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Tensions, Bargains Share Space at Indoor Swap Meets : Bazaars: Businesses that survived riots are prospering. But some say they sell shoddy goods and stir racial strife.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A little more than two months after scores of indoor swap meets--the bargain basements of shopping-poor inner-city Los Angeles--were torched in civil unrest, the survivors among the Korean-style bazaars are enjoying a resurgence.

Faced with even fewer shopping alternatives than before the riots, South Los Angeles residents are flocking to the biggest of the swap meets, whose vast interiors are partitioned into honeycombs of booths offering apparel, food, electronic goods and other items.

And a post-riot entrepreneurial fervor has everyone from gang members to housewives querying swap meet operators about starting small businesses.

Still, even as swap meets attract more visibility--including recent visits by Mayor Tom Bradley and celebrities such as rapper Ice-T and singer Nancy Wilson--they find themselves struggling to overcome controversy.

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Community leaders, some city officials and even a few swap meet patrons say that some of the swap meets sell shoddy goods, contribute to urban blight and become flash points for racial conflict without creating many new jobs.

“The very name swap meet suggests a lower grade” of retailing, said Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has received many complaints from his South Los Angeles constituents about rude vendors, cheap merchandise and landlords who skimp on building maintenance. “Some swap meet owners make the efforts to be good citizens, but I’m not sure that is true for the majority,” he said.

In the fury of the Los Angeles riots, indoor swap meets--introduced in the mid-1980s by immigrants seeking to duplicate the popular shi jang, or discount markets, of Korea--were among the hardest-hit businesses.

Korean-American leaders estimate that more than three-quarters of Southern California’s 150 indoor swap meets--mostly small and medium-sized outlets--were torched during the four days of riots that destroyed more than 500 buildings and left at least 45 people dead.

Gloria Sosa, a 39-year-old Honduran immigrant who lost $10,000 in inventory when rioters torched the swap meet housing her clothing boutique, sought refuge at a huge bazaar called Shoppers World. Housed in a fortress-like former Thrifty drugstore warehouse, Shoppers World survived the unrest with the aid of two dozen armed guards and a metal detector.

“This location is much better,” Sosa said of the 250,000-square-foot building near La Brea Avenue and Exposition Boulevard. “It’s big. It’s got security.”

Indeed, some experts, including Edward Chang, an ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside, say indoor swap meets “are little different from shopping malls.” Many have filled the empty buildings--and shopping voids--left with the departure of such retailers as Sears or Thrifty.

Nevertheless, “swap meets were very visible victims of the riots. They have come to be viewed as symbols of Korean-Americans’ success . . . and there’s resentment about that,” Chang said.

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The city’s most successful indoor swap meet--the 120,000-square-foot L.A. Slauson Swapmeet in South Los Angeles--has been working hard to change attitudes since being boycotted by disgruntled consumers several years ago. Owner Michael Yoon says he donates thousands of dollars to charity and sponsors more than a dozen community events.

But lingering tensions recently prompted Yoon to run an unusual series of full-page advertisements in the black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel promising more sensitivity to customers.

One ad said: “Perhaps we held too fast to our old ways far too long and isolated those whose communities we shared. Now the fiery torch of rebellion has touched us all, and only the building of a true brotherhood will cool the flames.”

The swap meets also have stirred concern at City Hall. In May, Los Angeles City Council members approved an ordinance that requires riot-damaged swap meets to undergo the same kind of public hearing process required of liquor stores and gun dealers before they can reopen.

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Located throughout Southern California but concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods, indoor swap meets are a colorful polyglot of commerce that attract throngs of bargain hunters.

In South Los Angeles, predominantly black and Latino patrons browse at booths run mostly by Korean-Americans. The booming sounds of rap music meld with the aroma of snack foods and the vibrant colors of children’s toys and trendy urban apparel.

The appeal is price.

Indoor swap meets can house as many as half a dozen competing jewelers or a similar number of other specialty shops. The cutthroat competition often leaves vendors and landlords with little money to create jobs or improve facilities.

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The competition also upsets traditional retailers.

Chun Young Cho, owner of the Inglewood Department Store swap meet, filed a lawsuit to force the city of Pasadena to allow him to open an indoor swap meet in an old Thrifty drugstore on Fair Oaks Avenue. In an interview, he attributed community resistance to discrimination.

Testifying in the court case, James Hall, chairman of the Fair Oaks Project Area Committee, denied that the ethnic backgrounds of the merchants had anything to do with his objections. Hall complained that Cho’s swap meet would “downgrade the quality of the stores” in the area and make “it even more difficult to bring (in) quality merchants.”

The racial fireworks confound many indoor swap meet owners and vendors, many of whom work 60 to 70 hours a week. “I try to be good to my customers,” said Moon Kuk Kim, a jeweler in the Compton Fashion Center, a swap meet at a former Sears store. “But learning (American) customs and habits is not easy.”

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Kim said many of his young customers are discourteous. “I’m Korean, so I give great deference to persons that are older than me,” he said through an interpreter. But some of his patrons “use a lot of slang and obscenities and say things like ‘you Korean bastard,’ ” he said.

