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Shoppers Flee Fire, Fear Grips Merchants : Studio City: Hundreds stare at wreckage of destroyed and damaged stores and murmurs about arson are heard.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A fortune in guitars and a neighborhood atmosphere went up in smoke Wednesday in Studio City, leaving an aftermath of blackened ruins and baffled suspicion.

The day began like any other in the strip just west of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, with shoppers roaming the quaint storefronts and diners crammed into delis. Moviegoers took in a matinee of “The Russia House.”

The fire brought smoke and screams. Families with small children ran and frightened pedestrians rushed into restaurants. Shoppers coughed in the smoke. Overheated windows in burning buildings exploded glass into the street.

Employees of a nearby supermarket scrambled onto their roof, one with a fire extinguisher, another with a camera.

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When it was over, hundreds of people stared at the wreckage of destroyed and damaged stores, whispering rumors about firebombs and arson and gasoline cans.

Al Carness, co-owner of Valley Arts Guitars, lamented the loss of approximately 400 guitars that he said were worth about $600,000. Many of them were custom made for well-known musicians, he said.

He was able to save only one guitar--a Les Paul model signed by many famous studio players.

Other than that, “We lost everything up there,” said Mark Simon, the store’s purchasing manager. “We didn’t have time to save anything. The smoke just started pouring in. We had to save ourselves.”

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As he talked with an insurance adjuster, Carness said he was not sure when the store would reopen. He said he will spend the next couple of days counting inventory.

“Counting melted picks,” said his wife, Fern.

“I feel all right about it,” Carness said. “I’ve had lots of ups and downs. We can always rebuild and no one was hurt.” He pinched the bridge of his nose as if to stop himself from crying.

As the cleanup began, many pedestrians, apparently content that the trouble had passed, resumed shopping and eating. But some merchants and shoppers, and residents who live around the strip, wondered who could have brought this havoc on one of the last neighborhood-oriented strips on busy Ventura Boulevard.

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“You know what really scares me?” asked Claire Heimler of Hollywood, an onlooker who had been on her way to an after-Christmas sale at Strouds Linen Warehouse, one of the stores destroyed.

“I keep looking in the faces of people who are passing by, trying to figure out who did it. I mean, I would guess that the person would have stayed here. Who would do something like this and not stay to see it?”

Heimler said she has been shopping on the strip for about 32 years, “when half the stores that are here now weren’t here.” She said she enjoyed the quaintness and hospitality of the area.

“I’ll still keep coming here, but it’s a little scary,” she said.

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Some expressed anger. Larry Foster, 47, a hotel designer who lives around the corner from the stores, said he was pruning roses in his front yard when he saw the flames above Strouds.

“This is such a quiet neighborhood, but it’s changing, and this causes me a lot of concern,” said Foster, who has lived in his house for 10 years. “Now there’s lots of graffiti and homeless walking around. This fire doesn’t make me want to move. I guess something like this could have happened on Rodeo Drive.

“But it does make you think. L.A has sure changed.”

Angela Schmeltzer, 17, a waitress at Weby’s Dely and Bakery, located across the street from the fire scene, said she was frightened.

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“This makes me more scared, and people are getting paranoid around here,” she said. A nearby newsstand had been robbed the day before, she said, “and folks around here don’t know what’s going to happen. If this can happen in the daytime, then anything can.”

The concerns of other onlookers were more personal. Susan Genelin, an artist and activist with the Sierra Club, anxiously craned her neck in the direction of Mrs. Fields Cookies, hoping to see her 18-year-old daughter, who works at the store.

“I was driving along the Hollywood Freeway when I heard about the fire,” she said. “At first, I thought it was in Fryman Canyon, which the Sierra Club has fought very hard to save, and I was terrified. Then I heard it was on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, and I was even more scared because of my daughter.”

Genelin later learned from a firefighter that no one in the cookie store had been injured. “He said that’s everything’s OK, and that’s good enough for me,” she said.

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“But this is so unsettling. Everyone will be scared to come down here now.”

Staff Writer Michael Connelly contributed to this story.

STUDIO CITY FIRES

1) 11:30 a.m.: Fire breaks out at 12555 Ventura Blvd., damaging Bed, Bath & Beyond.

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2) 12:07 p.m.: Second fire breaks out at 12160 Ventura Blvd., destroying Pier One Imports.

Also damaged:

Valley Arts Guitar Center, 12162 Ventura Blvd.

Lamb Realty, 12164 Ventura Blvd.

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3) 12:07 p.m.: Thirty seconds later a third fire breaks out at 12100 Ventura Blvd. destroying Strouds Linen Warehouse.

Also damaged:

AT&T; Phone Center, 12112 Ventura Blvd.


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