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Cover Story : The cure for mall withdrawal and boutique envy is just around the corner. The Valley is home to a number of . . . : Great Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the walls of several local malls came tumbling down in January, some Valleyites have been suffering from shopping envy. You know what that is: the conviction that there are people out there having more fun than you are because they can walk to the shabby chic boutiques of Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue or shop to satiety in South Coast Plaza. But not to worry. Although Northridge Fashion Center and other retail venues are still recovering from the quake, the San Fernando Valley remains home to a host of first-rate shops.

Here are eight of the best, from a choice gift shop in Studio City to a store in Burbank that gives new meaning to the term weird science . Some vast, some so tiny they could use traffic control, each offers something more for your money than the goods you walk out with. They are listed geographically, from west to east. Best to call for hours, especially during the holidays. And, Westsiders, eat your hearts out.

Pages Bookstore

What most distinguishes this Tarzana children’s bookstore from so many others is its staff. As owner Darlene Daniel explains (in a voice so soft she makes Mister Rogers sound like a fishmonger), Pages is staffed by former teachers and others with child-development backgrounds. Each is trained in-house to direct customers, large and small, to those books most likely to inform them, thrill them, comfort them--in short, do all the things that only books can do.

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How different is Pages from some discount stores? “When we go to recommend a book, many times we’ve read it,” says manager Marge Kassorla, who retired from teaching English at Millikin Middle School and Grant High School and often recognizes the names of former students on the checks they write to the shop.

Pages stocks more than 18,000 titles, everything from picture books to young adult titles, including fantasy and books dealing with sex and other issues. Daniel thinks it’s vital to provide teen-agers with books that will keep them reading for pleasure. “That’s a stage where it’s very easy to lose them from reading,” she says grimly.

Pages publishes a quarterly newsletter that recommends new titles and announces its story hours, signings by authors and illustrators, concerts and other activities. The staff can help you choose a year’s worth of books for a favorite young person, then wrap one up and send it off each month. And the store collects “wish lists” from local teachers and librarians so you can donate a book to the school on your child’s birthday or some other occasion. As Kassorla says, “It’s a nice alternative to cupcakes.”

Pages Books for Children and Young Adults, 18399 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.

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Gus’ Smoke Shop

This Sherman Oaks shop is a Valley institution. According to owner Jim Hurwitz, it has been in the same spot since 1927, making it the oldest business still on Ventura Boulevard. Gus’ is definitely a guy thing, filled with men staring like jack-lighted deer at sweet-scented boxes of Macanudos and other high-end cigars.

Hurwitz himself was a customer for 10 years before he bought the shop in 1985. Ever since, he has been riding the wave of the cigar’s remarkable resurgence. Gus’ doesn’t stock coffees or other stuff that will distract from a good smoke, which can cost $10. “Our philosophy is to smoke better, but fewer,” Hurwitz counsels.

Cohibas and other contraband Cuban cigars still have the most panache among aficionados, although Hurwitz warns that many smuggled into the United States are inferior knockoffs. Right now, premium cigars from the Dominican Republic are selling so well he can’t keep up with demand. Regulars (who include actors Joe Montegna and Joe Pesci) can season their cigars in lockers in Gus’ climate-controlled humidor. And on Oct. 1, the shop opened a private club next door, called the Back Room, where members can watch sports, play cards and, above all, “smoke in peace.” Annual membership: $500.

Gus’ Smoke Shop, 13420 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1401.

Star Restaurant Equipment and Supply

For a serious foodie, a restaurant supply store is a field of dreams. These are places where it is possible to imagine the pleasure of constructing a cassoulet without ever having to determine the precise nature of potted goose or even whether you can make it in an average lifetime. Instead you cruise the aisles, visions of rapid-fire mincing, precision dicing and doing unspeakable things with pastry bags dancing in your head.

