Mr. H. C. Capwell, an immigrant from Michigan, opened a retail store in Downtown Oakland. For two years prior he worked in San Francisco for merchandising companies from the East Coast. His store opened in 1889 under the banner of “The Lace House”. Two years later he changed the name to H.C. Capwell.
As the company proved successful and Oakland grew, he opened a new big store at 20th and Broadway in downtown Oakland. This new store was of Beaux Arts design, built of brick, clad in terra cotta and six floors in height. With this store, Mr. Capwell set the tone for Oakland. On opening day, August 5, 1929, 10,000 customers waited for the doors to open.
Capwell’s, as the store was known to the consumer, was a mid-priced department store. In the 1930’s, the company also operated a grocery store in downtown called Capwell’s Central Market.
In 1924, Capwell’s merged with Emporium (San Francisco) to form Emporium-Capwell. The two remained separate entities under the same holding company. Capwell’s limited its expansion to the area near Oakland (Alameda and Contra Costa Counties)
The downtown Oakland store still stands. It remained a Capwell’s until 1989 when the name was changed to Emporium. Then, in 1996, when its parent company was sold to Federated Department Stores, the store was closed. It reopened months later as a Sears store and continues to operate as such. The building was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Pieta earthquake. It was closed for six months until repairs were completed.
What happened??? Capwell’s, by merging with the larger Emporium, became the stepchild in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its major market was downtown Oakland which declined rapidly after World War II.. When Emporium Capwell was acquired by Broadway Hale, the Emporium got all the capital to expand throughout the market while Capwell’s struggled with its Oakland and Alameda base. Worse yet, the new parent organization, Carter Hawley Hale Stores, went on an ego driven path to acquire other retailers, leaving the company burdened with debt and unable to refurbish the stores to keep up with retailing trends. This eventually led to the temporary collapse of the parent company and an ill fated attempt to rebuild the company in a buyout by the Zell/Chilmark fund. In 1996, the parent company was sold to Federated Department Stores. With the sale many stores were converted to Macy’s and Bloomingdales or were sold to other retailers or for other uses.
As a child, I never visited Capwell’s but we always passed it on our shopping trips to San Francisco. Later, when I worked at Mervyn’s I shopped it as a competitor. I found that it was then just an Emporium under the Capwell’s banner. The downtown store’s façade was beautiful, but inside, the store was not clean and you could see the facility was expensed to death. It was a sad sight. The suburban stores were better, but still poorly maintained.
I encourage all who have been a customer or part of the H.C. Capwell & Co. team to please leave your comments. It would be great to capture all the memories of this once great retailer. John
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