Tuesday, September 9, 2008


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.


Unknown said...

I've been and Altadenan for only 9 months, so I unfortunately never been there...yet. I drive pass everyday, all the time actually. Now I have to stop!

Anonymous said...

Pasadena Adjacent
You "write what you write" and aren't they lucky you do! Lori Webster has a new best friend and a new customer in me. I confess I've never heard of Websters and now I know a whole lot about them. Cool direction they're headed in.

Petrea Burchard said...

Stef, stop in to the Fine Stationery store and introduce yourself to Lori and Scott. As an artist, I think you'll find that they can order any special items you need, even if they don't have them in stock. They have access to everything. Plus Lori needs to see your artwork.

PA, it's a long trek for you! I'm surprised you've never heard of them. I know, I'm a softie. But yeah, I think she's got some interesting ideas and she loves local artists.

Fashion Schlub said...

Hey, I know Webster's! And I live in NY! Ha. I use their shipping service when I've been visiting my cousins and bought too many goodies to fit in my suitcase! It's really a fun store with a little bit of everything...and it just sort of goes on and on from one room to another....

That said, I haven't been there in a number of years (traveling a real luxury these days), but it sounds like it's still a neat place.

USelaine said...

Good of you to highlight a community heartbeat, one that puts a recognizable face on a place, literally and metaphorically.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I like the new store as much as the old. I've been in there several times since the remodeling and they seem not to have as complete a selection. I couldn't get exactly what I needed and either had to go elsewhere or had to make do with a less desirable alternative. I didn't have that experience as often with the old store.

Susan C said...

I'm walking distance from Webster's and use their pharmacy exclusively.

This post and the photo of the happy siblings are timely "damage control." I was just chatting with my Duarte doctor about filling my prescription at Webster's, and he launched into an interesting tale about sibling rivalry and rifts that led to the compartmentalization of the stores.

Petrea Burchard said...

It's changed in the recent past, Islipian, but still has the shipping services.

Thanks, usE. Thanks also to you, anonymous. It's all good input. I know in the Stationery store you can order just about anything (which may not be helpful if you need it NOW). I don't know if that's true of the other stores.

Susan C, speaking of damage control, I must clarify: Lori and Scott are a husband and wife team, not siblings.
Lori didn't mention sibling rivalry, only that the business wasn't making it as the giant monster it once was. Your doctor may have other information about the pharmacy but I didn't meet with anyone there, and that's now a separate business from the stationery store. Although Lori may be doing damage control, I got the impression her main goal is to promote Webster's Fine Stationery as the separate entity it is now. (Which might be the answer right there.)

Susan C said...

Petrea, Sorry - I didn't read carefully enough. You do say in your post that Lori and Scott are husband-wife. I thought they looked a little "cozy" for siblings, but then, I'm not a very good judge, being from West Virginia and all.

Christie said...

It is interesting to see how things change, and how people like change sometimes and how they like things the way they used to be sometimes. You just don't know until you try. It is just sad that there is such a thing as shoplifting that makes everyone have to suffer for the person who does it. (although, that could be said of many things...)

T Thompson said...

The local business can't assume it's the "Go To Guy" any more, and it sounds like they are on the right track.

Here in Dover, the local eateries are my most frequent shopping. The Chinese place always drops in a pair of chop sticks, because they know I want them.

One less often visited "pizza joint" always greets me with a "Hows it going Ted?" no matter how long it's been.

And the most visted shop greets me by name, and occasionally grants me my daily habit of an 8oz glass bottle coke for free. A tiny investment for customer loyalty.

As the TV theme song used to say "You want to be where everyone knows your name" - it's true, and that kind of "old fashioned" customer relations is something that the big boys can't touch. It's an intangible with REAL value.

Anonymous said...

Pharmacies & stationers have been under a lot of competitive pressures.

I advise my clients never to assume the status quo.
Be aware of your business environment, the competition, changes in your industry.
Know your customer & recognize they are changing too. Because of the customer you exist.

Always have the mindset of, "how can I do things better??"

Don't be a small example of our formerly titan American auto industry.

If Petrea ran a store, I can't help but think she would run it 2 be a joy 4 me 2 visit.

Anyway, back to my comment reader mode.

Petrea Burchard said...

Ha! WVA readers, I think Susan C. was kidding...

Christie, so true.

Don't you just love that, Ted? It feels good to be recognized. We're not living in a small town anymore, so it's even more important now. I don't think Dover's all that petite, either.

I hope so, Mike, thanks.

USelaine said...

Susan C. - You made me laugh out loud. Sorry.

pasadenapio said...

Websters is a local institution. I go up there often. It's easy to lose track of time there!

Sarah said...

My food blog is updated!

Laurie Allee said...

I'll be sure to check out this place. I'm a sucker for a good stationary store.

Susan C said...

Laurie, Since Webster's has been around for 85 years, I guess it qualifies as both a "stationary" AND a stationery store.

dianasfaria.com said...

this is a great little story. i love that Lori has a blog!

Chuck Pefley said...

Petrea, wonderful post. What a convoluted story. Reminds me just a little bit of Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Curiosities in today's world, but they sure are great places to visit.

Petrea Burchard said...

I've heard of Wall Drug, Chuck. Never been there. Webster's has a bit of that historical feel to it, but it's not so anachronistic. They keep up with what the modern customer needs. It's interesting, though, because they've been there a long time, some people don't want them to change. It tugs at the heartstrings when your old traditional place isn't old and traditional anymore.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Altadena and have been going to Webster's for at least a decade. I have since moved from the area, but every time I am in the area (which is fairly often) I stop in. I just love what has been done with the place thus far. I've known the family for YEARS and I know the story quite well, and this change has definitely been long awaited. What Lori and Scott have done with the store is lovely. Sure, people will have to get used to some changes, but keep in mind that change can be a wonderful thing. Keep the additions coming, I love the artwork you are selling (the sunflower is amazing!), you have built up your children's corner quite nicely, and your home accents are great. I've bought so many things for my place!
If you're ever in the area, stop in. It's GREAT.

Anonymous said...

Well I've been to Websters fine stationers and I must say how refreshing it is to see a smart kind helpful face . I was in there and a very nice hawaiian girl helped me find every thing I needed with great knowledge of the merchadice and the store history. I haven't gotten that kind of good old fashion service any where. Some times I stop by just to say hello and see what's new always walking out with great items I can't wait to get home. I glad your still there and keep that beautiful hawaiian gilr that helped me. P.S. Give the girl a raise.