Big-box retail claims another local favorite

Published: June 7, 2001

Another round of company closures. A few hundred more employees pick up that last paycheck and take one last look back before heading out for uncertain territory. Just another week in Silicon Valley.

Yet in the dust and the noise of the dot-com implosion, we cannot overlook the fact that this week's list of the dead included the name of an old friend -- a friend that was about as high-tech as a tea cozy.

McWhorter's will close all its 35 stores within nine weeks because its corporate parent, US Office Products, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Northern California stationery and office-supply retailer -- which had no financial problems of its own, according to Chief Executive Mark Syrstad -- was one of 28 USOP subsidiaries swept along in the parent company's demise.

Tuesday night, when I stopped in at my local McWhorter's to pick up a Father's Day card, there was no panic; no customers were weeping in the aisles. The only way one might know that something was terribly amiss was a hastily drawn hand-lettered sign taped to the front door: ''All sales final. We apologize for the inconvenience. It is entirely out of our control.'' A single note of chaos intruding into McWhorter's neat and perfectly ordered universe.

Yes, McWhorter's was a chain, and it's true it wasn't locally owned for the last five years of its long life. Nonetheless, it was a local institution, the descendant of McWhorter-Young, a stationery store that opened in 1940 at 240 S. First St. in San Jose. It's hard to overstate the symbolic impact the store had when it returned to downtown in 1995, just two blocks from the original location. At a time when the retail climate downtown was shaky at best, it was like having a childhood pal move back next door.

McWhorter's was a chain, but it was a small fish in an office-supply sector ruled by big-box mega-stores. For neighborhood shopping centers that had already witnessed the demise of locally owned pharmacies, toy stores and clothing stores, McWhorter's was often the closest thing still standing, sandwiched between the mega-supermarket and the mega-drugstore.

McWhorter's would never be mistaken for Office Maximus, Office Behemoth and Office Universe -- and that seemed to be exactly the point. It was easy to get in and out in a minute for those small items that managed to be trivial yet essential. Need little paper parasols for tropical drinks and don't want to drive 15 miles to Beverage Barn? You could be down to McWhorter's and back on the patio before the ice cubes melted.

My needs were rarely so exotic. Wine bags, envelope labels, wrapping paper, printer cartridges and a three-hole punch. In the pre-Palm era, McWhorter's was the only place that would special order the annual refills for my battered old Week-at-a-Glance appointment book. Crepe paper, penny rolls, a box of little candy hearts -- it wasn't much, but nothing else would do.

And the cards. Just about every important occasion in my adult life demanded a trip to McWhorter's. I may be as wired as a PG&E substation, but even I recognize that certain communications of the heart were never meant for e-mail. When you need to say ''thank you'' and mean it, nothing will ever replace Crane's 100 percent cotton bond stationery -- formal, stiff and sharp enough to cut tomatoes. My quintessential McWhorter's memory is stopping in to pick up one birthday card and walking out with a half-dozen. The best times (''Happy Birthday to a Seven Year Old'') and the worst (''We're with you in your time of loss'') were always marked by a little something from McWhorter's.

Within each store, there was that Other McWhorter's, a strange world that I never pretended to understand: figurines, bud vases, ceramic picture frames only a mother could love, baskets of lavender sachet and potpourri. (What is potpourri, anyway? Shouldn't the government be looking into this?) The senior citizens who made up a large part of the customer base at my local store seemed to linger quite awhile on that side of the store. Somehow, I can't see them dodging forklifts down at Office Hut in their quest for the perfect miniature teddy bear.

As for me, my world will not spin off its axis now that McWhorter's is gone. I'm sure I'll be able to get all my stuff from the Web or from some big-box retailer 10 miles farther away. But I'll resent it. Market forces? Efficiencies of scale? Blah, blah, blah. All I know is the quality of my life just took another tiny step down.

McWhorter's didn't set out to change the world. It wasn't about buying dog food over the Web or putting streaming media on your handheld. But it will be missed by those of us who know that it's the little things that make up the fabric of a happy life -- crepe paper, penny rolls and a box of little candy hearts. . . .

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