Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Fairfax Avenue's tiny Ethiopian District gets a lot of press for its cafés and the very fact of its continuing survival just south of Mid-Wilshire's ever-expanding luxury housing, museums and eateries. Easy to miss in this tattered shopping district is one quirky store — part junk shop, part treasure hunt — that offers some of the best men's hat shopping in town. That's right, hats.
The Helping Hands Thrift Store sells a weird mix of air guns, menorahs, Judaic jewelry, cool furniture, albums and art, a mix that draws in film and TV prop buyers along with the typical shoppers looking for air guns and menorahs, etc. But it's the fantastic collection of more than 200 hats that makes it all worthwhile. If you have a big head, you may be in trouble, because the proprietor has an eye for older hats that were steamed and shaped 50 and 60 years ago, when, he insists, "heads were smaller." (Egos, certainly.)
This place is nothing like the gleaming but silly two-story Hall of Fame hat store several minutes north, in the 400 block of Fairfax Avenue, with its pricey fitted sports caps in "limited editions." If it's a new hat you want, head instead to Venice Boardwalk to the jam-packed, thousand-hatted Titanic, or zip up to Northridge for a nifty, outdoorsy hat from the tall wall of choices at Recreational Equipment Incorporated.
But if true style is a must, then check out the selection of headgear, including fedoras, skullcaps, cowboy hats, Homburgs (and for women, the veils, flapper hats and day-at-the-derby hats). They are in tiptop condition — and my guess is that at least one or two will lead you to the inevitable reach for the wallet and reward you with a jaunty new look.—N. Jenssen
Hardcore hikers and backpackers typically go to two places for expedition equipment: REI or Adventure 16. REI's stuff tends to be less expensive, but Adventure 16, particularly the larger West Los Angeles location, is the place to go if you want to talk to someone who really knows a Marmot sleeping bag from a North Face. And the last thing you want is to buy a $300 backpack and realize that it's not fitted correctly when you're in hour one of a 12-hour hike. Knowing how to properly fit a pack is the benchmark for a camping-supply salesperson.
"People get their packs refitted here after going to other stores," says Greg, a massively yoked young man who works at the West L.A. store. He can't count the number of times he's had to remeasure people's torsos after they'd been improperly fitted by the competition. Greg, whose home town in Montana manufactures the bear-repellent spray you see on the shelves, believes he does the most outside sports of all the employees — kayaking, mountain climbing, rafting, spelunking, you name it. Though there are, no doubt, colleagues who would take him to task for saying that; some employees have worked at A16 for more than 25 years, mainly because they love the adventure lifestyle and feed off the energy of the customers and their fellow staffers. Plus, it's a really good pickup spot for cute, outdoorsy girls and guys who've climbed K2.
The guts of the store are the backpacks, tents and hydration packs. But there is something for everyone, from birder journals and pine incense you burn in holders shaped like little log cabins to pristine, unfolded U.S. Geological Society topographical maps. Just being inside the store makes you want to go ford a river or walk the Appalachian Trail or something, anything, you know, outside. You can rent trekking poles, sleeping bags, tents and even bear canisters (for stashing food in — the idea being that the bear gets tired of trying to pry open the canister and leaves in a frustrated huff).
The sheer quantity of stuff to buy and learn can be overwhelming. What does the Vitalyte electrolye-replacement solution taste like? Which do you have to worry more about while hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains, bears or mountain lions? What is the tradeoff between price, comfort and lightness in the Osprey technical backpack? Chances are, someone at A16 can wax poetic on any of those subjects, and countless others. Or, to quote that Disneyfied outdoorswoman Pocahontas, "You'll learn things you never knew, you never knew."—Gendy Alimurung
It's a music retail ghost town, yes. We don't need to be reminded. Those were our jobs, and our expense accounts, and our backstage passes, that vanished along with the neighborhood record stores. Gone are Aron's, Sea Level and Tower, ashes to ashes, funk to funky. Last year the Virgin on Sunset bit the dust. It adds up, you know? Therefore: Amoeba of our heart. Yes, some have grumbled that the arrival of Amoeba nearly seven years ago was the big, brass nail that sealed the L.A. retail coffin because it sucked up so much business that our littler compadres couldn't possibly compete. But Amoeba drew the freaks because Amoeba knows its shit, and stocks it, and recommends it, and plays it. Walk in and it looks like one big mess. Start spending time there, though, and you begin to see the order, and realize that Amoeba's not one big-ass store but at least eight (nine? 10? 11?) little stores. A man could get lost in its international section. Not just the Best of Ethiopiques, but all 24 volumes. Not just Brazilian classics, but Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927-1929 (some of the most inspiring music you'll ever hear, btw). A dance shop with Villalobos white labels; a thick house section, ditto the hip-hop stacks. A punk shop. Classical and opera. Oh, the reggae vinyl, and the rock vinyl! The best soundtrack store in the country. And upstairs! Upstairs the DVDs! Don't get us started. A whole other celebration. It's downstairs we honor here. Amoeba: flip flip flip, snag, examine, caress, yoink!, play, bond, dance, fuck, nap, repeat.—Randall Roberts
Wendy Yao, local artist and den mother of L.A.'s burgeoning Chinatown scene, curates her store, Ooga Booga, with all the thought and precision of a carefully selected mixtape made for a longtime friend. Clothes and bags mingle with prints, books, zines and one-of-a-kind items. Sometimes there are actual mixtapes for sale from the likes of K Records impresario Calvin Johnson. The art openings and parties are the stuff of local legend, attracting musicians from the Smell and beyond who attempt to impress Ooga Booga's adorable resident cat with their grooves.—Molly Lambert
Everyone has their own favorite neighborhood thrift store, the name and location of which they guard with the close-lipped fervor of Allied operatives keeping state secrets from the Nazis. Each store specializes in merchandise subject to the individual whims of its proprietor. Aardvark's Odd Ark has long been the place to go for retro dresses, vintage skirts and plain, white button-up and pastel, ruffle-front prom tuxedo shirts. Jet Rag on La Brea Boulevard is alternately scorned and worshipped for its dense collection of overpriced, costume-y Jackie O. dresses and patterned, pointy-collared polyester '70s shirts. The Goodwill and Salvation Army stores are hit or miss, depending on the location and season. Some people swear by the clean but relatively expensive Council Thrift stores, run by the National Council of Jewish Women. Council Thrifts focus on used designer apparel and accessories. At the West L.A. locations, which include a brand-spanking-new one on Santa Monica Boulevard, it's not out of the question to spot a pair of Blahniks for 40 bucks, a Coach purse for a hundred.
