Photos from the Vault

For over 100 years, this department store brought the latest fashions to downtown SLO

Founded in 1887 by brothers Aaron, Jacob and Adolph Crocker at the corner of Garden and Higuera, Crocker’s Department Store later became Rileys and moved to Chorro Street. This photo is circa 1900 after brother Jacob and bought out his brothers.
Founded in 1887 by brothers Aaron, Jacob and Adolph Crocker at the corner of Garden and Higuera, Crocker’s Department Store later became Rileys and moved to Chorro Street. This photo is circa 1900 after brother Jacob and bought out his brothers.

When I attended Cal Poly, I worked at Cal Photo at the corner of Morro and Higuera streets in San Luis Obispo.

Now the space is the home to the Apple store.

What could be a more Darwinian marker of the digital revolution?

Closings are a part of the business cycle. 2018 saw the closures of several restaurants and shops in San Luis Obispo County, as well as locations for Aaron Brothers, Kmart in Arroyo Grande and Orchard Supply Hardware.

More than jobs, a local business supports the community via taxes and local charity support. And their advertising helps support other businesses, like the one I work for.

My sister worked at Rileys on Chorro Street in San Luis Obispo. The department store opened its doors in downtown San Luis Obispo in 1887.

A century later, Rileys was in good shape.

The Charles Ford Co. which owned the Rileys department store chain, lost its Watsonville building in the Oct 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The chain had no quake insurance and was unable to recover. Diane Varni/Watsonville Register-Pajaronian Diane Varni Watsonville Register-Pajaronian

The store was sold to Charles Ford & Co. in August 1987. Competition from bigger chains such as Gottshalks and Mervyns were making smaller chains rethink strategy.

Founded in 1852, Ford’s was the oldest department store chain in California. But the Watsonville-based company was fatally wounded by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Ford’s tried to rebuild, but it was ultimately forced to shutter Rileys. The store’s last day was Jan. 31, 1993.

David Eddy wrote this story about Rileys in happier times, published in The Telegram-Tribune on May 28, 1987:

Rileys going strong after 100 years.

The prices at this downtown San Luis Obispo department store are tough to beat: men’s suits, $6.50 to $8.50; boys’ three-piece suits, $1.75 to $2.50; and a full selection of women’s hats for 50 cents.

The prices are from a front-page advertisement in the San Luis Obispo Breeze. The date is June 7, 1889. Rileys (then called Crocker Brothers) was two years old.

A lot of things have changed since Rileys department store opened its doors 100 years ago, but according to the store’s president, the reason the store is still there is because a couple of things haven’t changed.

Founded in 1887 by brothers Aaron, jacob and Adolph Crocker at the corner of Garden and Higuera, Crocker’s Department Store later became Rileys and moved to Chorro Street. This front page ad is from the Morning Tribune June 3, 1903. David Middlecamp

“We have never deviated from customer service and quality merchandise. There the most important part of any store. Styles change, but over the long haul, people want those two things,” said Ross Humphrey.

The store was founded by three brothers who could be termed pioneers of retail trade in California. Aaron, Jacob and Adolph Crocker opened their store at the corner of Higuera and Garden streets in 1887.

At the turn of the century, Jacob bought out his brothers and the store was renamed J. Crocker and Co. During these years D.J. Riley was learning the department store business. Riley started as a cash boy, and by 1914 he had become a partner of Jacob Crocker.

In 1920, Riley acquired sole interest in the store, and Riley has been part of the store’s name ever since.

One month before his death in 1945, D.J. Riley sold the store to H.A. Landeck and Coy C. Humphrey, Ross’ dad.

Soon after the store became Rileys, George Christensen began working at the store sweeping the floors. The year was 1924, and Christensen was 14 years old. He still works at Rileys.

“I’m the oldest one here today,” said Christensen. Humphrey retorted, “George, you’ve always been the oldest one.”

When Christensen began working at Rileys, postage stamps cost 2 cents, bread was 6 cents a loaf and a subscription to the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram was 60 cents a month. During that year the Motel Inn started construction, famed race car driver Barney Oldfield raced on a track near South Street, Cal Poly had 250 students and the Ah Louis store celebrated its 50th birthday.

Christensen vividly remembers the fashions of the 1920s.

George Christensen, left, and Ross Humphrey get a laugh out of some Rileys memorabilia. The department store chain was sold to Charles Ford & Co. of Watsonville a few months later. David Middlecamp 5-28-1987 David Middlecamp

“All the women wore hats and gloves in those days. We used to import gloves from France. I’d like to see those fashions come back,” he said.

Christensen said today’s fashions, while they don’t quite match up to those of the ‘20s, are a lot better than those of the 1960s and ’70s.

“In the hippie age, women didn’t care what they looked like. Fashions have changed for the better. I’m just glad women look like women again.”

To show how different the business was in those days, Christensen pulled out a 1926 Daily Telegram advertisement for a women’s wear sale at Rileys. Silk camisoles were $1.79. Silk vests were $1.95. and women’s knickers were featured for $4.95.

After graduating from sweeping the store, Christensen started in the fabric department and then worked his way up to lingerie. “That was the best, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Former owner Ross Humphrey, left, and tearful manager Kim Humphrey thanked staff Sunday at closing time as 105 year old local department store, Rileys closed for the last time January 31, 1993. David Middlecamp/The Tribune 1-31-1993 David Middlecamp

When Landeck and Humphrey bought the store, they needed someone they could trust to run it, so Christensen became general manager in 1945. Asked when he’s going to retire, Christen said with a chuckle, “I’ve been trying to get him (Humphrey) to fire me.”

In 1955 the store was moved to its present location on Chorro Street. The Humphreys were going to buy a lot next to the Fremont Theater, but Christensen vetoed that idea, because he said clothing stores shouldn’t be next to theaters.

The store’s merchandise has changed quite a bit over the years, said Humphrey. Two of the biggest departments in the old days were fabrics and furs. Now they no longer exist.

Humphrey said the emphasis is on juniors today, but in past years they didn’t even have a juniors department.

From left, Clyde, Nicole and Carol Harrell with Sharon Glick and Don Adams by Rileys tree. The Glicks adoption was assisted by the Children’s Home Society, a charity that Rileys supported. David Middlecamp 12-21-1987 David Middlecamp

“There are more young people in the community and they work more. The young people today are the ones who have the money to spend. Kids are sharp, and they have choices. So over the years our image has gotten younger.”

Humphrey said there have been some tough times along the way. He and George used to have a four-drawer bill paying system. They would put bills in the bottom drawer when they received them. When they finally got pushed up to the top drawer by the other bills coming in, Humphrey would pay them.

The system must have worked. Humphrey said they built the business from doing less than $1 million to more than $10 million a year.

Rileys has always been a family business for the Humphreys.

Ross’ brother Robert is executive vice president, his daughter Kim is advertising manager, his son Bill is the manager of the Atascadero store, his son Eddie is the men’s department manager, and one of Robert’s sons, Jim, is the distribution center manager.

Rileys employs 250 people in what Ross Humphrey called a “people intensive business.” He said the employees built the store.

“George (Christensen) and I are just the water boys. We haul the ammunition up to the front lines,” said Humphrey.

“We’re proud of the company we keep,” agreed Christensen.

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