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Keeping the Emporium spirit alive

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012 | Posted by

Former Emporium employees Gloria Fiere and Pam Gibson are planning a reunion in mid-November. “Emporium was like a family,” Frere said. (JEFF KAN LEE / The Press Democrat)

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 pgibson@sonoma-county.org.


  • Missikie

    My aunt, Laura Foxworthy, was a buyer for Emporium. As a little girl, I admired her job. If she were alive today, I am sure she would apprciate such a reunion.

    • Mylissa Johnson-Peck

      My Grandmother, Dorise Johnson was the Bridal Dept manager for many years at the Emporium, many great memories, she always brought us grand kids beautiful gifts from the Emporium too :)

  • Gary Makai

    My first job out of High School was with the Emporium when it opened in 1966. Uncle Sam called me shortly after, and I returned in the early 1970’s to work with the Big “E” for several years experiencing “the store’s cheerful ambiance.” It truly was a Family atmosphere for the employees, and was passed on to the customers. I have many great memories of my time there, and am looking foreword to “Keeping the Emporium spirit alive” at the 2012 reunion.

  • Michele

    Loved the Emporium and kept my card for years after it closed….. The fun of Coddingtown growing up in Santa Rosa.

  • http://santarosa.towns.pressdemocrat.com/2012/09/news/keeping-the-emporium-spirit-alive/ Paul I.

    And the Emporium in Stonestown and downtown were just like Santa Rosa.

  • Anne

    I miss it. I loved going for lunch upstairs before a fun shopping trip on our excursions to the big city from little old Graton.

  • Anne

    And I just noticed the Jingle Bear! I still have them and they are fixtures in my home every Christmas.

  • Steve Bouchard

    LOVED working there. Such GREAT employees!

  • Gary Makai

    Pam’s phone number and email are not as published. Keep getting “mailer-daemon” for the email, and wrong phone number sequence.

    I’ll leave it for you to correct Pam.

    Thanks, Makai

    • mkarpinski

      Mr. Makai,

      I apologize for the misprint. I have made the necessary changes to the article. Her e-mail is actually pgibson@sonoma-county.org and the phone number is 575-9137.

      Thank you,

      Melody Karpinski, Santa Rosa Correspondent

  • Mark Tannehill

    My mother was a employee there and was one of the 25 who went to Macy’s for a little while until she retired. I remember going there after school to visit her and her manager Tom keenen knew us as Macy’s family.

  • Mark Tannehill

    Tom Keenen worked for Emporium not Macy’s My mistake.

  • Terry

    Pam & Gloria, When I was a young child, my father helped build the store. What I miss the most were the enormous Christmas bells that hung from the front entrance. They were so cheerful during the holidays and could be seen from the 101 freeway! Those were the days!
    It is so good to hear about your reunion.


  • Gary Makai

    Thanks Melody.

    Many great memories of the Store in the ’70’s. Parties at the Saturday Afternoon Club. Many in store activities, and just a general feeling of a real Family atmosphere where everybody really cared, and passed it on to the customers. There was no, ‘sorry, we don’t carry that.” If we didn’t have it in this store, we called around to all the other store to see if they had it. Meaning we went out of our way to make the customers happy. And they were!

    Sad that many if not most stores didn’t incorporate the Emporiums’ philosophy of great customer service.

  • Judy

    We’re Sears and J.C. Penneys not considered department stores? They both existed before Emporium was built. Rosenberg’s was not the only department store before Emporium was built.

  • Maci Church-Jerry

    My mom worked at Emporium when I was born 1979. She used to go out on the balcony and wave at my dad as he would dive up and down 101 in his milk truck! She retired from Macy’s in 2004 or 2005 after 25 years with them!

  • greg nelsen

    Maci, i worked with your mom for years at Macys. what a great person she is..I worked for the little macys that moved into the emporium store. i made some really great people during that move and there after . Glad to hear that Pam is keeping this reunion alive..

  • Laura Lambert

    My mom and I were long time customers. Doris Webster hired me in 1979. It was my first “real” job. I worked with some great folks there.

  • Gary Makai

    How was the Big “E” gathering at Cattlemen’s? Sorry I missed it, and would have loved to have seen some of you who I worked with back when the Emporium was still around.

    Next time . . .

  • Sue Woods Stone

    My mother, Patty Woods, helped open the store in 1966. I visited her often during my high school years, and met many of her co-workers, including department, assistant, and store managers over the 20 years she was there. In my memory, Mother was well-known and well-liked. Of course, that may just be a daughter’s prejudice!

    Patty attended the gathering at Cattlemen’s, and was so busy visiting, she brought her entire dinner home with her! She was sorry not to be able to chat with everyone she wished. I am interested in getting in touch with those “old” friends who might be willing to wish Patty well for her 85th birthday. I will get in touch with Gloria Frere (who helped with my wedding dress!), Mary Basham, and Pam Gibson for contact info of those I know. If you are interested in reaching Patty, please send me a Message on my Facebook account.

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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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