Column 1: Historic tragedy

Martinez News-Gazette Columnist

HISTORIC TRAGEDY is unfolding in our community. It will become apparent after the Sunday, December 29 final edition of this 161-year-old newspaper is printed and delivered. A record of 161 years of continuous publication, longest in California, according to researchers at the Bancroft Library at U. C. Berkeley more than 50 years ago.

It has had a variety of masthead names during that time, through fires and floods and other acts of nature, this publication has served Martinez, Contra Costa County and a greater surrounding area. Over the years it has been published as a weekly, then a six-day daily, a five-day daily, a three day-a-week publication, and presently the two-day-a-week newspaper we receive at home or by mail.

Print media is an endangered species. Not just in Martinez, but, across the world. Newspapers of all sizes are downsizing by cutting back on coverage, by cutting back on staff reporting and features, publishing fewer days per week.

Newspapers, large and small are going out of business. Why? Lack of readership due to those who feel they can get all the news they need on-line, or from social media. Newspapers get their revenue from advertising. The charge for advertising to the advertiser is based on the circulation of the media. Fewer readers or subscribers reduces the value to the advertiser. Therefore, the media cannot charge what they once did, so revenue goes down, expenses have to be cut, staff is laid off, and thus it goes to a point where being in business is no longer feasible.

Martinez, once the crown jewel of Contra Costa County, the center of county government, banking and commerce, thriving businesses of all kinds fell to the tremendous surge in population growth after World War Two. The growth of population required growth of businesses to provide for the needs of the burgeoning population. Shopping centers like Sun Valley, Concord Park and Shop in our immediate area, drew businesses from our downtown…like Penney’s, Wards, Western Auto and others…away to those larger, more attractive centers to serve much larger buyer populations with much more diverse variety of merchandise.

Reality began to hit hard in Martinez in the early 1950s as the larger merchandisers began to pull out of downtown. Screams of anguish were being heard. Organized pleas from the Chamber of Commerce, and the City. Other local prominent businesses which had been so successful in previous decades, began to feel the loss of regular faithful customers who were being drawn away to the glitter of large stores with big parking lots, special sales, huge inventories with lots of variety.

Martinez’ small specialty shops for men and women were unable to compete. Even larger stores like Hilson’s, with a good range of clothing for the family, began to fail. Hardware stores like LaSell’s, in business for eons, began to lose ground to the larger markets. Shoe stores, I can recall like Karl’s, Kirby’s, Buster Brown, men’s stores which also carried shoes, also began to lose ground to those at the shopping center.

Some of the finest clothing anywhere was sold in Martinez. I can recall about four or five menswear stores, and several shops for women, all doing very well until the mid to late-50s.

Then, there were the drug stores, all on Main Street. There were five at one time, all doing very well. As a student, I worked at one for a couple years. Suddenly there were none downtown.The same for supermarkets. Several, including Safeway, all downtown close to the population center at that time

Needed a new or used car? Martinez had six dealers selling major brands in those days. And, there were repair garages in each of them. They, too, were pulled away to be closer to the increasing populations.

Legal advertising has been a revenue producer for the Gazette for many decades because it was named as the ‘county paper’ by decree, a newspaper of ‘general circulation’. That business continues to the present, with Barbara Cetko being the staff member responsible for the very precise requirements of the legal world. She has done a superb job for the past 37 years.

COLUMN 1 will continue until the final edition on December 29, with more bits and pieces about the past of Martinez and the Gazette.

CHEERS for our faithful readers and contributors who have voiced their concerns and regrets over losing a local newspaper, one that has lasted 161 years serving the community.

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