News & Views from 465 California Street

Your Memories of Mervyn’s

Clint Reilly

Last week, I told the sad story of the death of Mervyn’s.

I recounted my childhood memories of the first Mervyn’s store in San Lorenzo, and how that single store eventually grew to nearly 300 across 12 states with $4.5 billion in annual sales, only to be brought to its knees by corporate greed.

I received dozens of thoughtful messages from folks who came from families like my own and who wished to share their own fond memories of Mervyn’s.

The unnecessary demise of this Bay Area retailing icon evoked deep emotions. It was more like the death of a person than the passing of a department store chain.

“I remember many times when my children gathered their allowance to purchase Hot Wheels or a Barbie outfit,” wrote one parent.

Another reader recalled a time when “credit” was more personal: “When I was about eight years old, my mother would give me a note saying it was OK to charge a new shirt or a pair of shoes at Mervyn’s.

“Mr. Mervin Morris would check our account on a 3×5 card and I would soon be on my way with my purchase.”

One mother’s story showed how Mervyn’s remained true to its community roots through the years. “Our family will never forget the “Local Hero” scholarship that Mervyn’s gave our daughter,” she wrote. “It was a company that understood and honored the need to give back to its community.”
A Hayward businessman lamented the wider social tragedy: “This sad state of affairs will affect not only those displaced employees but literally hundreds of thousands of people that Mervyn’s supported as part of their 5% giveback programs to the communities that they serve.”

I remember Mervyn’s as a store that gave back. So do many others in the Bay Area.

“My wife and I were beginning teachers in 1952 in Hayward and San Lorenzo,” wrote another reader. “Mervin Morris sponsored a welcome luncheon for new teachers for many years, and in the 1960s, gave my district money to sponsor a drug prevention program on condition of anonymity.”

Even South Bay Assemblyman Jim Beall shared memories of his time as a Mervyn’s stock boy in 1967: “Mr. Morris arrived on Sundays – often with his whole family – with sandwiches and sodas for all the stock boys. He gave large amounts to charities around the Bay Area.”

Many other employees and customers expressed their outrage. “It’s just wrong to destroy this part of our community fabric,” wrote a long-timer. Another 10-year Mervyn’s veteran recounted the “blood, sweat and tears” he gave to the business.

“Good luck to Mervyn’s with its lawsuit against the greedy private equity owners, but that will do nothing for the 18,000 employees losing their jobs in the midst of a recession,” another reader noted.

An Oakland reader and proud 19-year Mervyn’s employee drew attention to a less-discussed victim in the sad Mervyn’s saga:

“This was a repeat of what happened to another company I also worked 19 years for, Joseph Magnin. During the 80s, numerous retailers were purchased and bankrupted by investors in leveraged buyouts. The saddest result is the absence of fashion. Today, whether cheap or expensive, the clothes look the same. There is a real lack of creative fashion for the masses.”

Mervyn’s was destroyed by a flock of vulture investors led by private equity heavyweight Cerberus, a fact that elicited an impassioned response of its own:

“If my memory serves, Cerberus was the fierce three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hell,” observed a Palo Alto reader. “No way would I even give them the time of day, since it’s already clear (just from the name) that they are up to no good!”

One respondent summed up our collective disgust best. “Your column about Mervyn’s really resonated with me,” he wrote. “It is even more disheartening to think that former Treasury Secretary John Snow is heading up Cerberus, the same firm that owns Chrysler and is now asking taxpayers for $7 billion. The pillaging continues…”

Comments (13)

  • After I was divorced in 1975 I had no credit in my name and no one was willing to give me a chance to establish credit to a single woman, except Mervyn’s. My limit was small, but it was large enough to get me going. I have never forgotten this and have always been grateful. This is a sad day.

    Posted by: Susan Gleason | December 9th, 2008 at 11:32 am

  • Although there are several people who have come to know Mervin Morris as an individual and a generous a giving person, they are among a very small group of people who actually know that his first name is MERVIN – not VYN, and that his last name is Morris. Somewhere I heard that the reason the store was named MERVYN’S was that the sign painter misspelled Mervin’s name.

