WeHo Voices

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Hardware Man

In an era when Home Depot has driven many small hardware stores out of business, Koontz Hardware, in business in West Hollywood since 1938, is still successful. The store specializes in exotic and hard-to-find items. There are lots of housewares, too. Herb Dempsey, with the company for 26 years, lived through the fire of ’82 when the store was burned to the ground, and its temporary relocation in an old WWII bomb factory on Robertson while the current store was rebuilt.

"There was a drugstore on the corner where the bank is now, and a power tool company where the Rage is now. The Rage is still there, but the little businesses keep switching, they move in and out.

"I have no fault to find with the area," Dempsey says. "They’ve done quite a good job of planning and promoting the city. Like all governments, this one doesn’t please everybody — that’s not possible. It’s like the old saying, you can please some of the people some of the time . . .

"We’ve had to adapt, change some of our policies — that’s the way businesses are. You have to change with the times or you lose. We get a lot of positive comments from our customers. There was a sign the front of a store I used to work at, ‘Memory of quality remains long after the price is forgotten,’ and that’s the way this store works."

8914 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652-0123.

Wendy Brandow Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Art Dealer

Margo Leavin Gallery opened in 1970 on Robertson Boulevard and still operates at the same address. Alternating shows between established and up-’n’-coming artists, the gallery has shown and represented an impressive stable that includes John Baldessari, Tony Oursler, Roy Dowell, Alexis Smith, Cindy Bernard and Mungo Thomson. Wendy Brandow came to the gallery as an employee in 1976 and became a business partner in 1989.

Over the years, Brandow has watched the gallery map shift, converge and split: "When I first moved to Los Angeles, there were more galleries on North La Cienega and they all pretty much closed or moved. Patricia Faure and Rosamund Felsen were here, and Dan Weinberg was on Almont, which was taken over by Regen Projects in the ‘80s. There’s a whole new group of galleries on Melrose where there hadn’t been galleries before. A lot of people wanted to move downtown when MOCA opened, and another big move was to Santa Monica, which sorted out to Bergamot Station. The neighborhood keeps changing, but there have always been good galleries in West Hollywood. Now there’s the lower La Cienega group of younger galleries. I think practical economics have a lot to do with this. When galleries move in and improve areas, rents tend to go up and then you’re competing with restaurants and retail stores."

"There was a lot of effort made to bring focus and attract business into the city. That was successful to a large degree, with the opening of lots of clothing shops, restaurants and coffee houses. But the City of West Hollywood just about did everyone in with the two-year rebuilding of Santa Monica Boulevard. They placed all the utilities underground, but then they installed vertical city banners everywhere. They also fixed all the traffic lights so the traffic is always snarled, but it is more attractive. I miss Shatzky and Shapiro, one of the great old five and dimes, which was on the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard — an Internet café is there now. The tenor of the neighborhood has changed, now it’s all about eating and drinking."

The Margo Leavin Gallery, rather than being squeezed out by the changes, already owned most of the block, between Robertson and Hilldale, north of Santa Monica Boulevard. On the exterior of what was an extension of the main gallery for years, is one of Southern California’s most monumental public art pieces, a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, being choked off by jacaranda trees.

"After we substantially remodeled the galleries, the first show was a Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, Germano Celant and Frank Gehry collaboration in the Hilldale Gallery. It was props and models from The Course of the Knife performance in Venice, Italy. The show included a large knife slicing through a wall. We thought, wouldn’t this be great outdoors? It was commissioned and became a whole new work [Knife Slicing Through Wall, 1986]. That building, at one time a post office, was built, the story goes, by Merle Oberon. If you stand north on Hilldale and stare down, the knife lines up with the cut corners of green Pacific Design Center building. It’s an interesting juxtaposition."

812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603.

Luis Perez Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Shoemaker

It is nothing short of a small miracle that a business as old-fashioned as a shoe repair shop could remain open in an ever upwardly mobile neighborhood like West Hollywood. But Luis Perez, owner of Luis Shoe Repair, has slugged it out for 43 years. Ask him how changes over the 20 years since West Hollywood’s birth have threatened his business, and he’ll take you back even earlier, to the days of the once-imminent Beverly Hills Freeway — approved in 1965 and scheduled to begin construction in 1975. It would have connected the Hollywood Freeway from Vermont Avenue to the 405, replacing Santa Monica Boulevard.

"The freeway was supposed to come through and continue all the way through Beverly Hills, but Beverly Hills said no, so they canceled the plans. The property value increased when they dropped the plan to build the freeway. Then much later, in 1984, West Hollywood converts into a city. The street improvements look beautiful, but the two years of street construction affected my business badly. There are some good parts [to the improvements], but I miss the old ones. There used to be a Sterling Cleaners where the Sheriff’s station is now, and next door to me was a men’s clothing store with unique items they made themselves. There also used to be good shoe stores around, but they couldn’t pay the high rents and compete with department stores."

Even though the construction crews have left, the multimillion-dollar redevelopment and beautification of Santa Monica Boulevard is still a bone of contention for most merchants on the street. Years of construction led to underground utilities (no unsightly power lines!) and plant life on the median, but the same shortage of public parking. "My only complaint is there’s no regulation for restaurants to have parking," Luis says. "Then I have a problem with their customers in my parking lot. There are too many restaurants and coffeehouses in this area."

Of course, if people still wore proper footwear, the dining crowds might work in Luis’ favor: "When they started to make athletic shoes in leather, it was wonderful — those shoes were expensive. But later they found a way to go to Taiwan, then China. Now they sell the shoes so inexpensively people can wear them three or four months and then throw them away and get new ones. They killed the business for the penny loafer, and penny loafers were a good item for us to repair!

