Clovis News

Sierra Vista Mall may host first Gottschalk store

Joe Levy wants to begin reviving the Gottschalk brand in Clovis, opening the first in a chain of "leaner and meaner" department stores on Nov. 1.

The former Gottschalks store in Sierra Vista Mall would become the flagship store and corporate headquarters for "Gottschalk by Joe Levy Inc.," a company created by the now-defunct retailer's former CEO. The new retailer uses a variant of its predecessor's name to avoid legal concerns while promising to bring back the kind of store many Valley shoppers still love.

Levy, offering new details of his plan Tuesday, said he has financing from venture capital groups but is still on the hunt for additional funds. He said that he'll look to cities, counties and economic-development agencies for employment incentives to help.

"This venture is going to need whatever help we can get from the cities of Fresno, Clovis and surrounding communities," Levy said.

The Sierra Vista Mall space, at just under 100,000 square feet, has been empty since Gottschalks shut its doors in July following a liquidation sale of merchandise and fixtures.

There's no lease deal yet for the Sierra Vista Mall site, but both Levy and mall officials said they are optimistic.

"We're going to work extremely hard to do everything we can to help them," said Jim Huelskamp, one of the principal partners of LandValue Management, which owns the mall. "We think it makes a lot of sense."

The collapse of Gottschalks, following the closure of Mervyns, left the Clovis mall with two gaping vacancies. Levy's move into the old Gottschalks space and Kohls pending takeover of the former Mervyns store would refill the mall's anchor spaces, Huelskamp said.

Levy, 78, said he's focusing initially on smaller communities in the Valley and foothills where Gottschalks had profitable stores and, in most cases, was the only department store in town. He cited Oakhurst and Auburn as examples where developers have approached him to fill spaces left vacant by Gottschalks' demise.

"We're starting out small, putting our toe in the water," Levy said. Plans may include opening one or two other stores in the Valley about the same time as the Clovis site. "We're seeing where it makes sense to bring this company back to life."

Levy plans a product mix that emphasizes clothing, cosmetics and a large shoe department, as well as housewares, gifts and small appliances.

Gottschalk by Joe Levy Inc., while stocked with a cadre of former Gottschalks executives and merchandise buyers, is not formally related to its Fresno-based predecessor, which is going through a federal bankruptcy process in Delaware. Levy, who joined Gottschalks in 1956 and eventually became chairman and CEO, had relinquished control of the company several years before the bankruptcy.

"What we're kicking off today is the start of going back to our roots," said Levy, whose great-aunt was the wife of Gottschalks founder Emil Gottschalk. He held a news conference Tuesday at the Pop Laval Gallery, surrounded by historic Laval photos of the original Gottschalks building in downtown Fresno.

Larger Valley cities like Fresno and Visalia could also be sites for future stores. But Levy ruled out the vacant Gottschalks at Fresno's Manchester Center or a return to his family's retail roots downtown. As for other Valley stores, Forever 21 and Macy's have taken over former Gottschalks spaces in Fresno, Visalia and Hanford.

In Merced, a former Gottschalks store in the Olivewood Shopping Center on Olive Avenue remains vacant. Levy said that, too, could be a future consideration for the new company, "if we can get a good deal on a lease."

Lingering Gottschalks vacancies in California and other states -- at freestanding stores or in shopping malls -- may prove advantageous for Levy, said James Tensor of Arizona-based VSN Strategies, a retail consulting firm.

Because the commercial and retail real-estate market "has been slammed" in the recession, Tensor said, Levy "could be in a position to negotiate some real favorable leases."

Levy said he's counting on customer goodwill from Gottschalks' 104-year history to bring people back. He declined to speculate on whether something could have saved Gottschalks, opting instead to look forward. But he did say he believes a "new" Gottschalk can avoid the same fate as its predecessor by staying small, concentrating on what its customers want, and providing solid customer service.

The old Gottschalks, Levy said, was burdened with a "top-heavy bureaucracy that was too big to support." It had about 5,200 employees spread among its 58 stores, and about 300 people working at its corporate headquarters in northeast Fresno.

"We're going to be very thin," Levy said. "Our executives are going to be doing multiple jobs, and we won't have five assistants helping us."

Robert Wiser, tabbed by Levy to be the chief executive officer and top merchandising manager, reinforced the austerity theme. "There's not going to be any jet planes, no big perks," said Wiser, who was with Gottschalks for 22 years, working as a senior vice president and general merchandising manager when it closed last year. "We're going to be leaner and meaner."

The executive who is shepherding Gottschalks through its bankruptcy case said Levy's new enterprise isn't a surprise.

"I know Joe has expressed interest in trying to resurrect the company in one form or another," said Greg Ambro, Gottschalks' executive vice president and chief operating officer. "But I'm not part of that group, so I don't know anything about the particulars.

Ambro said he didn't anticipate that Levy's use of the Gottschalk name would be a concern for the defunct company.

While a small company doesn't have the volume-buying power of larger competitors, "we have friends out there [among vendors] who are looking for distribution for their products," Levy said. "They will help us get products at the right price."

Wiser said he and his core of former Gottschalks merchandise buyers "know what our customers want, we how to negotiate ... and we have some well-established relationships" with vendors.

Because of the lackluster retail economy, vendors may also be more aggressive to get their products in the hands of more people through smaller chains, said consultant Tensor.

"He may be able to find some buying leverage," Tensor said. "Even if it's nowhere near the volume clout of Macy or JCPenney."

Related stories from Fresno Bee