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NEIGHBORHOOD SHOPPING : Olvera Street: The Flavors of Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back before the ubiquitous suburban shopping center was a twinkle in some developer’s eye, before one-day sales and mall Muzak, historic Olvera Street was tempting the pocketbooks of area shoppers.

But nowadays, the 61-year-old Mexican-flavored marketplace is perhaps better known for its cultural significance--it’s part of the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles park that marks where Los Angeles was founded in 1781.

Olvera Street is indeed a marketplace. And the shopping there has never been better as the merchants strive to practice modern merchandising and display techniques.

There are still plenty of cheap plastic toys to tempt the kids. And schlocky souvenirs. And Lakers/Dodgers/Raiders T-shirts. And plaster Ninja Turtle statues. Don’t expect climate-controlled comfort in this open-air attraction, and the crowds can be thick on weekends and during special events, such as the Las Posadas Christmas procession scheduled nightly Dec. 16 through Dec. 24.

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But an afternoon spent poking around the old shops and colorful puestos (booths) can turn up something for virtually every member of the family, including a wealth of ethnic clothing for children and adults, Mexican sandals, leather jackets, curios, folk art, fancy candles, specialized cooking utensils and even refrigerator magnets shaped like tamales.

Add to that some good food and historic information about the early days of Los Angeles and a few hours of pleasant shopping are assured.

The street, for walking only, is a converted alley between Main Street and Alameda in downtown Los Angeles. Macy Street borders it on the north and a historic plaza forms the southern border.

Parking lots surround Olvera Street, on Alameda, Main and Arcadia streets. Metro Plaza, at the corner of Main and Macy, is $3 per day for secured parking. Terminal Annex on Alameda is $2.75 for a full day, but without security services. The area is a popular holiday shopping area, but tends to be least crowded on weekdays and weekend mornings.

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Visiting Olvera Street is much like a trip to Mexico without the foreign language prerequisite. Despite its distance from the border, the prices remain surprisingly low as merchants maintain a healthy spirit of competition with each other.

Hand-embroidered and lace-bedecked dresses for children are seldom more than $20 and frequently hover closer to $10. Colorful blankets can be had for as little as $15. Traditional huarache leather sandals run less than $25 for adult sizes, less than $10 for children’s sizes.

A variety of folk art can be found in several shops on the one-time alley at prices that are much lower than those in trendy galleries and shops on Melrose and elsewhere. Merchants Jeanette Rondeau and Irma Gutierrez periodically bring Oaxacan artisans Arturo and Elvis Castillo to their Olvera Street puesto to carve and paint the wooden creatures for which the region has become famous.

“Melrose comes here to get ideas,” said Vivien Bonzo, owner of La Golondrina restaurant and president of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. “Some of the shops have gone Southwest, but most are mainly Mexican.”

A striking quilted jacket commissioned especially for one of the street’s clothing stores, Olverita’s Village, sells there for $99.99, but owner Martha Vasquez has spotted it being resold on Melrose for much more.

“We get people from Melrose Avenue” snapping up merchandise, Vasquez said. “Most of them double the price” when they resell it, she said with a laugh.

Getting a variety of merchandise that differs from store to store has always been a struggle for the merchants, Bonzo said. Merchants are constantly working to improve supply lines, and the merchants association has brought in experts to advise them on how to display their goods more attractively, she said.

One practice that does not travel up from the border is the sport of haggling over price, Bonzo said.

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“A lot of people think it’s fun to haggle, but the merchants hate that. They actually get their feelings hurt because they think their prices are as low as they can possibly be,” she said.

“What keeps the prices low is the merchants competing against each other,” Bonzo said. “I think the prices here are better than in Tijuana now because the merchants keep competing with each other.”

Olvera Street is popular with schoolchildren on field trips and tourists. But the local Latino community also maintains a fondness for the romanticized Mexican marketplace that was carved from a crime-infested alley in 1930.

“It’s the historical core of Mexican Los Angeles,” said Frank Cruz, president and executive director of the Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture, which is in formation and hopes to find a permanent home by next year.

“It’s an attractive area,” said Cruz, a former newsman who was an anchor at KNBC and general manager of KVEA. “It’s centrally located, easily accessible and well known to both Hispanics and non-Hispanics.”

“It’s almost like you can close your eyes for a minute and imagine that you’re in a plaza in Monterrey, Guadalajara or Guanajuato,” Cruz said.

Strong feelings about the area have been apparent during a 10-year battle over development and restoration of the historic street and surrounding plaza, which are now owned by the city. Tempers have flared publicly among Latino politicians over the issue and Chicano activists have joined in, fearing over-commercialization and a disruption of the area’s Mexican flavor.

To help get the stalled process moving again, the Los Angeles City Council approved the creation of a seven-member mayor-appointed board to govern the site. That community board still has not been appointed.

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Olvera Street: A Shopping Guide

Located in El Pueblo de Los Angeles park, between Main and Alameda in downtown Los Angeles, Olvera Street is open every day of the year, including holidays. Most shops open about 10 a.m. and close about 7 or 8 p.m., although some stretch their hours on weekends and during the Christmas season. Some shops close one weekday per week.

Parking lots surround Olvera Street, with rates ranging from $2.75 per day at the Terminal Annex parking lot to $10 per day at a city-owned lot at Arcadia and Main streets.

There are 78 shops at Olvera Street. Some have names but each has a number--W shops are on the west side of the block, C shops run down the center and E shops are on the east side. Some of the more unusual shops include:

* Casa de Sousa, W-19, (213) 626-7076. The store carries colorful folk art, including carved wooden animals from Oaxaca. Skeletons and other merchandise celebrating the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2) is evident here and at several other stores on the street. Dinnerware, glassware and ethnic cooking utensils also can be found here.

* Olverita’s Village, W-24, (213) 972-9105. This shop carries a wide range of typical ethnic dresses from Mexico as well other native wear for men and children. But the store also commissions U.S.-style clothing in ethnic fabrics. The shop’s offerings also include tapestries and dinnerware.

* Lisa’s Casa de Crystal, W-16, (213) 628-9684. Owner Luis Diaz and his son Albert create glass figures while the public watches. Necklaces that go for $2 each are big with schoolchildren. Glass figurines start at $3. The shop custom-designs glass cake toppers that are popular for weddings.

* Guadalajara Novelty Shop, E-19, (213) 622-0443. Eighty-seven-year-old Clara A. Ruiz and daughter Blanche G. Beltran sell miniatures and ethnic items in this densely packed shop.

* Casa California, W-10, (213) 972-9536. Religious articles and Nativity scenes from around the world can be found here. The store also carries a wide variety of kitschy plaster statues, curios, local souvenirs and even Mexican jumping beans when they are in season.

* Olvera Candle Shop, W-3, (213) 628-7833. Candles of all shapes, colors and sizes are this shop’s specialty, although Christmas ornaments, folk art and other gift items are also available.

* Gonzalez Candle Shop, W-14, (213) 625-8771. The store features a rainbow of candles that are still hand-poured by the sons of the shop’s founder, Francisco Gonzalez.

* Casa Suzanne, E-16, (213) 628-8508. This bright green shop started out as one of several mass-produced shelters for 1932 Olympic athletes. Relocated to Olvera Street, it now houses a variety of curios and a small collection of, believe it or not, Betty Boop merchandise, a favorite character of owner Belle Valadez’s daughter.

* Bazaar de Mexico, W-7, (213) 620-9782. You can find a $3.95 embroidered potholder from Guatemala or more expensive silver jewelry from Taxco, Mexico. Men’s shirts range from $11.95 to $25.95. An extensive collection of fans from Spain starts at $3.95.


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