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Fairfax Area Losing Its Kosher Flavor

Times Staff Writer

Hemmed in on one side by glitz and on the other by glamour, Los Angeles’ best-known Jewish business district is feeling the squeeze.

Longtime merchants say investors are buying up modest Fairfax Avenue storefronts that for half a century have housed kosher bakeries, butcher shops and bookstores and are imposing rent increases that are forcing mom-and-pop ventures out of business.

The shops that have formed the heart of the city’s Jewish commercial core are being replaced by flashy boutiques more likely to be stocked with designer tees and jeans than lox and bagels.

Disappearing will be the Jewish record shop where a fledgling neighborhood musician, Herb Alpert, hung out and where a quiet store clerk named Steve Barri sat behind the counter and worked on the million-selling song “Secret Agent Man.”

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Threatened is the oldest and largest Judaica store in the West, a place where you can spend $3 on an Israeli-made knickknack or $30,000 on a hand-printed Torah.

Real estate experts say the change is part of the inevitable evolution of the Fairfax district, where the aging Jewish population has declined and a new generation of younger professionals has moved in. Over the last two decades, according to census figures, the average age of residents in the neighborhoods flanking the Fairfax shopping district has slowly but steadily dropped and the average income has risen as new residents in their 30s and 40s replaced elderly pensioners.

Dubbed Fairfax Village by the city, the seven-block stretch is bounded by the trendily edgy Melrose Avenue district on the north and the Grove, a comfortably upscale shopping mall, on the south.

Shopkeepers caught up in the change say it’s the twilight of an era for the Jewish community.

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“This is the end of the road. I’m out of here. I’d have to triple my business to pay the rent,” said Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music, a Jewish record shop that has been a fixture at 436 N. Fairfax Ave. since 1954. “This is the end for a lot of us here.”

Nori Zbida, who has operated the Picanty Kosher Market at 443 N. Fairfax Ave. for 18 years, said his rent has jumped from $2,921 a month to $3,771.

“I can’t hold out. I have to leave. I’m losing money. I have no choice but to sell the business. I can’t make it anymore,” said the 77-year-old Zbida, who lets longtime customers run up tabs for groceries, wine and Hebrew newspapers and magazines and pay when they can.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to this street. Fairfax is not what it used to be.”

Up the street, bookstore owner Arnold Herr agrees.

“I’m looking at close to a triple rent increase. I have until Feb. 14 to be out,” said Herr, whose bookstore at 449 N. Fairfax Ave. is jammed with about 40,000 volumes. “I don’t know where I can go. Maybe I’ll rent a warehouse and sell books on the Internet.”

Herr and others speculate that the investors are eyeing a younger clientele, both as tenants and future Fairfax Avenue shoppers.

“My feeling is this will become another Melrose Avenue,” Herr said.

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That may not be a bad thing, suggest some of those who are buying up the aging storefronts.

About half a dozen investors and partnerships have so far acquired buildings that house multiple shops in the 400 block of North Fairfax Avenue. In state and local legal documents, the owners are identified only as limited liability companies that use their street address as their name. That, coupled with closemouthed property management companies, keeps tenants in the dark about who their actual landlord is, merchants contend.

Shopkeepers said one of those acquiring commercial properties along the street is well-known clothing maker and sometime film producer Uri Harkham. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

But investor Laura Aflalo agreed that the neighborhood is changing.

“It’s not just stores selling $3 items anymore. I think that’s good,” she said. A blend of retail, entertainment, dining and perhaps mixed-use residential-commercial development could bring new life to the avenue, she said. The new owners might also form a business improvement district to jointly finance neighborhood upgrades, she added.

Aflalo said she hopes the Jewish component remains. “It’s history and it’s comfortable. I hope it stays,” she said of Fairfax’s kosher markets, restaurants and shops.

But she and others said that Fairfax now competes with Jewish business districts that have developed to the south in the Pico-Robertson area and east around Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

David Noubaharestan, who with his father runs Solomon’s, a Jewish gift shop and bookstore that has operated at 445 N. Fairfax Ave. since 1948, hopes to stay.

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“Very rich people are paying more than these buildings are worth,” Noubaharestan said. “Because of the Grove, they think everything around here is going to go up. After 56 years they’ve evicted my store. Where do I go? My business is in Jewish articles. I understand they want to raise the rent. But to raise it 20%?”

Customers who are slowly learning about the merchants’ predicament are puzzled and angry.

“I don’t want to see the homogenization of Los Angeles. We don’t need more boutiques,” said May Victor, who was in Solomon’s shopping for a kiddush cup for her upcoming wedding. “I want my kids to be able to come here for Hebrew games and books. These stores need to be supported.”

Noubaharestan said he and his father, Isaac, plan to pack up the thousands of items crammed into their 3,500-square-foot shop and move to a smaller storefront down the block.

Among their neighbors will be one of the street’s newcomers, a slickly designed, skateboarder-themed jeans and shirt shop. The store, named Supreme, includes a deep, bowl-like wooden skateboard ramp and a wall-size video screen facing Fairfax Avenue that shows riders.

“That’s the kind of place that is changing the flavor of the street,” Noubaharestan said.

The exodus of Jewish businesses from Fairfax Village has been slowly underway for more than two decades, starting when Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods began taking root farther south and east. Since then, young Jewish families have spread farther out, to places such as the western San Fernando Valley and Agoura Hills.

Fairfax became known as a center of Jewish life in the 1940s, when Jewish families relocated to the area from an enclave in the Boyle Heights area east of downtown Los Angeles. Its best-known business, Canter’s Deli, moved to Fairfax Avenue from Brooklyn Avenue (now East Cesar Chavez Avenue) in 1948.

Hatikvah Music owner Rutberg said non-Jewish businesses, such as the next-door Largo nightclub, have blended in easily with the traditional Fairfax Avenue.

That’s because the younger, hipster crowd that frequents it and other clubs on the street, such as Dime, come out at night, when many in the community’s aging Jewish population are home. Even Canter’s, which now includes a small stage in its Kibitz Room, is jammed with hipsters during late-night hours.

Rutberg started working in the record store in 1964 and bought it in 1989. In the early days the shop stocked a mixture of both popular and Jewish music. Originally called Norty’s Music Center and owned by Norty Beckman, the store attracted the likes of Fairfax High graduate Herb Alpert and employees-turned-songwriters Steve Barri and Jerry Leiber, another Fairfax High alumnus whose co-writing credits included “Love Potion No. 9" and “Stand by Me,” Rutberg said.

Now, Hatikvah carries only what Rutberg described as the world’s largest selection of Jewish music.

Although his current rental agreement runs through Oct. 15, he hopes to keep the shop open through this Hanukkah season, he said.

When he closes his 900-square-foot store for the last time, he will probably sell CDs only on the Internet.

And that’s a pity, said Bruce Charet, a TV producer who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles and for 15 years has come in to peruse shelves bulging with Jewish tunes performed by artists including Theodore Bikel and a Hebrew-singing Johnny Mathis.

“The sadness is you lose the culture when neighborhoods change,” Charet said. “The upside is America is open enough to embrace this culture and others as well.”


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