    I, on the other hand, have always been proud to say that the Morris family lived next door to mine in Delano, CA, where Mervin learned the merchandising business. I have wondered for many years about Mervin, and am gladden by the “Your Memories of Mervyn’s” column recently published.

    As a Mervyn’s shopper, I always found good quality and good value in whatever I bought at a Mervyn’s store, as well as a sense of pride to know that a small town boy became a respected household name.

    Pauline Stewart-Horn

    Posted by: Pauline | December 9th, 2008 at 1:23 pm

  • Is what’s going on all around us called the creative destruction of capitalism? I think Dickens would recognize its remorseless face.

    Posted by: Banjo | December 9th, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  • Clint,
    Excellent articles on Mervyn’s. Very sad to see any business go bankrupt and have to liquidate because I think of the employees.
    I remember one time I bought at Mervyn’s (when it first opened), the lady next to me was returning a garment and said she had bought it at JC Penny. The clerk said it was OK because Mervyn’s accepted returns from any store. I remember saying to the clerk how could Mervyn’s stay in business with a policy like that.
    Well it did stay in business for many more years. I would add to your comments, though, that a string of bad business decisions is more to blame than the vultures that come when the corpse is already dead.
    The decision to stay separate rather than merge with Target was a big mistake; followed by decisions to enter the south and southeast markets against all the big chains. This drained a lot of its capital. Mervyn’s was not accustomed to paying the high mall rents. Often, expansion is so draining that even contraction does not help.
    In any case, businesses that do not modify their business plan to accommodate the changing market will die. Mervyn’s failed to do this. Other stores I grew up with that failed are Capwell’s, Emporium, White House, Montgomery Ward, and probably others I don’t remember.
    I find it inexcusable that Mervyn’s did not inform their employees of their 7 billion asset to 13 billion debt ratio and the likelihood of bankruptcy. In my experience whenever a company I worked for showed deteriorating balance sheets and P & L’s I started looking for another job.
    I would suggest the same for employees of the NY Times, Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times (not to mention the auto companies, etc, etc,) which are now considering Chapter 11.
    The Trib, for example, could include in its new business plan the sale of the Chicago Cubs and include in its mission statement staying out of businesses not connected with sale of information.
    Respectfully…………..Hank R

    Posted by: Hank | December 9th, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  • Clint,

    I read your Mervyn’s column with a touch of sadness and a touch of anger. There was a bright spot, however, because it evoked the memory of a wonderful Mervyn’s fashion show in the 1960s at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga.

    My mother, Bridget Christine Cahalane Diamond, a native of Skibbereen in County Cork, by way of San Francisco and Chappaqua, New York, traveled to San Francisco to visit her sister Mary Geraldine Cahalane Donovan, a Berkeley resident, and her daughter Geraldine Mary Diamond (me).

    Aunt Mary didn’t drive but she was quick to make plans for me because I had a car, a 1966 Mustang, a gift from my future husband Sam Crowley. Mother and I had one day to spend with Aunt Mary who declared that the Mervyn’s fashion show and luncheon at the Plumed Horse would be the perfect way to spend time together. And it was. The restaurant was well-reviewed and deservedly so but the fashion show was hip and professional, the highlight of the day. That day was the last time that we three spent time together. My Mervyn’s memory is fresh in my mind four decades later. I was so upset when I learned of its demise.

    After reading the comments from your readers, Clint, you must know how deeply your column touched so many people. I am among your fans.