"Now we’re doing clothing alterations too. I still have some of my old regular customers, but the last 10 to 15 years, many people have moved away from here to Nevada, Utah or Texas. When their property values increased so high, they cashed in. It could be better business here, but I think everything is in decline. There are too many homeless all around. The rent is too high. There should be a law to base the rent on a percentage of the profit."

8929 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 276-4395.

Mark Simon Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Book Buyer

"Everybody always thought the Unicorn was a gay bookstore but it wasn’t," says book buyer Mark Simon. "It had a small gay section in the back, and The New York Times best-sellers and cookbooks in the front. I started working there in ’87, and when I became the buyer, the first thing I did was return all of the straight books. By then the gay books were the only ones selling.

"A Different Light Bookstore, which had opened in Silver Lake in ’79, was very successful, and I thought there should be a gay bookstore in West Hollywood. The Unicorn went from grossing $900 on a good day to averaging over $2,000 a day, which for a small business with two people on staff was decent money back then."

When the Unicorn was put up for sale in 1990, Simon considered buying it but found out that A Different Light had just signed a lease for a West Hollywood store, that day! Instead of competing, Simon was hired as A Different Light’s buyer, and saw the potential of the store as both a literary and community resource: "We carried all the new releases, but 73 percent of our sales were in backlisted books. We kept everything in stock, from queer theory to Willa Cather to Tennessee Williams. The store was a destination for tourists and scholars — the dream place to meet a boyfriend on a Friday night. The reading series was so tapped into local writers — that’s what kept it strong."

By 1992, the Unicorn had turned into a sex-toy store, and has now become Unicorn Alley. And with stores in San Francisco and New York, A Different Light, claiming financial pressures, decided to cut its losses in Silver Lake. "I thought the Silver Lake ADL store could be kept going, but the owners closed it in ’92 under much protest from the community. I left the West Hollywood store to work at Samuel French in October ’96, and it was still a great store. As it happens, ADL as we knew it went under in 2000. The original owners sold and it went ‘boutique.’ They just have pretty books and the current best-sellers, but not the extensive collection from the academic presses."

Simon and I pop by A Different Light to fact check and clock the low stock. "We had well over 10,000 active titles!" he exclaims. There’s a semblance of books on the shelves, but the main event is an upcoming appearance by the Carlson Twins, former Abercrombie and Fitch models who are, they say, "not gay, but we do appreciate our gay fans." According to the promo, "You can grate cheese on their abs!!"

Not that "gay for pay" is the only game in town. Just up the hill at Book Soup, J.T. Leroy was reading from his newest book, Harold’s End, followed by an AFI screening of Asia Argento’s adaptation of Leroy’s previous book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The much-hyped, young, gay literary icon drew everyone from Susan Dey to Carrie Fisher.

"All hasn’t been dispersed onto the Internet and to Barnes & Noble," Simon says. "There is still the need for gay bookstores. Even when the Boulevard was torn up and ADL was close to changing owners, David Sedaris did a reading, and there were hundreds of people standing five deep, pressing into the front window. I said come on, we obviously need a gay bookstore."

Sally Sirkin Lewis Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

The Design Guru

Sally Sirkin Lewis opened her first showroom on Melrose in 1972 by launching J. Robert Scott, a design firm largely credited for creating the international look that became known as California Design — the neutral colors and natural textures and materials that gave the world soothing rooms with woven straw-covered walls and big sofas covered in white cotton, suede or leather. Lewis strategically named the company after her three sons, Jeffrey, Robert and Scott: "In those days I was reticent," she says. "I didn’t want anyone to think this was a decorating studio. I was an established designer by that time, but it wasn’t the time yet for a woman to have her name up there."

The first challenge was to change midnight into sunlight: Her new location was formerly a hippie restaurant called the Black Rabbit Inn, and was painted solid black, inside and out. "It was a very exciting time. We were there before the Pacific Design Center, and no woman had ever run a showroom. Nor had they ever seen a showroom displayed like mine. I made room settings — vignettes separated with huge palm trees. Coming from Florida, this climate seemed tropical to me as well. People always said our showrooms were like an oasis, so serene."

Having worked in design since the early ’60s in New York City, Lewis describes the early-’70s design climate as provincial. "Everyone was into country French. Even before I made up my mind to open this showroom, I had some New York manufacturers urging me to take it on. I used to go into the existing showrooms on Robertson and ask, why don’t you carry this one? ‘Sally, you’re too sophisticated,’ they’d say. We were an instant success because we were something new. We had contemporary, but we also used tortoise shell, bone, animal skins. We had a beautiful collection of American Indian artifacts and contemporary paintings. I mixed antiquities right into the modern. I always had a softer edge; it wasn’t like looking at Herman Miller."

This approach apparently gelled with an initially reluctant Joni Mitchell, who went through a detailed account of Lewis’ work on her Bel-Air home in a 1976 issue of Architectural Digest, wherein she expressed dislike for the "decorated" look.

Lewis acknowledges that the City of West Hollywood has successfully promoted the area as the ultimate design center, and also the influx of younger designers, but laments other realities that came in the with ’80s: "We had a real core group of designers who were phenomenal, but unfortunately the AIDS epidemic has taken so many of them. And we lost so many of those great designers who came out of the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of the others have moved away or retired — 1972 was 32 years ago."

8737 Melrose Ave. (310) 680-4200.


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