Cooks feel about restaurant supply stores the way writers feel about stationers. But for the non-pro, the first hurdle may be getting through the door. Some of these places sell only to the trade. “Out! Out!” one of those exclusive proprietors yelled at an acquaintance when he confessed he had no restaurant affiliation and only made timbales on Sunday.

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The people at Star in Van Nuys won’t scream at you even if you’ve never worn a toque. Recently, for instance, Mickey Crocker emerged from the store bearing a brown plastic cocktail tray with a non-skid cork surface. An actress, Crocker remembered this kind of tray from her cocktail-waitressing days and had bought one for $12.55 to use when she serves hot chocolate while playing Mrs. Claus in a children’s musical called “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” in La Mirada.

As manager Les Birken explains, Star has been in the Valley for more than 30 years. The store stocks or can order everything a restaurant or home cook needs, from professional stoves to sink-size salad bowls. Star has plastic cafeteria trays, $500 hot dog rotisseries, industrial-strength aprons, those great stainless-steel-and-glass sugar dispensers that coffee shops favor and serious knives. Currently, professional muffin tins are selling like crazy. Birken hasn’t the foggiest idea why.

Star Restaurant Equipment and Supply, 6178 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 782-4460.

Emerald Forest

On a recent trip to Emerald Forest, a tiny gift shop in Studio City’s Coldwater Curve, a customer mentioned that she had come into the store because there was nothing like it where she lives--in San Francisco. Owner Michelle Rack looks for the unusual, the charming, the finely crafted. This is high-end Valley shopping. Rack’s regulars don’t grow pale at the thought of paying $17 for a cake of handmade soap that smells like Christmas and would make a darling hostess gift.

Besides cachepots, picture frames, bath things, pretty baskets and other gifts, Rack has lots of jewelry. She is especially proud of a line she and jeweler friend Julia designed and produce themselves, called the Gingerbread Family (they’ve trademarked the name). Custom-made of silver or gold, these are little gingerbread men and women, boys and girls, even pets, personalized with the names of family members and fashioned into bracelets, pins and other pieces. Items start at $42, and Rack says she gets orders from as far away as Japan, from people who have admired a piece and asked where they could get one.

A year ago, Emerald Forest opened an annex a few stores up devoted to personalized stationery, custom invitations, pens, journals and other mostly paper objects.

Emerald Forest, 12638 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 509-8529. The stationer is at 12660 Ventura Blvd., (818) 509-0798.

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The Harmonica Store

Many a shop owner will claim their establishment is unique. The Harmonica Store really is. According to Hohner, the German manufacturer that sets the standard for the industry, this North Hollywood shop is the only one in the United States devoted entirely to promoting and selling harmonicas.

Owners Marv Wolfe and Mickey Milgrim-Wolfe opened their doors in May, 1993. As Marv explains, he noticed that harmonicas got short shrift in ordinary music stores. But Marv, who turns 86 on Dec. 30, remembered the great harmonicists of his salad days, people like the irrepressible Borrah Minevitch, and thought, “That’s a great little instrument. Why are they treating it like a stepchild?”

Marv became a man with a mission, especially after he verified at the library that the world wasn’t glutted with harmonica stores. A violinist and seasoned businesswoman, Mickey agreed to do the buying and decorating, choosing “black-and-white tile to look like a piano.”

The shop carries toy harmonicas for kids and a $10 Hohner for anyone who dreams of unleashing the Borrah Minevitch within. The store also offers classes. But this is, above all, a serious specialty shop. Staffer Stephen Close, who plays under the name Grievin’ Stephen, is there to answer the questions of musicians looking for instruments, amps, microphones and those neck harness things that Dylan wears so he can play the harmonica and the guitar at the same time.

Nearby music studios help fuel the business. Not long ago, says Close, country singer Clint Black, who was recording around the corner at Lighthouse, whizzed by on his skateboard, saw the sign, then came in and ordered 20 harmonicas.

The Harmonica Store, 5151 Whitsett Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 787-9457.

