Keeping the Emporium spirit alive
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
Once called the Big “E,” the Emporium department store was a fixture in Santa Rosa’s Coddingtown Mall for 30 years before closing in 1996.
But to some of its 200-plus employees, the Big “E” was a bustling community that brought friendships, joy and lifelong memories. For almost 17 years, dozens of them have met for fellowship and reminiscing about their beloved store.
Pam Gibson worked there for six years and is organizing an “Emporium reunion” in mid-November. “There was a loyalty everyone had toward the store, management, even the stock people,” she said.
The store opened in 1966 to much fanfare. With a population of just 41,614, Santa Rosa had just one department store until then — Rosenberg’s on Fourth Street. The new Emporium, with a seemingly unlimited supply of wares, captivated the town.
A 1966 Press Democrat article described it this way: “The Emporium Santa Rosa makes a strikingly successful wedding of beauty with the economies of modern construction techniques.”
During its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Emporium was heavily involved in the community. The store showcased floats in the Rose Parade, and an annual Christmas parade journeyed from Snoopy’s Ice Arena to Santa’s enthronement within the store’s Christmas display. One June in the ‘70s, the bridal salon outfitted more than 70 wedding parties.
The store’s cheerful ambiance also attracted praise from senior management. Remembers former employee Gloria Frere, “Executives would walk into our store and say things like, “‘I just can’t get over the atmosphere, it’s so friendly and energetic.’ Our store became The Model Store.”
Now 65, Frere began working in the alterations department at 19. Between 1966 and 1996, she worked her way up to the executive secretary’s job, taking four years off to have children.
Employees were treated well, she said, adding that the job was a good one to have while raising children. She considered it a privilege to work for a company that allowed her to participate in charitable events like the United Way Day of Caring.
“Emporium was like a family,” Frere said. “Everybody worked together and we were a team, a nucleus of energy that just kept going.”
Then in 1995 the store fell victim to retail consolidation. Its parent company, Broadway Stores, was bought by Federated Department Stores. The next year the Emporium store was replaced with a Macy’s.
“It was a very sad day when we had the big ‘E’ lowered,” said Gibson, who now works as a legal secretary for Sonoma County’s juvenile district attorney. “We all went outside and watched it come down.”
She was one of only about 25 employees hired to continue at Macy’s and worked there until 2001. Nearly everyone else left to pursue new opportunities elsewhere.
But one employee, Vivian Cassimus, was determined to keep the Emporium spirit alive.
“Vivian was a little spitfire,” said Gibson. “She said, ‘Emporium may be gone, but we’re going to live on.’”
For the first several years, Cassimus organized Christmas parties at the nearby Las Robles Inn, where Emporium anniversary parties had been held. She continued to organize employee events until her death in the early 2000s.
Without her meticulous contact list, the group drifted apart and gatherings stopped. When Gibson and Frere recently ran into each other, they reminisced about those events and the idea of a reunion was planted.
“Gloria said she had some phone numbers I could use,” said Gibson, so she began making calls. “Every person I talked to said, ‘Yes, I really want to do this.’” Soon, more than 50 were on the list.
Said Frere, “I constantly run into people who either say, ‘I miss the Emporium so much’ or ‘I used to work there, too.’ One of the stock boys I always liked working with ended up becoming my son’s fifth-grade teacher!”
Gibson hopes the camaraderie will continue and invites all former Emporium Coddingtown employees to the 2012 reunion, scheduled for 6-10 p.m. Nov. 14 at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Montgomery Village. Cost is $30, and payment is requested by Nov. 6.
For more information, contact Gloria Frere at 874-3566, Mary Basham at 575-9137 or Pam Gibson at email@example.com.