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Remembering The Boyle Heights Sears: A Tribute To An Eastside Icon

The Boyle Heights Sears store is framed against a sunset.
The Boyle Heights Sears store, which closed recently after 94 years.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)
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The Sears department store in Boyle Heights is gone. The Eastside landmark, with its familiar tower visible for miles around, closed its doors for good last month, after being open for nearly 100 years.

The front door of the now-closed Boyle Heights Sears store.
The front door of the now-closed Boyle Heights Sears store.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

At one time, the massive, 2-million-square-foot retail complex at Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street was one of several large Sears distribution centers located around the country. It first opened its doors in 1927.

For the generations of Angelenos whose families shopped there — climbing that long flight of stairs at the entrance, inhaling the smell of popcorn, gazing up at the tower’s green neon glow — the Boyle Heights Sears is more than a piece of history. It's inextricably tied to the experience of growing up on the Eastside. And the memories go back many decades.

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It’s still not clear exactly what will replace the old Sears. A developer bought the complex in 2013, and possibilities for the site’s future — as housing, retail and more — have been discussed back and forth for many years.

What locals do know is that they will miss it. We asked Angelenos to share their memories of the Boyle Heights Sears store. Here are a few of them.

DO YOU HAVE MEMORIES OF THE BOYLE HEIGHTS SEARS YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? SEND THEM ALONG AND WE'LL SHARE THEM.

— LAist Staff

A few cars drive along the mostly empty four-lane Olympic Boulevard in 1950, with the Sears building in the background.
This 1950 photograph looks west down Olympic Blvd. from just east of Soto Street. Seen are the Shull & Phillips tire shop (left), a Foster and Kleiser billboard for United States Rubber Company (Uniroyal) tires, the Sears Building, and a Coca-Cola delivery truck (right).
(Blackstock Negative Collection
/
Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)
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‘When I Grow Up…’

My mother worked at this Sears in the late 1950s (and) for about 20 years. She was an office clerk and received what was considered a very decent salary. We kids were born during this period of time and have very fond memories of visiting her during work hours. We also attended quite a few Christmas parties and special events. It was the only department store we shopped at during this time.

I remember we would always visit the candy section, and the saleslady would always offer us a free piece of candy. If it was OK with our parents, we would kindly accept it with a big smile.

As a child, I remember walking through the store in such amazement at all the different things for sale. Such a huge selection. I remember thinking, "When I grow up, I'm going to buy all these pretty clothes." That wish eventually came true. I will truly miss this historic department store, but will cherish all the memories it brought to my family.

— Christine Guerrero

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The Sears building is foregrounded by a Tacos El Unico restaurant in 1997.
The Sears store on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard in 1997.
(Thomas McGovern
/
Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

Dodger Tickets And The RTD Bus

I can still recall, as a child, walking up the stairs to enter the Sears Tower. This is where my parents would take me and my siblings every year to shop for back-to-school clothes and supplies. Afterwards, our parents would treat us to a bag of freshly popped popcorn and a cold beverage at the snack stand located next to those same stairs. This was a family ritual.

I also remember as a youth, being about 10 or 11 years old, and on my own, catching the RTD bus off Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, where we lived, to the Sears Tower to buy tickets for an upcoming Dodgers game at the Ticketmaster office that was located next to the snack stand.

I did this so often that as soon as I walked up to the ticket window, the ticket lady would say, "I have five tickets in a row here (pointing with her finger to the stadium seating chart where the seats were located) for you and your family." I would look at her and nod. I remember paying just under $30 for the infield reserve level tickets.

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Afterwards, I'd enjoy a bag of freshly popped popcorn and cold beverage before jumping back on the RTD to take me back home. These memories and many others from the Sears Tower are forever ingrained into my soul.

Perhaps part of the building can be restored to have retail and living spaces, while still preserving its historic legacy.

— Adan Millan

 Customers outside the Boyle Heights Sears in March, 2021.
Customers outside the Boyle Heights Sears in March 2021.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

Comadres, School Friends, And Neighbors

I grew up going to this store as a kid. My mom would buy my uniform and my dad’s construction gear, such as boots or tools. It was the closest store with basically everything we needed. My parents (would) often go after their paychecks were deposited. Mom and Dad didn't spend much money, but we liked going there just to get out of the house and just walk around.

It’s a community store, and while it was this huge department store, it was always this place where people often bumped into their comadres, school friends, and neighbors. It was the place to get new shoes for our first day of school, or my mom’s new fridge [for] which she'd been saving for months.

I am afraid of my neighborhood changing, bringing in retail stores that are not reflective of my community. How affordable will these stores be and who will be living in these apartments, will they be affordable? If you look at the median income, our community doesn't make a lot of money, and rents are constantly increasing. I want nothing more than for my community to preserve that sense of COMMUNITY.

— Bianca Uli Estrada

An original black and white illustration shows the Sears building with a few clouds in the sky above.
A photo of an architectural firm's 1927 drawing of the Sears store on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard. The name of the architectural firm is etched on the photograph: George Nimmens Company.
(Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

‘An Actual Department Store’

My dad always loved this store. He would bring my sister and me here all the time to shop for back-to-school. I remember he brought me here when I was pregnant with my son to buy a bunch of baby clothes. I always cherish these wonderful memories.

This was the only store that made it feel like it was an actual department store, and brings good memories of my childhood back.

