Even when you consider the historically unique challenges the retail universe is experiencing in the wake of Covid, shopping is easy peasy compared to what it used to be like in the olden days.
Yes, get ready for a Grandpa John’s story of what it was like when I was a kid. There was a time—one historians refer to as “The Mallolithic Era”—when you couldn’t just type what you wanted into your phone and it would arrive a few days later at your doorstep.
I know it sounds primitive, but you’ll have to trust me (and don’t get me started on when there were fewer than 50 cable channels). Early catalog culture made things a bit easier, but mostly you had to go to an actual store to look for, hopefully find, and buy what you wanted. (The term “brick and mortar” hadn’t yet been coined, as that was what all stores were actually made of.)
And if you were lucky, you lived in a place that had a store selling the stuff you actually wanted…or you had to talk yourself into “wanting” the stuff the stores around you sold. (Penn-Can mall’s Chess King, you piano-key-skinny-tie-selling monster, I’m looking at you.)
However, if you were lucky enough to be alive in say, oh, the last hundred-ish years and lived in Southern California, you could head to East L.A.’s Greenspan’s and get what was always cool. From On The Road Kerouac-worthy workwear to surf, skate, and lowrider gear…Swing Revival to Hip-Hop and all the microtrends in between. Greenspan’s always had it, and much, much more.
Founded in 1928, Greenspan’s has sold everything (washing machines to fedoras) and is to this day revered as an institution. It’s the kind of place you can find—if you’re up to some Indiana Jonesesque exploring—70s Lee jeans, a silk tie from the 1940s, and an exclusive Pendleton made just for Greenspan’s.
But like with Indy, expect some harrowing treks through uncharted territory…stacks and piles and shelves that may not have been dug through since the Ark was lost.
For all the gritty details on his family business and the rag trade in general, I had a long talk with Evan Greenspan, third Generation Owner of Greenspan’s Department Store.
Heddels (John Bobey) Yours is billed as “the last original clothing store”—what do you mean by that?
Greenspan’s (Evan Greenspan): Forty years ago we were not unusual. Most neighborhoods had a store that carried what used to be called “Soup to nuts”—they had something for everybody, often including conservative, classic, styles. Then, around the early 2000s, these independent mom and pop stores that still carried “original style” clothing began closing one by one.
We started to get first time customers coming in telling us how they found out about us after their beloved neighborhood store closed down, and they went searching for something similar. This was before most shopping was done online, and social media was just beginning to become popular, so many people found out about us through word of mouth, and would travel from all over Southern California to shop with us. We realized that mostly all the other stores we knew who were like us had closed up. It was then that we called ourselves, “The Last Original Clothing Store.”
(H) Do you find that, since Greenspan’s has been around for nearly a century, grandchildren are now customers just as their grandparents were?
(G) Yes, it is common for our customers to be generational! We’ve seen people come in with their kids, then those kids grow up and come in with their own kids. Recently, we were visited by a man who hadn’t been to our shop in years, but used to come in with his grandfather when he was a child. Our survival has depended on the loyalty of local families, clubs, and neighborhood associations.
(H) Greenspan’s has not only been an outfitter of trends (hip-hop, swing, lowrider to name but a few), but you’ve inspired directions in fashion as well. What role do you feel you’ve played—and continue to play—when it comes to the way Angelenos dress?
(G) We have a history of innovating, creating, and reviving style. In the 1940’s, we were the first store to introduce the Dickie’s brand—yes, that Dickie’s—to California, which is now undoubtably a staple in California street style.
Over 65 years ago, my father, Eddie Greenspan, designed the A-1 Pegger pants, which then became the best selling pants style in the United States for a time.
He also designed the “beach combers,” a type of short pants for men, and in the 1950’s and and 1960’s he was a designer of California sportswear shirts for Hollywood Rambler. In the late 60s, my father started buying up unused men’s clothes from the 40s and 50s made from cotton and wool, which were not in demand at the time after the shift in fashion to polyester. His hunches on saving the former decades’ styles began paying off in the 1970s when zootsuit looks were being revived within the barrios of the Western United States.
