H-CENTRAL COAST

Jan 23, 2014 5:39 PM by Jeanette Trompeter

Riley's department store site will be full of memories tomorrow

This Friday in downtown San Luis Obispo there is going to be a big trip down Memory Lane. For more than 100 years, Riley's department store was a mainstay of the area. The Humphrey family bought into it in 1945 and last week, Ross Humphrey, the man who took it over in the 1960's and grew it to a chain of stores, died. And this week those who knew and loved him will gather at the very building where many of their memories of him were made.

The building at the corner of Marsh and Chorro streets in San Luis Obipso is empty with no tenant in there right now...but it's filled with memories for tens of thousands of long-time locals.

Bill Humphrey is the son of Ross Humphrey. For decades he owned and ran the Riley's department store here with the help of his brother and family. Ross died last week and ever since, people have been sharing their memories of this place with Bill. "I just talked to a woman before I came to this interview. She was talking about the organ at the top of the stairs and a guy who we called 'Mr C.' It was George Christensen."

Former employees, people who shopped here, those who helped construct the building have been coming out of the woodwork. So Bill, his siblings, and relatives decided this currently non-descript space would be a perfect place to hold his father's memorial. In fact, Bill thinks his dad would be kind of upset if his family went to any real expense in renting some place fancy for his memorial. "This is right up his alley, and it's all about bringing those memories back those stories I haven't heard, and you know, if only these walls could talk..." says Bill.

Those walls would tell stories, of a time when locally owned stores like Rileys were the anchors of communities, economically and in many other ways.

For about four decades, Riley's encompassed this entire city block in the key part of downtown. From where I'm standing at Marsh and Chorro, all the way down to Higuera where the Wineman Hotel is. In fact, the lobby area of the Wineman was once the Riley's men's department.

Riley's sold in 1987 after 100 years in business, and Ross retired. The store lasted another few years under ownership of the Ford Department store chain, but closed its doors for good in the early 90's. Even today, even empty, there are remnants of Riley's: the staircase, the palm tree planted when the store first opened. And the memories. "I remember the Santa Claus in the housewares department, and us decorating the windows for La Fiesta." reflects Bill. "So there was a lot of history. And a lot of that has come out this week. And that's what Friday's all about."

Tomorrow's memorial starts at 2 p.m. and is open to the public at the old Riley's building. It's most recently was home to Sports Authority in San Luis Obispo. If you have pictures or memories you'd like to share, bring them with you.

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