Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Kai Sanson takes you to a beach where the surf rolls in slowly. He has a key to the gate; the security guards know him. Even on a Saturday morning, there are no more than five or six surfers on the half-mile-wide beach. He walks with you down to the water, tells you how to assess the scene and advises you to wait until the sea calms before you venture out, one arm stretched to its limit around a long foam board.
"You want to be cool," he says. "Surfing is all about cool."
Then he laughs, and you know he's kidding.
You might feel a little guilty here, knowing that people have worked hard to secure access to the coastline for everyone. Now may be the time, though, to suppress your egalitarian ethics, because it's a lot easier to learn to surf when you've eliminated some of the threats you find at the gentler public beach breaks, like 19-year-olds on sharp-edged shortboards who've been up all night on acid.
It's also easier for Sanson to line you up in the perfect spot, tell you when to paddle like hell and give you a little push if you fall behind. The rush of speed and force of that first wave under your body defeats any lingering terror you might have of the water. You suddenly realize what it means, exactly, to be on a surfboard. And when the time comes that you must choose and time your own sets — and, naturally, you get thrown head first off your board by a wave crashing into your back — you'll discover when you finally pop up that Sanson has been keeping a close eye on you, counting the number of seconds you were pinned under.
Everyone who's ever hung out a surfing-instructor shingle claims to specialize in beginners who fear big water, because, in fact, most people who live in Southern California want to surf but don't for fear of big water or sharks. And while avoiding the water for fear of sharks is a little like avoiding elevators for fear of earthquakes, waves you can come to understand. That's where Sanson excels: He can tell you why that little push-up on the board helps you over the white water as you paddle out; he can explain what makes the waves break neatly in this perfect spot just to the right of the rocks. Pretty soon you realize it's not just the ocean you have to understand, but yourself: It's not the water that's making your board feel tippy, it's where you put your feet.
Sanson can talk about other things, too, like energy politics and European cities. This is good, because unless you hit a magical day with perfect 3-foot sets rolling in from the west every five minutes, surfing is 80 percent sitting on your board, looking out to sea. "And now, we wait," is the way Sanson puts it. Ask him about his veggie-oil truck.—Judith Lewis
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
By the time I coasted my ailing new Beetle down Abbot Kinney Boulevard to Wabbit Wepair, my dashboard was lit up with more warnings than a tilted pinball machine. Punching my accelerator to the floor gained me roughly 10 mph per half-mile, despite my having just paid $1,073.49 to a well-meaning mechanic who'd ignored my request for a new fuel filter and installed a new intercooler on the advice of a "scan code" from a diagnostic computer. My front-end grill had been dragging so long that I'd pulled it off and put it in the back seat. I was not in a good mood.
"I think it needs a new fuel filter," I told Wabbit Wepair's Wayne Pernell as I got out of the car. "I switch back and forth between bio- and dino-diesel, and sometimes the petroleum residue can clog the filter."
"Sure," he said. "That sounds reasonable. We'll try that. You know, Occam's razor."
I nearly swooned with joy.
It's not just that I want someone fixing my car who agrees with 14th-century logician William Occam, who posited that the simplest solution is often the best. It's that I want someone fixing my car who assumes I know such things, too (and doesn't scold me about the fuel I use). Wayne, the shop manager, and his boss, Kent Bush Clemens ("as in Samuel Langhorne," he says), treat their clients like intelligent beings; they listen, they investigate and then they call you up to see whether you agree that whatever needs to be done is worth the cost. They don't replace stuff just because a dumb light says they should. They use the computers, but they use their brains, too.
"A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself," Robert Pirsig wrote in The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my favorite books of the past 40 years. I like to think of a skilled mechanic as a scholar of quality, Pirsig-style. And I like to think of the guys at Wabbit Wepair, who have the machismo to answer the phone "Wabbit!" without shame, as quality-sensitive mechanics, tuning their ears to the music of engines, adjusting, calibrating and tightening until everything hums like it should. Maybe they even check in the end to see whether the computer agrees.
Having a good mechanic benefits one's self-esteem. A few weeks after I drove my freshly peppy Beetle out of Wabbit's lot, I decided I wanted my car to look as good as it ran, and when Wayne called me with a price on a new front grill, I was sold. He ordered it unpainted and got his "body guy" to match my green paint. Then he salvaged my old fog lights. When I picked up the car, he showed me how to turn my fog lights on. And here I thought I knew everything.—Judith Lewis
It's a distinction that enthusiasts will probably quibble with — each comic freak is convinced that his genre of choice features the "finest" "art" (well, maybe not manga obsessives, who surely must acknowledge that the majority of its practitioners employ a lesser, more regimented pictorial delivery system) — but for our money, Family on Fairfax is the best place to take aforementioned dismissive literature professors (and snobby art critics) to argue your point that graphic narrative is an equal form of storytelling to nonpictorial fiction. Browse the shop and you'll soon be convinced that the art's most important creators deserve as much critical attention and celebration (and museum shows) as painters, photographers and sculptors. A roundabout way of saying that, aesthetically, Family Bookstore's keen eye will blow you away. Family opened in early 2007 as a little literary bookstore that treated classic literature, new fiction, comics and experimental music with wonderful equanimity.