Arte de Mexico

Arte de Mexico may be the most remarkable thing in North Hollywood. Its 75,000-square-foot complex of warehouses is packed with handcrafted furniture, lighting and tchotchkes, from Mexico, yes, but also from Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa. This is the place to come for your armoire hand-painted with palms and parrots, your table made from a wrought-iron grill, your decorative ostrich eggs.

Vice President David Stoffers, son of founder G. J. Stoffers, helps move the product by creating theatrical vignettes. As a result, the store has the feel of an enormous sound stage where a thousand movies are being shot at once. “It’s a visual venue,” says Stoffers. “It’s a Disneyland for designers.”

Custom work is Arte de Mexico’s specialty. Someone (let’s call him a rock star) spots a wooden door from an ancient temple, and for $12,000 Arte will turn it into the headboard of an enormous bed with recessed lighting. The store’s line of handcrafted antler furniture is really hot right now, says Stoffers, who notes that all those moose and deer horns were naturally shed, then collected by Boy Scouts and other gatherers. No wonder people bring out-of-town friends and relatives here to gawk. “It’s an adult toy store,” Stoffers says. “Anyone who’s looking for a full-sized horse--in wood--we have it.”

Arte de Mexico, 5356 Riverton Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 769-5090.

Geographia

Since this Burbank shop opened in 1986, it has become a magnet for Valleyites who think travel is what God created as penance for creating work.

Going to Kuala Lumpur? Geographia has a wide choice of books by visitors who have gone before, plus reference and coffee-table books and guidebooks, including the hip Lonely Planet series and the stylishly written Cadogan guides. Best of all, you can get maps here as well and begin learning the new turf long before there’s any real chance you’ll get lost on it. “We’re real serious about maps,” says owner Brian Draper, who majored in geography at Cal State Northridge.

Geographia stocks many of the accessories that make travel more comfortable, including security items for scaring off hotel intruders and for stashing money in your underwear. It has globes, atlases, language tapes. Interested in cybertravel? You can get software, such as Thomas Brothers guides on CD-ROM. Draper also stocks GPS (for Global Positioning System) receivers. These allow you to determine exactly where you are anywhere on earth by reading signals from orbiting satellites. Industry people use the devices to scout locations and pinpoint where the sun will be before the cameras start rolling. “I’ve also sold them to people interested in exploring in the desert and up in the mountains,” says Draper. “They’re a lot more sophisticated than a compass.” Pricier, too, starting at about $800.

Geographia Map & Travel Bookstore, 4000 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 848-1414.

Tri-Ess Sciences

You have to see this place to truly understand it. Located in an industrial area of Burbank, Tri-Ess is really several businesses in one. It is a special-effects business that supplies smoke, some of it developed by founder Ira Katz, and other products, including makeup materials, to the entertainment industry. That’s why Tri-Ess recently sent a large shipment of violet smoke to a film company in Sydney, Australia, that is shooting a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers movie. (You read it here first.) The company also fabricates and rents props. But the reason it is on our list is because of its showroom, open to the public.

Think of Tri-Ess as Wal-Mart for Dr. Frankenstein. Need a $400 life-size plastic skeleton? You can get one here, as did the man who put one under the Christmas tree for his artist wife. (Personal-injury attorneys also shop here for plastic body parts that will make juries sit up and take notice.) Need half a cup of hydrochloric acid or a single test tube or a dead frog suitable for dissecting? Tri-Ess is the place.

For decades, explains Katz’s daughter, Kim Greenfield, the store has been catering to schoolchildren. “We have something we call science-project season when the little darlings come in with not a clue as what to do.” Tri-Ess offers advice and an extensive selection of science books and kits. And Tri-Ess will be happy to sell you the electrical switch or preserved sheep’s eye that could set your child off on a trajectory to the Nobel Prize.

Tri-Ess Sciences, 1020 W. Chestnut St., Burbank, (818) 848-7838.


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