Best Of :: Shopping & Services
The happeningest place at any museum, aside from the courtyard coffee cart, is the gift shop. The one at MOCA in New York is almost as legendary as the museum itself. The shop at Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood has a stellar collection of whimsical toys and modern doodads, and I'd wager that only Amazon.com has a more extensive collection of artist monographs. A truly great museum gift shop both recapitulates the spirit of the museum and not-so-subtly commodifies the museum's oeuvre, giving those of us who aren't shopping at Sotheby's anytime soon the chance to take home a bit of the wonder we've experienced. You can't buy the Mona Lisa, but you can buy a Mona Lisa night-light.
Intensely curated, yet overwhelming in sheer quantity of stuff, the Huntington Library gift shop is as good as they come. Air conditioning cold enough to make a polar bear shiver blasts through the place, and it's as if you've walked into heaven itself after the hellish, landlocked heat of the gardens.
For the botanical set—and you guys are well represented here—there are rose journals, insect stationery, big floppy UV ray–blocking hats, water bottles, umbrellas, field guides to herbs and spices. For birders, try a plush toy Audubon bird that whistles a recording of its real song. For generalists, there are beaded bracelets, wrought silver necklaces, Edward Gorey cat and bat pendants arrayed in brightly lit Edwardian glass terrarium cases. Historians can peruse presidential biographies, maps, bundles of John Singer Sargent portrait post cards and William Morris–style artisan tiles.
For those who feel the need to memorialize the museum in its most literal sense, there is a great book, The Huntington Botanical Gardens 1905–1949, Personal Recollections of William Hertrich, written by the Huntington's head groundskeeper when he was a young landscape gardener just starting out there. "I purchased gopher traps and engaged a young intelligent Mexican to devote his entire time to this work," he writes in the chapter on Gophers and Squirrels. I went home with that book recently, as well as a small pink pamphlet on "A Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility" from the Jane Austen section, and an Arts and Crafts–style lantern.
"That's a beautiful way to remember it," said one woman to her friend, holding up a Zen rock-garden mousepad. They'd just been to the Japanese rock gardens section of the Huntington. And, hey, why not? With museum gift shops as with museums, one man's tacky is another man's art.—Gendy Alimurung
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