The end of an Altadena tradition for a place that lives "local first"
by Laura B. Monteros
During our conversation with Lori and Scott Webster on Sunday, an Altadena woman dropped by to share contact information for a possible new location for Webster’s Fine Stationers, which will close its doors in January. At Saturday’s open house, shoppers enjoyed refreshments, live holiday music, book signings, and a display by Altadena Heritage. And they talked about the lost lease and short notice the business owners were given and expressed hopes that the store will reopen soon, and reopen in Altadena, even noting vacant properties that would be a good fit.
That’s the kind of buy-in folks have for this Altadena gem, which sells local products created by artists and artisans within easy driving distance of our town. It’s a business that Lori and Scott transformed from a stationery store that could not compete with the giants to a boutique with unusual and even unique items displayed in a cozy environment.
When the couple took over the office and school supply store in October of 2007, the four stores that make up the complex had just been walled off from each other. Previously, shoppers could walk through from the Hallmark store to office supply, pharmacy, and liquor stores. This change did not benefit the business.
Walling off business
“Once we took over and the walls went up, we lost 60 percent of the people who shopped here,” Lori said.
“Because they were pissed off,” Scott interjected.
Previous customers did not like having to go out of one store to go into the other, despite that being the norm in other shopping areas, Lori said. “They’ve told me ‘I will shop in one store and not go in the others.’”
Realizing the persistence of this attitude, Lori and Scott stressed to the other Webster family members the importance of continuing to act as one store. Though the businesses had been separately owned for some time, the walk-through made them seem like a single business. At the time, all the businesses were owned by shopkeepers related to the Webster family which had started the business in 1926. Currently, only WFS is owned by a family member, and Webster’s Liquor Store is owned by Webster’s Pharmacy Corporation, of which Scott’s father, Bill Webster, is CEO.
The office supply store could not do the volume necessary without the cooperation and support of the other stores, which the couple said did not happen, so they decided to change up what they had been doing.
“We wanted to start doing things for the community,” Lori said. “People told me they wanted something different from Hallmark, something fresher, younger, made in America. We thought we would do it locally.” They learned about what’s called the local multiplier effect.
“We learned buying from independents is better for the community,” Lori said. “It’s better for the community if we also buy locally.”
With that in mind, WFS has become a place to purchase locally created art, locally made food and artisanal products, and the only retail outlet to sell Christmas Tree Lane products. Those sales benefit the Altadena icon, with 75 percent of the price going back to the Christmas Tree Lane Association. Even the fair trade coffee is processed locally, and for every pound WFS purchases, the Redlands company donates to local food banks.
A place for local artisans
Scott said the greeting cards do very well, and Lori said the top-selling book in the shop is Bill Middleton’s Southern Soul Food. There are handmade soaps, drink mixers from Princess Hahamongna, books by local writers, jewelry and accessories by local craftsmen, spicy teas from Glendora, and chocolate that makes everything better.
Lori and Scott work closely with Union Station to hire employees from recovery programs, benefitting locals who might not be able to get jobs elsewhere. “We’re lucky and blessed to have such good employees. We believe in them and give them an opportunity to advance,” Lori stated.
WFS wants to stay in the Altadena area -- the couple recently sold their house in Westchester and are now renting in Altadena. They're looking for a smaller space than the approximately 2,000 square feet they currently occupy. “There are no solid leads on a location, but then, there’s not been a lot of time to look,” Lori said. “It’s Christmas, and we only found out a month ago.” They did pay for a short extension to Jan. 31.
They are looking at providing space for small business incubation or a work share set up, and perhaps incorporating as a non-profit. They will continue to carry the distinctively local products WFS is now known for, expanding the local food section and losing the stationery business. Asked if they will still carry books, Lori responded, “Definitely. Books are not going to go out of style.” Scott has ideas for a section geared to the writers of those tomes.
“I wish we could stay so we could keep doing these things,” Lori said. “If we are going to spend money, we might as well have it help someone locally.”
Webster's Fine Stationers is at 2450 N. Lake Avenue.
1. Lori and Scott Webster (center) with Dalton Sargent and Marc Cortez.
2. Matt-Dell Tufenkian and Hugo Arteaga of Altadena Heritage
3. Norm Abejon provided holiday music
4. Penguins, Frosty hats, and Christmas joy on sale at WFS
5. Refreshments welcomed shoppers at WFS open house
6. Cozy book corner features local writiers
7. Goat milk soaps are just one of many locally-made products at WFS
8. Koen Tufenkian was engrossed in a picture book
9. Last Holiday at Webster's Fine Stationers