    Posted by: gc | December 10th, 2008 at 9:10 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,
    Thank for writing two articles about Mervyn’s.
    I worked 15 years at the Princeton Plaza store.
    I made many wonderful friends there. I still see some of them at a monthly luncheon.
    It was a perfect place for a mother. In the beginning I worked nights and weekends.
    I lived close enough that I could use the bus occasionally.
    They had wonderful benefits, better than most of the places where my husband worked.
    I still wear many of the clothes I bought at Mervyn’s over the years..
    It is difficult to go in the store now. Too many memories walking down the main aisle.
    I retired after 15 years. I am glad I am not a an employee at the present time. Those poor people who have stayed with Mervyn’s over the years. A couple of them at Princeton Plaza worked there when I did.
    Patricia Meyer

    Posted by: Patricia | December 10th, 2008 at 12:45 pm

  • I am late in thanking you for your spot-on criticism of Cerebrus’ “rape” (see below) of Mervyn’s. I took the liberty of reposting your column at the San Lorenzo Express website, a community website. Regrettably the people who piss and moan about the loss of the past — all the old timers here who lament the exodus of Mervyn’s from San Lorenzo — don’t lift a finger to change the *present* or can’t connect the dots of presentday events. And why? in part b/c most Americans have become shockingly self-absorbed, in part b/c the press has completely abdicated its role in a democracy. You can’t blame ordinary people for not being able to understand the who what when why of events when newspaper owners don’t provide resources for adequate reporting. Fortunately a number of people in Congress got the Cerebrus connection, and now there is a lot of questioning and handwringing. But the vote? well, that’s a different story.

    I thought the following would interest you:

    “Emily Thornton Dec 4, 2008 9:44 PM GMT Hi there. I received a message from Mervin Morris that he has given me permission to share with anyone who is interested. It’s below: Dear Emily, The article you wrote for the December 8th issue of BusinessWeek regarding the bankruptcy of Mervyn’s deserves recognition, as you have helped expose the unconscionable practices of some private equity companies. Over the years, I have been interviewed on various subjects, and in most cases, I am either misquoted or the information is incomplete or inaccurate. I applaud your efforts as you certainly did your homework. The article is complete and contains no factual errors. The irony is that one of the companies responsible for the demise of Mervyn’s, “Cerberus”, is now pandering to Congress for some of my taxpayer dollars to bail them out of Chrysler. Since they were largely responsible for what I would consider the “rape” of Mervyn’s, it is of particular aggravation to me. Mervin Morris Founder, Mervyn’s Stores”


    Posted by: Howard | December 10th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

  • Unfortunately, Mervyn’s was unnecessarily destroyed by the financial machinations of a Wall Street investment firm which employs both former Bush Administration Secretary of the Treasury John Snow and former Vice President Dan Quayle. Cerberus – a vulture investor – bought Mervyn’s from Target Corporation in 2003 for $1.2 billion. Cerberus divided Mervyn’s into two companies. First, they placed all of Mervyn’s valuable real estate into a separate company and sold many prized locations. Second, they forced Mervyn’s retail stores to rent back their own stores from this new Cerberus – owned entity at exorbitant rents that made it impossible for Mervyn’s to earn a profit.

    Nearly 20,000 employees lost their jobs when Mervyn’s declared bankruptcy and liquidated while Cerberus pocketed $250 million in profits from the real estate alone.

    Mervyn’s management is now suing Cerberus – claiming that Cerberus’ predatory practices forced Mervyn’s into bankruptcy.

    Incredibly Cerberus is the same Vulture Firm that bought Chrysler from Mercedes Benz and is now before Congress begging for a $31 billion taxpayer bail out of the auto industry. That’s not all! In 1998 Cerberus bought Aegis – a mortgage firm – which has since also gone bankrupt – leaving hundreds of millions in defaulted loans and the same trail of uncompensated employees as they left at Mervyn’s. It seems that Mervyn’s is only their latest victim.

    Posted by: Clint Reilly | December 10th, 2008 at 5:19 pm

  • Clint,
    Thank you for the two great articles you have written about Mervyns. I have been with this great company for the past 29 years and intend to stay until the end. I have worked in at least 10 different stores throughout California and I have had wonderful experiences in all of them and would not trade these memories for anything. I have formed many wonderful and lifetime friendships- including my husband- from working at this company and nobody can take these away from me- not even Cerebrus. While the closing of our stores leaves us all with a heavy hearts it also leaves with many wonderful memories and stories that we will continue to tell for years to come. Cerebrus and Target may have bankrupt our place of employment but our “Mervyn’s family” will live long after all of their profits have gone. I am a richer person for having worked with such wonderful people over the years and that trumps any monetary gain or loss anyday!

