cities often passed over by national retailers.

But a sour economy, declining sales and rising debt forced the chain to file for bankruptcy in January 2009. The last of its 58 stores closed last summer.

With the Valley economy shaken by high unemployment and deflated home prices, retail experts aren't sure that Levy's new company will fare any better than its predecessor.

And while Levy says he has financing lined up, it's unclear if those resources are enough for so expensive an undertaking.

Levy, 78, declined to reveal Monday how many stores he's planning, where they would open or when -- though some of those details may be announced at a news conference today. But he expressed confidence that customers would return to the familiar Gottschalk name.

"The object here is to bring the public what Gottschalks used to be," Levy said. "We want to provide good customer service, high-quality fashions, and merchandise at a very competitive price.

Since Gottschalks closed, there's a large void in that type of merchandising." Levy said stores would emphasize men's, women's and children's clothing, cosmetics and shoes, as well as housewares, small appliances and gifts. At least to begin with, the stores wouldn't sell furniture or mattresses.

The name of the new company, Gottschalk -- without an "s" at the end -- by Joe Levy, was chosen "because it's a family name," Levy said, and to avoid possible infringement problems.

Robert Wiser, a former vice president and general merchandise manager for the old Gottschalks, is the chief executive officer of the new company, Levy said. Robert Lawson, a former chief financial officer for Gottschalks through the early 1990s, will fill the same role with Levy's new effort.

Levy joined the family business in 1956 and eventually rose to chairman and CEO. Several years before Gottschalks filed for bankruptcy, Levy relinquished day-to-day control and took the title of chairman emeritus.

Retail experts offered an uncertain prognosis for Levy's new enterprise.

"The best-positioned department stores are the ones who are the most promotional, and Gottschalks had a good track record of that," said Jeff Green of Jeff Green Partners, a Mill Valley consulting firm.