Taking It to the Streets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I came of age with the mall. When I was a child, the nearest mall was 40 miles away and Mom would take us there before Christmas to see the poinsettia tree that practically went to heaven and it was A Big Deal. When I was in high school, there were new malls half that distance away and my friends and I would beg and beg and sometimes our parents would let us go, by ourselves, and it was A Big Deal. When I went away to college, the Hunt Valley Mall opened and that was just 10 miles away and everyone wanted a summer job there and I got one and it was A Very Big Deal.

I worked there during vacations and discovered a very important thing: Something there is that doesn't love a mall.

Maybe it's the way voices and footsteps and the cracklesplattergasp of a thousand people milling bounce off the shiny slick floors, the faux marble columns and chilly hard benches; brew under the high bubble glass ceiling; and become a roiling stew of sound only vaguely human. Maybe it's the light, pale and thin, as if sunlight had been poured through a white cloth, strained of color and warmth. Maybe it's the jangly inappropriate mix of smells--popcorn and new clothes, pizza and White Shoulders. Or the escalators bifurcating the sky in Magritte-like patterns of dwindling infinity.

Whatever. Malls make me crazy. So crazy in fact that I lived in New York City, which also makes me crazy, for three whole years simply because you do not have to go to a mall if you live in New York City. When I moved here six years ago, I was resigned. I mean you can't live in the cradle of civilization (and Z Gallery and the Nature Co.) without going to a mall.

But things have changed. Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank all revamped their ye olde townes. Third and La Brea, Abbot Kinney and Vermont Avenue, even Ventura Boulevard began to bloom in barren stretches, creating actual neighborhood shopping.

I love street shopping. Maybe it's the latent villager in me, longing for a basket to swing, but when I leave a store, I like to be where the sun can get to me. This ever-indulgent weather is the reason I moved to L.A. I like to eat in the open air, at cafes, not food courts--I like my food cooked rather than assembled.

On the street, people stroll, they encounter stores that have grown up with the neighborhood, salespeople who know something about their wares. There's more to the experience than just buying things. Clearly I am not alone in my preference--just cruise for parking in Old Town Pasadena or near the Promenade on a weekend. Can't? Then branch out. Here's a few places to begin with, personal favorites, from a very long list.

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Larchmont Avenue, between Beverly and 6th. Cunning, adorable, charming, expensive. All these apply in this bit of Cambridge on the coast. Lots of specialty shops with names like Southern Comfort and Pumpkins sell super-cool kids clothes, dolls and figurines, gourmet foods, knickknacks, lacy and sweet-smellin' thangs--why, there's even a pet store. The Larchmont Beauty Center has every possible configuration of soap, candle, unguent, potion, cosmetic and hair accessory. Two necessities for truly great neighborhood shopping--a newsstand, Al's and a hardware store--are present and accounted for, and there's a deli, a Baskin-Robbins and several sidewalk cafes perfect for resting those barkin' dogs.

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Broadway, downtown. Anyone who says Los Angeles is a city without a center hasn't been downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Broadway from 1st Street to 6th is such a distinct part of the L.A. shopping experience it has its own soundtrack. Mariachi, various Spanish crooners and, of course, the ever popular "Feliz Navidad"--honestly, can anyone hear that song and remain unfestive? Three hundred and seventy-nine times? And if you're in search of bridal wear, cutlery, gold chains or just a few holy candles, you are in the right place. The street is lined on both sides with storefronts and stalls displaying toys and clothes and jewelry and music and books, in dos languages and with a great backbeat.

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Abbot Kinney, Venice. Like an out-flung arm of sun-sodden Venice, this boulevard stretches almost from the Marina border to Outer Santa Monica. And where once stood Hal's, a few thrift stores and a divinely unexpected millinery shop, Henle Lori, is now a thriving thoroughfare with small galleries, clothing stores and sundry boutiques. In keeping with the love / Haight relationship of this funky-if-it-kills-us berg, the signs boast names like Bountiful, Zephyr, Halo, Beowulf and Slave. Plenty of swell eateries dot the passage practically from Washington Boulevard to Main Street (which is, of course, a mecca of merchandise unless one is searching for something real, like Scotch tape.) And the best news is, the milliners is still there.

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Beverly Boulevard between La Brea and Fairfax. High-end, but supremely shop-able. Todd Oldham has digs here, as does Richard Tyler, but there is the leavening presence of the Gap. There is a gradual descent, however, into the Slough of Respond--much Gen X wear, foot and body, is available; furniture and sundries stores tend toward '50s-'60s retro; Sonrisa offers politically correct luxury items--hand-carved and -painted figures of angels and saints, jackets and fabrics from more tropical climes. Toward the end of the stretch stands Every Picture Tells a Story, one of the city's neato-ist stores, as long as you can convince yourself that those children's books and prints are not going to end up in some grown-up's house, strictly off limits to any ambient children. And lots of hip dining possibilities.

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Brand Avenue, Glendale. Unhonored and unsung, from Los Feliz to Harvard this is the world-famous Avenue of Cars, a floodlit, banner-streaked six-block-long river of car dealership madness that sweeps you north, with every good intention, into the beating heart of commerce. The six or seven block stretch from Harvard pretty much to the 134 Freeway is Main Street USA. Well, OK, perhaps there are a few hundred more restaurants and cafes and patisseries here than on Main Street USA, but still. There are rug stores here, and a J.W. Newberry's, bookstores and jewelers and shops with ceramic dogs and musical instruments displayed in the window, not to mention Cost Plus, a combination Pier 1 and gourmet shop that's a must stop on every Glendale visit. There are little benches and walls and trees, just like in a real town.

But for those who cannot live without the opportunity to stand, Mrs. Field's cookie in one hand, Raspberry Passion Slushee in the other, staring at the latest in garter belts from Victoria's Secret, while three pre-pubescent males in oversized blue jeans shove past trying to give each other wedgies, the Galleria is right around the corner.

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