If you're not from Altadena, you can be forgiven for not knowing these folks. But a true Altadenan will at least recognize the gentleman on the right. He's Scott Webster, part of the third generation of Websters to own and operate Webster's Pharmacy, Liquor, Hallmark, Fine Stationery, post office, uh...
Yeah. It gets confusing.
Enter Lori Webster. She and her husband Scott own Webster's Fine Stationers, part of the original Webster's. Lori wants to clear up the confusion. After Lori read my post about Amy's Patio Cafe, she sent an email asking me to post about Webster's.
Hey, I'm not in the business of advertising, I said. I'll write what I write. No promises.
Come on up the hill, she said.
Webster's is the second-oldest business still operating in Altadena. (The oldest is Altadena Hardware.) Webster's sprawls over almost the entire 2400 block of North Lake Avenue. When I first moved to Altadena, you could stop in at the liquor store and buy batteries, step into the pharmacy and pick up a prescription, then head downstairs to the stationery store to buy stamps. Before you were through you might have bought a gift in the card shop, had it wrapped and sent it out via UPS, and you never had to go outside.
Then a year or so ago, they boarded up the openings between the different sections and made it all into separate businesses. Customers had to go outside to get from one store to another. There was no longer a stairway between the pharmacy and the stationery store. Instead there was a wall, and that wall felt symbolic, like a barrier between Webster's and its customers. When I asked employees what the deal was, the answer was "business reasons." Kinda vague.
Yesterday, Lori Webster told me she believes that approach was a mistake. She says business hasn't been great lately and she thinks the economy isn't the only reason. She wants to reopen the lines of communication with her customers. So here's her story about why Webster's changed:
Harold "Frank" Webster founded the store in 1923 and his son Bill, now the aging patriarch, worked in the store all his life. In recent years Webster's had become a behemoth, too big for its britches. They were losing money to shoplifting. They were too diversified. Bill's advisers told him it would be more profitable to split the store into parts rather than be spread too thin, and he had long been contemplating a change.
Now Bill's ready to retire, and though he's not active in day-to-day operations he's still chairman of the board. It was time to make that change while he was alive and active, so his children could benefit from his knowledge while they learned to run things, rather than wait until after he was gone.
Many of the long-time customers have been like family to Bill. Lori thinks the customers should have been informed more clearly, perhaps even been involved in the change. She's all about involvement. Lori's been a mortgage banker, an aerobics instructor and a decorator (her displays highlight the stationery store), but this is the first retail business she's owned. She and her husband Scott (he's Bill's son and Frank's grandson) own Webster's Fine Stationers together. They're going to involve their part of the Webster's legacy in the community in a new way.
See, Webster's has been around for 85 years, sitting up on that hill in Altadena, and for a long time they didn't have to do much to be involved in the community. I mean, they were Webster's, the center of Altadena. Everyone came there and that was that. But the town changed around Webster's, then Webster's changed, and people didn't take to it. At least that's Lori's explanation.
Lori wants to make Webster's Fine Stationers the center of Altadena community life again. Here are the beginnings of her plan:
She's specializing in ecologically responsible and fair trade products;
She's featuring products made by Altadena artists, including cards and jewelry;
She has her own blog about the store;
She's working with the Altadena Chamber of Commerce to have a belated grand opening. She's dedicated to involving Waste Less Living and to benefitting the Quality of Life Center;
She just joined the board of directors of the Quality of Life Center;
She's wearing me out.
I recognized Scott Webster when I was introduced to him yesterday because I've been patronizing Webster's for years (though I admit I haven't been there as much lately as I used to). The amazing thing was he recognized me. He knows his customers. You should stop in and say hi to him. He'll probably recognize you, too. Now you know Lori as well, and I know she wants to meet you. Or stop in to all the different Webster's stores. It's a step back into history. In the old days they were individual stores, before the Websters bought them up and linked them together. There's a lot of change going on up there and change can be a good thing.
Webster's isn't just a store (or just a family of stores). It's part of Altadena's history. And history changes. What else can it do?
Hey, I'm not in the business of advertising. I write what I write. I just happen to love my community--Pasadena, South Pas, Sierra Madre, San Marino, Altadena, the hills, the San Gabriel Valley, all of it.
And Webster's was a part of it long before I was.