— Irma Diaz

testing display bug
The long flight of stairs at the front entrance of the now-closed Boyle Heights Sears store.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

Popcorn And A 'Mountain Of Stairs'

I can still smell the aroma wafting through the air from the popcorn cart at the front stairway of the Sears Roebuck store in Boyle Heights. Just overhead was the mountain of stairs we had to climb to get to the front entrance.

Once we entered the store, my parents and seven siblings were excited to explore the many departments, ranging from kids’ clothing to appliances to furniture, amongst others.

However, nothing could compare to the excitement when we got to the toy section. For me and my siblings, it was like our own private Disneyland.

As much as we all loved browsing the store, what I will miss the most is the myriad of people that shopped at Sears, and not to mention, the Sears catalogue. One could browse the catalogue and find products such as Levis and Wranglers to Mattel toys, Kenmore [appliances] and my favorite tools, “Craftsman.” Yes, I do have many memories of the Sears store in Boyle Heights, and those are memories that I will cherish.

I think part of the building should be converted to industrial kitchen spaces that restaurateurs can lease and prepare food for delivery via Doordash, Grubhub, Postmates, etc. The other part should be converted to residential and office space.

— Armando Carlos

Customers at the El Tropical Snack bar outside the Boyle Heights Sears in March, 2021.
Customers at the El Tropical Snack bar outside the Boyle Heights Sears in March 2021.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

‘A Real Treat For Us’

l grew up not too far from the Sears on Olympic and Soto. I remember my dad taking us to buy clothes and shoes there, and every time we would leave, at the bottom of the stairs there was a snack bar and my dad would always buy us popcorn, hot dogs and a soda — that was a real treat for us.

I hope that this building stays as a monumental historical site because there is a lot of history there, and it would be sad to see it knocked down and be replaced by more housing projects.

I would miss the building itself, because every time that I pass by there and look at the building, I remember those nice memories.

I don't agree with making this landmark into more living spaces.

— Carlos Ortiz

Cars parked in front of the Boyle Heights Sears building circa 1938.
View of the Boyle Heights Sears from the parking lot circa 1938. Sears was developed as part of the Hostetter Industrial District.
(Herman Schultheis
/
Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

Winnie The Pooh

A story my parents always shared with me was around the age of two, I took a Winnie the Pooh from the store and stuffed it under my shirt. We left the store in a hurry because my sister had to use the restroom (I always wondered if there were no restrooms at the store?). The reason they share the story often is because until this day, at the tender age of 36, I still have that Winnie the Pooh.

It would be a great place for mixed use development with a nice portion of the housing to be affordable.

— Gemma Jimenez

Growing up in ELA, Sears was the it place to go. I bought my four sons Winnie the Pooh pajamas, from newborn to toddler. I would go downstairs to buy a bag of cashews or their delicious buttered popcorn, yummy!

This was in the 1970s. I bought all my boys' clothes there, and their educational electronics. What a shame for the community to lose such a department store.

— Lidia Rodarte

People sit at a table outside, with cars parked nearby and the Sears looming behind them.
People sit under umbrellas by a small building that is mostly glass and roof in Boyle Heights, with the Sears looming behind them, circa 1938. This area was developed as the Hostetter Industrial District.
(Herman Schultheis
/
Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

The Candy...The Toys...And The Candy

If I was a good boy while my parents shopped, I’d get a chocolate peanut cluster from the candy booth on the lower level.

But the popcorn was always good! Also, they sold the salt and pepper corduroy pants that our Catholic school required. I haven’t been there in 20 years.

It’s a massive space. That location should not (go) to waste.

— Oscar Narro

I remember the Christmas toy catalog, looking through it and choosing the toys I wanted for Christmas. My parents usually bought us the toys we picked in that BIG catalog. Also shopping with my parents, at the end buying candy at the candy stands in the store!

My mom also worked in the office there!

[What I will miss most is] the building and all the childhood memories, especially the toy department and candy stands.

It would be nice to renovate and make low-income housing for families.

— Cindy Gonzales

People walk down the stairs from the retail entrance to the Sears building in Boyle Heights circa 1938. Multiple signs indicate that the store was open past 9pm on Saturdays, that there was a 25-cent fountain special, and that you could get a lube job while you shop at their service station.
People walk down the stairs from the retail entrance to the Sears building in Boyle Heights circa 1938.
(Herman Schultheis
/
Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

Families Who Worked There

One day while driving down the 10 [Freeway], my grandma pointed the building out and said that it was where she had her first job, back in high school [in the early '60s]. She reminisced about reading Nancy Drews curled up inside of the carts they used to move things, avoiding work.

She has since passed, but every time I see the tower in the distance, I think of her.

— Keiran Silva

My dad worked there for over 30 years. He was the elevator maintenance man. My brother and I had summer jobs there in the ‘70s. Mom used to take us there when we were younger to say hi to Dad.

And I loved the smell of freshly made popcorn. I hope they don’t tear down the building!

— Pat Pedersen

Screen Shot 2021-05-07 at 10.19.14 AM.png
The empty main entrance corridor of the now closed Boyle Heights Sears as seen through the glass front door at sunset, with escalators in the distance.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

'It Was An Adventure'

We went there from South San Gabriel when I was a kid. I remember the vacuum cleaners balancing ping-pong balls on a column of air, the peanut-roasting machine with its spiral wheel, the agricultural department in the basement where I bought beekeeping supplies.

It wasn't just a trip to a store, it was an adventure. I never got tired of it. [What I’ll miss most is] the smell of popcorn.

— Jan Gabrielson