Weatherby's almost made it to 100 years.
The regionally owned furniture retailer, which at one time had 11 locations, will close its last remaining store — Bakersfield — this weekend, wrapping up its multi-generational run at 98 years.
The Bakersfield store opened for business in 1946, the same year America reopened for living, eager for peace and prosperity after 37 long years of Depression and war. The Bakersfield store's last official day is Monday, but there may not be anything left to sell by then.
"We've got some mattresses and box springs, a few unmatched loveseats, some odds and ends," said Erlinda Gomez, who has worked at Weatherby's for 30 years. "That, and some things we didn't know we still had."
General Manager Bill Cruse, who came to the Chester Avenue store in 1972, said he has had customers walk through the front doors in tears. "'I came here when I was 5 years old,' one of them said, and she looked like she was around 60," Cruse said. "A lot of people are sad to see us go."
Many customers have come back year after year to Weatherby's, which moved to its current location in 1956. They'd buy furniture that reflected the milestones of family life: toddler beds, bunk beds, double beds, and king beds; living room sets to replace the frayed living room sets they'd purchased five, 10, 20 years before; dining room tables with multiple extension leafs to accommodate family members who had grown up, moved away and returned with grandchildren to enjoy restorative Thanksgiving meals prepared with grandmotherly expertise.
I don't qualify as a lifelong customer, but the living room set I purchased from Weatherby's still looks pretty good two years later. I guess it'll be my last.
In its heyday Weatherby's had at least 11 locations, as Cruse can best remember, although not all of them were necessarily open at the same time: Whittier, Oxnard, Ventura, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Arroyo Grande, Visalia, Porterville, Oildale and of course Bakersfield.
At one time the company had 150 employees. There looked to be about a dozen in the last remaining store when I visited one day in early November.
Business is still decent, said Cruse, who is 77. "It's just that everyone is getting old and we want to retire."
The unpretentious store's connection to working class Bakersfield has been ironclad almost since the beginning. Its spokesman throughout the 1950s and early '60s was "Cousin" Herb Henson, host of the live, five-days-a-week "Trading Post" show on KERO-TV. He shot live commercials on Weatherby's showroom floor and hosted live musical performances in front of the Chester Avenue store.
Cruse said those live country-music shows drew such crowds, Bakersfield police simply shut down the section of Chester Avenue that faced the store, between 6th and 8th streets, to accommodate the afternoon throng.
Weatherby's advertised for years with commercials using the familiar voices of deejays from KUZZ, the country music station associated first with Henson and then recording artist and radio magnate Buck Owens. Weatherby's people were country music's people, and vice versa.
The company's first store opened in Whittier in 1921. Cruse couldn't remember the first name of the founding Mr. Weatherby, but his son Robert Weatherby opened the Bakersfield store the year after the war ended, the same year homebuilders started cranking out residential tracts the way the Kaiser shipyards were cranking out Liberty ships a few years before. In the late 1970s, that Mr. Weatherby passed along the franchise to his son, also named Robert Weatherby, who lives in Ojai.
My repeated efforts to reach that Mr. Weatherby or, separately, his wife were fruitless. Cruse confirmed that the Weatherbys had acknowledged his message to them on my behalf. I just wanted to give them the opportunity to confirm some historical details and say something — even if it's trite or sounds obligatory — about the passing of an era, the loyalty of five generations, and the prosperity that loyalty brought them.
Well, at least Bill Cruse offered words in that vein. Cousin Herb sure would've.