Owned by David Kramer and Sammy Harkham, the shop is obviously the product of a few highly discriminating minds. Harkham, in fact, is one of the most celebrated new brains in the fancy comics world; in his Kafkaesque studio above the shop, he creates the exquisitely rendered comic Crickets, about a man peppered with arrows traveling through the forest with a compadre: a silent, hulking Golem. He also creates the jaw-droppingly beautiful Kramers Ergot, a somewhat annual compendium of comic art whose forthcoming seventh issue will be a huge 16 by 21 inches, the same broadsheet dimension of early-20th-century newspapers.
"A book that size is kind of insane," acknowledges Harkham, but he realized, after he started thinking about it, that to offer such a broad canvas to artists used to working with less space would be a great gift, and could yield amazing results. "Even artists you might be familiar with would feel a little different. And when I started thinking about that large size, I realized that I could ask back people I'd used before, and I could ask a whole bunch of artists that I've never asked because I never thought they needed to be in an anthology — people like Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine — but they'll look completely fresh." Also included is new work by, among others, Matt Groening, Kevin Huizenga, Chris Ware, Paperrad and Dan Zettwoch.
You can find a lot of the artists represented in the book at Family, but the shop isn't a place for completists. It's for those looking to snag the cream of the crop, both nationally and internationally. Even better, Family stocks the work of some of L.A.'s most interesting aesthetes; recent gems include a collection of director Mike Mills' Fireworks drawings; the new comic by filmmaker Michel Gondry, We Lost the War but Not the Battle; Miranda July's art and writing; Ron Rege, Jr.'s precisely drawn joy; and beautiful limited-edition records by the Sads, No Age and the great Teenage Teardrops label.—Randall Roberts
If cats were to design their own hospital, it would be the Westside Hospital for Cats. As the name implies, the state-of-the-art, full-service feline-health center is "cats only," so that the cats don't get stressed by the presence of lesser species, like dogs, parakeets, turtles, fish, lizards, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, mice, snakes, ferrets and pretty much every other living creature. And, it is as it should be.
My cats Gerbil and Marmot have been coming here for years, even before owner Elyse Kent and her staff moved into Westside's sparkling new offices on Cotner Avenue (business is good, apparently, in the cat health care industry). Is it disturbing that my cats get better medical care than I do? Kind of. But the friendly ladies at the check-in counter greet each cat by name, and no one, but no one knows his way around a yowling calico better than veterinary technician Oscar Calderon, whose kung-fu grip wrangles even the feistiest of kitties.
If your cat needs an echocardiogram, an endoscopy, a neurology consult, surgery or chemotherapy (God forbid), or falls victim to any number of ailments, this place has you covered. With cats, as with humans, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this place is ideal for vaccinations, microchipping, annual wellness exams and dental cleanings. And, if your cat permits you a vacation and needs somewhere to crash while you are away, the hospital has a gorgeous array of luxury boarding facilities with no creepy hidden backrooms.
If your cat is into that sort of thing, Westside Hospital for Cats also does the full range of spa grooming options — brush outs, ear cleanings, nail trimming, oatmeal baths, vinyl nail caps, as well as lion cuts and custom shaves.