Then, the punk scene wanted outrageous retro styles to show off and stand out from the crowd. Soon, those who couldn’t find what they were looking for in the local malls began coming to us for unique pieces, but often keeping Greenspan’s as their secret.
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, deadstock workwear became desired by inner city gangs as OG gear. Many of our customers wore these retro styles of work clothes, jail clothing, and other “OG” styles, including artists like NWA, Cypress Hill, Compton’s Most Wanted, and Above The Law. They began popularizing these styles worn in their rap videos, starting the fashion trend.
Before the popularization of the swing scene in the 1990s, Royal Crown Revue and others were shopping with us before you could find that style everywhere.
In the 80s, we were funneling thousands of deadstock retro items to the fashion forward boutique, Cowboys And Poodles, on Melrose Ave. They in turn sold items purchased from Greenspan’s to Madonna, Bette Midler, and other influential celebrities who probably would never have thought to travel to South Gate for their clothing.
Throughout the 90s, my father continued buying “old fashioned” styles from warehouses, factories, and stores going out of business, some of which we still have in stock for sale today.
In recent years, we have influenced the way LA—and the world—looks by authentically reproducing dozens of classic style men’s clothing, hats, and shoes that, without us, would otherwise not be easily obtainable to modern consumers. We have the knowledge of the demand, we have the desire to get it done right the best we can and to be available to our clientele at affordable prices.
Some of our customers work in the clothing world, and have seen a handful of some of our own reproductions “re-reproduced” by popular streetwear brands, sold in boutiques and major department stores, often with lower quality and higher prices. We know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so we are flattered to know that we are often imitated, but never duplicated.
Our impact on the way L.A. dresses was commemorated by former Los Angeles Times Style writer Melissa Magsaysay in her book about Los Angeles fashion, “City Of Style”. We were recently featured in a video for and episode of Bobby Hundreds’s Snapshots with Bobby Hundreds.
We have continued to sell our unique style to lovers of classic clothing, including fashion diverse influencers in streetwear, the music industry, the lowrider world, the skater and surf worlds, the hot rod and rockabilly worlds, and have provided niche or retro items for many hundreds of movies, TV shows, and music videos.
(H) After this many years and with a store as densely-packed as yours, do you still occasionally find things from 1950s and 1960s?
(G) Yes, occasionally—mostly slacks or ties, or other assorted accessories…maybe a suit here or there. More often than not, these items originally from the ‘50s and ‘60s were actually purchased by us in the ‘80s or ‘90s.
(H) Do treasure hunters still stalk the stacks, looking for gold?
(G) Yes, they d0! Our store is piled high with things in seemingly random order—we prefer the term “organized chaos”—and it can be fun to search through for some customers who have the time and patience. We have more than enough merchandise in our store for ten clothing stores our size. Many of our products are stored in back or just hidden in plain view in nearby boxes.
The other day, a boutique owner from Japan came looking for new old stock, made in USA Dickies that we had to pull out of the back stock room. He bought a pile of them! He would not have been able to find them if he were “just browsing.” If you’re not a thrifter or vintage hunter, then it’s very likely you may be overwhelmed by our store, but specific questions will lead you to specific items.
Lately, people have been afraid to ask us for help or direction in finding what they’re looking for, I think because people are so used to shopping online or in bigger chains where the item is just there on the rack, you pick it up, pay by self-checkout, and then leave. There’s less and less human interaction involved with shopping now. Some first-time visitors may find it frustrating that we do not have all products visible on our showroom floor.
We try to have as much on display as possible, but our staff is more than happy to assist any customer looking for something special. Browsing can be fun, but in our store it is not always efficient to find a specific item you may have seen online or heard that we carry. We’ve recently posted signs such as, “Don’t be nervous, we’re at your service!” to let customers know that any Greenspan’s employee is here to help you find what you’re looking for!