    Posted by: Linda | December 10th, 2008 at 5:35 pm

  • Thanks Howard. Here’s the link to the whole story for anyone who’s been interested and following this story.

    And a link to the good man who i didn’t know about until you guys dialed me in here. Mr. Morris enabled my father to assemble a one-of-a-kind clearance-priced wardrobe that impressed his clients when he was a social worker before, through, and after the Great Communicator’s Presidency (from ’78-’91). My father’s wardrobe was uniquely mix and match. We all had great laughs (including pops) at home when he was trying them on for size yet again and modeling them for mom.

    Mervyn’s was also his go-to store to buy clothing on clearance in order to try and bribe some folks to transition to work. Back then, unlike what’s going on in these difficult economic times, there would be a job if you wanted one. Actually, society wanted to give you one, especially if you were on the dole.

    Anyways, here’s the link. You can do your own search too. Where’s David Horowitz and Michael Finney when you need them these days???

    Peace and Happy Holidays!

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | December 10th, 2008 at 5:51 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    I’m sure you’ve had just about enough feedback by now, but I feel a need to write.

    I have lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for the past 23 years. I live about 3 blocks from the Mervyn’s on Meadows Lane. When I made my last visit to Mervyns about two weeks ago, and got in my car, I inexplicably burst into tears. I could not understand why the closing of Mervyn’s affected me so deeply – I felt like I was losing friend, not a store. I though about all the shopping I’d done at Mervyn’s in my life. I am not particularly materialistic, and I realized my problem was that I came to Mervyn’s for comfort as much as anything else. It was close to home, not part of a mega mall, and this Mervyn’s was always staffed with the nicest, friendliest employees. Always. I went there the day my 21 year old cat died. I went there when my husband left me. I went there when I was really lonely and needed to get out. Why? Because for whatever reason I felt liked I belonged there.

    Today I opened my mail and my Mother had sent me two of your articles from the paper. I don’t know what paper, she cut that part off. But first off, I was comforted to see that I was not the only one who felt a great deal more for Mervyn’s than I would for any other business. I suppose it validated my feelings!

    Secondly, I moved here from Castro Valley, California (of course because I was priced out of the market by the time I reached adulthood). My first memories of Mervyn’s were the San Lorenzo store. I remember the first dress I got there, must have been 1971. Anyway, I had no idea, none at all, that the San Lorenzo store was the first, and that it was a local business.

    Of course, that just made me about 10 times more sad than I was before.

    As a person who has been desperately seeking work for 11 months thanks to greedy lenders; who has lost 25 years of savings (my entire lif’es savings) thanks to corporate Raiders, starting with Enron in 2001 and finishing with sub prime lenders and the Fannie Mae debacle , I can only wonder WHEN IS THIS GOING TO STOP?

    It is becoming more and more difficult to support a government that would allow me to be raped repeatedly.

    I have shed many tears for Mervyns, and I hope Mr. Mervyn knows how many of his old customers truly do care.


    Lynda W.

    Posted by: Lynda | December 11th, 2008 at 4:03 pm

  • I know that I will not be buying new clothes for awhile. Without a Mervyn’s around the corner I will truly have to think about where to shop. My closet full of Mervyn’s clothes will have to last for quite awhile.

    Some may say to shop at Kohl’s but I’m just not there yet mentally!

    Posted by: Monique | January 13th, 2009 at 11:42 pm

  • Thank you so much for this wonderful article on Mervyn’s. I worked at the Monterey store for 22 years (as a second job) and it broke my heart to leave. Seeing employees who worked there from the first day they opened no longer walk through those doors, broke my heart. Mervyn’s was my second family. I loved going to work each and everytime. I did not need the second job, but somehow I always felt valued and appreciate by not only management and staff, but also our customers. I worked until the last day, and customer’s cried the minute we finally closed the stores. Thank you again for your wonderful article.

    Posted by: Gay | June 3rd, 2009 at 4:35 pm

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