L.A. Slauson Swapmeet owner Yoon emigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1973 and worked odd jobs in restaurants for years before starting his own business. He thinks many Americans unfairly stereotype Korean-Americans as wealthy entrepreneurs who get financial breaks unavailable to others.

“In the beginning, I clothed my own daughter with secondhand clothes I bought at outdoor swap meets,” Yoon said through an interpreter. “I think sometimes people don’t understand how hard we struggle. (Such) lack of understanding causes conflict. . . . That’s the tragedy for Korean-American immigrants.”

But vendors of other ethnic backgrounds say they encounter little or no conflict.

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“You have to let people feel like you appreciate their business,” said Ali Yassine, a Lebanese immigrant who runs a clothing shop in the Inglewood Department Store. Unlike many of his Asian competitors who rely on relatives for help, Yassine hires local youths, he said. One is his current employee, Danielle Hays, an energetic black 18-year-old who worked at a nearby shopping mall until she was laid off.

Despite the controversy, indoor swap meets are pioneering a new kind of retailing that is beginning to draw the attention of other merchants.

“Swap meets are an outgrowth of the informal economy . . . (but) they definitely are having an impact on traditional stores,” said Ivan Light, a UCLA sociology professor who has written extensively about Korean-American entrepreneurs.

Resourceful vendors, who invest as little at $15,000 for a small handicrafts shop or as much as $100,000 for a jewelry store or athletic shoe shop, are learning to quickly bring to market popular, trendy products and services at low prices.

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One such vendors is K. H. Kim, who has an embroidery shop in the L.A. Slauson Swapmeet. Using high-tech computer design software, Kim instructs his automated sewing machine to custom monogram hats, jackets and other apparel on the spot. His work, he said, is especially popular among rappers such as Ice-T.

At Shoppers World, Sosa draws customers fond of abejitas, colorful dresses for toddlers that are hard to find in traditional department stores but are popular among Latinos.

The specialty items and rock-bottom prices draw customers from as far as San Diego and Las Vegas.

Spencer Straughter, 26, said he drives in once or twice a month from Las Vegas to shop at Los Angeles indoor swap meets. Inside the L.A. Slauson Swapmeet, he shows off his latest purchase: a pair of high-top black boots he says he bought for $32--one-third their price in department stores.

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Still, many critics fault indoor swap meets for their limited products and poor or nonexistent customer service or exchange policies.

“As a consumer, you have to be concerned about quality and the ability to bring items back,” said Leopold Ray, the general manager of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, who recently met with officials of Shoppers World to check out his swap meet competition.

In the wake of criticism, Shoppers World has been trying to create a more upscale environment.

“We want to be the incubator for a new class of entrepreneur,” said owner Allan Davidov, who says he and co-owner Michael Katz have spent $5 million refurbishing the building. “We are trying to get diversity here.”

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By offering leases as low as $400 a month for 200 square feet and spending as much as $50,000 a month on advertising, Davidov said, he has attracted 152 vendors, 24% of whom are African-American and 12% of whom are Latino.

Still, even the best-run indoor swap meets can find it difficult to lure consumers who felt they were treated poorly in the industry’s less enlightened days.

“I’m not particularly fond of the swap meets,” said Barbara J. Stanton, executive director of the Entrepreneur Educational Center in Los Angeles. “They treat you like a suspect instead of a customer.”

Linda Hughes, director of the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s dispute resolution center, said clashes at indoor swap meets make up less than a dozen of the 800 complaints her office gets each year. But the arguments, she said, are among the most exasperating to resolve.

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“I think the majority of Asian merchants are doing a fairly good job of respecting and being courteous to customers, but it’s hard to communicate with them once a disagreement occurs,” Hughes said. “They have to feel they can trust you.”

The center, which does not disclose the names of disputants, is mediating an argument between a black swap meet vendor who was evicted by his Asian-American landlord. The landlord alleged that the merchant played music at his stand so loud that it offended others, Hughes said. The vendor has found new quarters but wants his old landlord to refund a $950 deposit.

In another case, a group of Korean-American vendors said their swap meet’s mostly black security force temporarily confined a Korean-American child while the guards were trying to quell a melee in the facility. The guards, who said they were trying to keep the child from harm, were fired after the incident, Hughes said.

“There is a greater atmosphere of (racial) tension these days,” said Edward Paik, a retired Korean-American businessman who helps the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in mediating disputes. “Things are quite explosive.”

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That is only too apparent to real estate investor Joon H. Lee. For two years, he searched for a retailer to fill the space left vacant in his South Los Angeles shopping center by an abandoned Thrifty drugstore. Three years ago, he turned the building into an indoor swap meet.

Today, after thousands of dollars in renovations, the building stands empty again--the victim of arsonists who tried four times to burn the 20,000-square-foot facility to the ground during the riots. A sprinkler system saved the building, but not its contents.

“I don’t see the reason why they want to destroy a swap meet,” said Lee, president of Root III Corp. “It’s not like a liquor store or something. It doesn’t have a bad impact on the neighborhood.”


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