(H) You sell so many Pendleton Boardshirts that they actually make designs exclusively for you—how did that relationship begin?
(G) We listen to our customers, since they come to us for a wide selection, like most of our niche items. We began with a great variety of Pendleton Boardshirts, then we made sure we had the best selection of Pendleton Boardshirts. We would tell Pendleton what our customers had to say about the patterns and fit…their likes and dislikes, and over the years they began to listen to us and our customers’ opinions.
After becoming the store with the largest selection of Pendletons, we wanted to revive a classic style and pattern that was known on the streets as a Cascade Pendleton. It was a five-year effort, but in 2012 we finally got those Cascade Pendletons made in two colors, double labeling with both Pendleton and Greenspan’s. Pendleton has welcomed us making exclusive design shirts since then, including two Greenspan’s/Pendleton double label patterns for our 90th Anniversary in 2018. Our newest exclusive pattern board shirt, the Sable Black Ombre, arrived August 2019, along with a double label Greenspan’s designed two-toned wool baseball cap.
(H) When did you first begin private labeling your own pieces?
(G) We began private labels in the 1940s. We recently used one of our 40’s tag designs for our 90th anniversary double label Pendleton. In the 80s, my father designed a label for some OG-style pants and that started our own branding for exclusive products. We now do custom make ups of leather shoes, wool coats, wool and straw hats, zoot-style suits, and a variety of classic-style pants and shirts.
(H) How challenging is it finding new suppliers for classic items like hats, Ricky Ricardo pants, and two-tone shoes?
(G) What is most difficult to find is a manufacturer who knows how to make a classic style item correctly, both functionally and aesthetically. We have had a few fails and some learning experiences in this department. There is a certain style of shoe that we have tried to get reproduced correctly, but we don’t have an original in good enough condition.
No one who is willing to make it up for us knows what it should look or feel like, so every prototype made up just isn’t right. Most often we try to use factories or contractors who have been working in their craft for many years, so it will get done right quality-wise and economically. Another resource is talking old companies into making classic items that our customers remember, revere, and would still have grassroots appeal.
(H) You’re heading toward a century of being in business in the same location—has the thought of shutting the doors ever crossed your, or any Greenspan’s, mind?
(G) It has been a struggle to stay in business in California’s current business climate. We have had many struggles and fortuitous breaks to stay open this long. We never plan to close, but it always needs to be a consideration in this volatile business environment. But I say, as long as our customers keep coming to us, and telling their friends to come to us, that will keep the doors open.
(H) Did you have any choice but to join the family business? Will your son carry on the Greenspan name and tradition?
(G) As a child I never wanted to grow up to work in a clothing store, probably because I had to spend my childhood—summer vacation, etc.—working in the family business. My son has loved and hated the responsibility of being a fourth generation Greenspan, but he is now looking to take it into the next 100 years.
Well that’s a relief—an Earth spinning with an open Greenspan’s is an undeniably better one. After all, if we’re going to crow about brands that have been around for decades, it’s time we started giving some love to the stores selling those brands that have been around even longer.
Yes, to the uninitiated, Greenspan’s stands in stark contrast to fancypants SoCal stores that literally carry fancy pants…stop looking or you’ll upset them!…all hung just so, with an actress/model/influencer too busy on IG to acknowledge your existence. And thank goodness for it.
Rest easy knowing that even if you don’t live within driving distance of Greenspan’s, they will happily be as helpful on the phone or online, doing the digging for you.
They’re good people doing noble work in a world gone mad. And while the knowledge that snagging some deadstock Dickie’s and an exclusive Pendleton is still within your reach may not be enough to turn this upside-down world rightside-up, at least you can sleep easy knowing that, if we’re waltzing into our own Walking Dead, you can do so in style.
Greenspan’s is located at 3405 Tweedy Blvd, South Gate, CA 90280 and open everyday except Sunday. For more information, visit their website.