Furniture-wise, Pepe's Thrifty Shop in Culver City is a tiny Dickensian vintage oasis. Barely bigger than a studio apartment, cane chairs and midcentury nightstands pile here atop antique credenzas, crowned by hanging chandeliers and sconces. You have to scoot sideways down the single looping aisle and be ready to pounce upon a desired item: Stuff here is value priced and moves fast.
The Lincoln Heights location of St. Vincent de Paul, however, is a different beast entirely. The Costco of thrift shops, it is all these stores rolled into one. Friendships have broken up over sharing the location of this no-longer-hidden spot. It's a sprawling, workmanlike place, 90,000 square feet, packed to the rafters, where on Sundays Mexican families shop for hours after church. You could furnish an entire house on the sheer glut of merchandise here, from armoires to wrought-iron bed frames. Men's, women's and children's clothes, mainly from the '80s and '90s, are so cheap (five pieces for $3 for the pink-tag items) you'll feel like you stole them. It is the home of the $9 file cabinet; the $10 pleated-shade lamp.
Recently, I spied a set of four wicker chairs that I'd swear were Breuers, for $59. Also: a midcentury lighted dressing table (minus the light, minus the mirror). An old Westinghouse freezer, the kind with a pull latch that kids get trapped in and suffocate, $399. A desultory flock of kids' bikes, $29 a pop, roosting by the exercise equipment. Every single hexagonal 1970s drum table has come for a stopover here on its way to hipster homes across the city.
There is a truly magnificent gallery of used electronics in the back, near the so very, very sad stuffed-toy table overwhelmed by crusty teddy bears and no-longer-purple Barney dolls. Wireless three-channel intercom for $3, anyone? Perhaps an Emerson clock-radio tape player, with the previous owner's "Island Tranquility" meditation tape still inside. While the women rove the dress aisles, the men slake their gadget lust here with Beta tape rewinders and $7.99 Hitachi rice cookers.
Tucked behind the freeway overpass on North Avenue 21 just short of downtown, it's invariably dingy and dusty in the store. Trucks heavy with new furniture come and go, belching exhaust fumes into the front docking zone. Loaded down with armfuls of cheap treasure, you'll crave a refreshing shower after a visit to St. Vincent de Paul's. For the stuff you can't haul home on your own, they now even have same-day delivery. But steer clear of the sofas. They are ghastly. And they always seem to have someone's overheated, sweaty octogenarian grandmother already sitting on them.—Gendy Alimurung
If you're in a hurry on a new-release Wednesday and don't have the time or desire to make the rounds to the many small suppliers that dot the city, Meltdown is your one-stop shop, the Amoeba of the L.A. comic scene. Walk in and drown in the colors that pour from each rack, the Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma" on the sound system, visuals bombarding. At Meltdown, each subgenre — underground, classic, graphic novel, superhero, manga, whatnot — is represented. Rejoice at the bounty of Tin Tin posters filling the west wall, and appreciate the depth of the employees' enthusiasm. The beautiful Chris Ware display in the back holds the artist's geometric work. An entire shelf is devoted to the Optic Nerve series by Adrian Tomine; another to the many moods of booty-loving Robert Crumb. Peruse the wildly successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer series in all its glory. All the Krazy Kat reissues are lined neatly in a row (drawn by the genius George Herriman, who spent his last days just up the road from Meltdown in the Hollywood Hills), a graphic affirmation that life is worth living.
But if that crap's too brainy for your sci-fi-loving ways, Meltdown also offers only-in-Hollywood temptations like an $18,000 limited-edition bronze Darth Vader statue, Clive Barker–approved Demon in the Blue Grass prints, all the DC, Dark Horse, Marvel and Vertigo comics you can put your French-fry-greased fingers on, and a very deep and imposing selection of Japanese manga. (Manga is a world in and of itself, and wise is the writer who admits his relative ignorance and moves along.) And, of course, all of L.A. Weekly's recurrent comic artists are represented: Lynda Barry's newest thrill, What It Is. The freako-surrealist Kaz strips, Tony Millionaire's boisterous Maakies series. There's even Meltdown University, a 13-week course in the craft of pictorial storytelling, so you, yes you, can be a major player (and soon thereafter, major chick magnet) in the glamorous world of comic art.—Randall Roberts