Little Big Bird : Luggage Shop Owner and an Abrasive Jay Forge a Lasting--if Often Trying--Friendship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subtle signs of ornithic love are often missed by newcomers to Mary-Ann Berold's luggage shop.

The $600 attache cases are encased in heavy plastic. Cloth suitcases hang precariously over their shelves, shielding the costlier leather garment bags below.

Berold could be expecting a crew of bad painters at her Manhattan Beach store. But she's expecting the bird she calls Azul, a wild jay with a startling screech and a fondness for leaving messy "memories" on fine leather.

"She has excellent taste," Berold says of the demanding bird, who has visited Michael's Luggage and Gifts almost every day for eight years and who often is found waiting outside the door as Berold arrives to open up in the morning. "She won't sit on anything cheap. She loves leather, and the softer the better."

Which explains the protective plastic, the strategic positioning of merchandise and the defensive emplacements lining a rack of backpacks: strips of packing tape laid sticky-side up.

"Unfortunately . . . you can't train them," Berold says, rolling her eyes. "If it was going to be a long-term relationship, one of us had to change."

The story of this odd union--Berold is British-born, well-coiffed and well-spoken, Azul loudly West Coast and seriously lacking in personal hygiene--began one day in 1987, when the bird winged through the bars of a back security door and demanded a bit of Berold's sandwich.

Berold now good-naturedly bemoans her friend's abrasive calls for food and slovenly ways--"Aaah, feather," she groans, plucking a bit of down from the

point of her writing pen--but she hasn't closed the solid back door since.

Life with any jay is unlikely to be easy, bird lovers say, but Azul's breed can be especially trying. She--Berold assumes it's a she, as Azul arrives each spring with a new collection of equally hungry as well as awkward offspring--is not the suave-looking blue jay of baseball mascot fame. Azul is a scrub jay, one of a host of members of the broad jay family.

Scrub jays, said Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, are aptly named. Instead of the regal blue feathers and nobly crested head of some larger jays, scrubs are smaller, balder, louder and just plain scrubbier.

More important than looks, however--at least when opening up one's luggage shop to the creatures--is the scrub jay's lack of adherence to human social norms. Its ranking in the manners category, observers contend, would put the bird somewhere between squabbling park pigeons and bullying beach sea gulls.

"Jays are well known for being quite bold," Garrett said with a chuckle.

Bold indeed. Azul appears just once or twice a day but, over the years, has dictated the operation of the shop like a minor despot.

Even Lady Di, the store's official pet and erstwhile bird dog, gave up her reign years ago. Now she sleeps by the counter while her onetime prey runs the show.

"It's something. It follows Mary-Ann around," said Ken Jones, a Samsonite sales representative who calls frequently at the shop and first met Azul a few years back. "I'm sitting in the store . . . and the bird decides to come through. Mary-Ann says, 'Oh, there's my sweetie.' "

"Well," Berold protests later, "in England, everyone is 'sweetie.' "

On one recent, typical morning, Azul swept out of nowhere to greet Berold the minute she arrived to open the store. And the bird, as always, was hungry.

Perching herself on a favorite shelf of relatively unsoilable boxes, Azul tapped away with her beak, demanding that Berold come closer with a peanut she had just retrieved from her always-stocked pocket. But Berold held her ground, coaxing Azul with a bird-like cluck of the tongue. Tap, cluck, tap, cluck, until the bird's hunger got the better of its demanding nature and it swooped across the store, grabbing the peanut and returning to its perch.

Then, the tapping began again.

Common practice for such jays, according to Garret, is to hoard peanuts, crackers or other favorites and haul them off for hiding.

"Like many of the jays, they have a very good spatial memory," Garrett said. "If you feed them peanuts or seeds, they will often go hide them. And they're pretty good at going back and finding them."

They can also tell the difference between dinner and a snack.

"Often . . . if you give them a whole bunch of peanuts, you can see them testing them, trying to find the heaviest one," Garrett added.

Azul is a big eater, if not a big bird, and has gone through enough peanuts, Triscuits and Wheat Thins in eight years to make a noticeable dent in Berold's pocketbook.

The two or three offspring she brings in each spring, from nests Berold has never seen, are an added financial burden. But the youngsters stick around only a few months.

"When they are babies, she dotes on them," the shopkeeper said. As they reach scrub jay adolescence, "she becomes territorial and screeches at them. And if you've ever heard a [scrub] jay screech. . . ."

The kids are soon ushered out the door, never to return.

Nuts and crackers, though, even for a family of jays, are far cheaper than the leather Azul has used as a lavatory over the years.

There was the direct hit on the $1,000 garment bag. There were the briefcases, which begin at $250. "She loves that row," Berold sighs. There were the day packs.

"Leather stains, you know, don't come out," she says. "I've had to do a lot of markdowns."

She could just close the back door, but Berold, it appears, has never considered such an idea. On the three days a year the store is closed, she leaves the next day's nuts and crackers on the back walkway the night before.

After departing with the load of peanuts on this day, Azul returns, lighting on a box in the stockroom--where Berold is now sitting.

"Ah, she's back," Berold says with a smile. "That's my sweetie."

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