You might want to look into those brochures on cat health insurance while you're there, because none of this comes cheap. Where Her Majesty the High Priestess of Fluffiness is concerned, it never does.—Gendy Alimurung
In addition to having the best comic-store name, one that captures the mysterious allure of the comics underworld and the warped brains that inhabit it, Secret Headquarters at Sunset Junction is a mighty little store that manages to fit a surprisingly deep catalog into its compact confines. It opened in 2005 with the goal of scratching many diverse itches rather than, in co-owner Dave Pifer's words, sticking with "the narrow nerd world." It's a clean, well-lighted place for the true headz, with two comfy chairs for slouching into while contemplating possible purchases. Whether you're gunning for the hottest superhero titles ("It's what pays our bills," says Pifer), the classics (up-to-date volumes in the ongoing Complete Peanuts reissue series, and both volumes of Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland in full-size Sunday reprints), or the cream of the fantastical tales (the weirdly brilliant Fables series), Secret Headquarters will lighten your wallet with ease. Its new-release wall features the latest DC and Marvel volumes, a lot of the recent Ignatz Awards nominees (I bought Ted May's fantastic Injury series last time I was here) and, best, a lot of titles that I've never seen before. Secret Headquarters is the kind of place that, regardless of your subgenre predilections, you can walk in with a twenty and leave with something or three that'll get you through the night.—Randall Roberts
I was fighting a weight machine in the Hollywood Bally's when my cell phone vibrated. It was a man from a big-chain tire shop, but not the guy I'd left my car with 20 minutes ago. That first guy, Joe, had been all about the tires, which made sense, since I had left my car there to replace my original set. But this other man interrupted my workout in a confidential voice to speak about something that was far more important, even, than the lifetime side-puncture warranty Joe had tried to sell me — my front struts. These, he insisted, were only minutes away from disintegrating. The man assured me he could replace them — for around $1,100 — even as I continued my struggle with the Abdominal Snowman. The choice was mine — he was only concerned about my safety. He let that last part sink in, the way a kidnapper does during that all-important first call: We've got your Jetta, Mr. Mikulan. What you do is up to you. I just wouldn't want anything to ... happen to your car.
I never make snap decisions involving more than $50. The struts would have to wait, I said, until next payday — my standard leave-me-alone line. My caller offered a line of credit. Interest free. He was — had he mentioned this? — thinking of my safety. Eventually the man realized I wasn't going to cough up more money today and told me my car was ready for pickup.
Only chumps heed the warnings of auto-repair chain outlets, shops that sucker you in with a $25 oil-change coupon, then suddenly find you need a new transmission. But they have your car, and their skilled hostage negotiators can make even the most far-fetched doom forecast sound credible. Six years ago, this company's chief rival in the tire-chain world gave my car an equally bad bill of health (also remediable for $1,100), when I arrived to pick it up after a $25 oil change.
Chain outlets are a reasonable repair alternative to dealerships and are often convenient to your work or gym. But nothing beats a local mechanic, preferably one within walking distance of your home. Donny Wong's Far East Auto Service occupies a tiny, grimy structure near Dodger Stadium and has been a godsend to budget-minded car owners in the area since the 1980s. Donny looked over my car's struts and found the chain shop's warnings groundless — as he had the rival's alarms six years before. Time and time again, I've brought my cars to Far East, convinced by a chain mechanic or by my own paranoia that something was expensively wrong, only to have Donny work some folk magic and fix it for a fraction of the cost — sometimes for free.
People love Donny, a native of Vietnam, because over the years he gets to know your car and develops an empathy for it as though it were one of your kids. He'll excitedly show you the carbon buildup on every spark plug he replaces and point out exactly where a fan belt is wearing down. He doesn't need to look up your old work orders on a computer to remember your car's moods and tics — they're all in his head. Donny's meticulous attention comes at a price, though: If you let changing your car's oil slide for too long, he's all over you like a traffic cop — or your kid's dentist.—Steven Mikulan
Holy cheese, the world is an amazing and horrifying place, and the proof lies in big cardboard boxes in Mark Kologi's photo stall at the labyrinthine Melrose Trading Post. Here are countless examples of the Freak Parade that is the human race. Each box is filled with thousands of little photographic moments, snapshots that depict not only a person or people smiling (or crying, or glaring), but contextual tidbits — a revealing Streisand poster on a back wall, dying roses by the side of the bed, a wine stain on a white carpet, a crumb of food on a bottom lip — that pose more questions than they answer. Our favorite is the shot of newlyweds toasting directly below a wall-hung (and upside-down) horseshoe — a relationship cursed from the start, and captured on film. Or the Gerhard Richter–esque blurred image of a red-lipsticked, bouffant-wearing woman posing in front of a battleship. Or the muted mis-shot of a woman's green high-heels on lush blue carpet, which could be a lost William Eggleston.
"As soon as a picture leaves its family, it becomes a whole different thing. It becomes art," Kologi says. The affable collector of lost souls clearly loves his job, giggling as you purchase quirky portraits (two-for-a-buck!), unintentional still lifes and suitable-for-framing 4-by-5 landscapes. He sells a lot of his product to artists and writers looking for images and ideas, and has another 50,000 in storage, images "that don't have that rock & roll to them, that are just general Americana."
On any given Sunday, Kologi's booth is a great place to bond with entertaining strangers. The people who dig through these boxes are a special breed, those who prefer that the people-watching fun include ghosts. A writer himself, Kologi feeds his supply from estate sales and says that much of his bounty is due to "deaths, divorces and imprisonments," a fact that tempers each oddball image with a certain melancholy. So happy ... so alive ... so unincarcerated.—Randall Roberts