Fire draws a tight-knit neighborhood closer

Times Staff Writer

Vince Chan headed to his Manhattan Beach shop earlier than usual Tuesday to finish up a DVD compilation for a client. The customer had entrusted the shop with about 100 family photos, spanning several generations, to make a montage for the family matriarch’s birthday.

As he walked to work about 5 a.m., Chan smelled smoke. He saw firetrucks. He heard the roar of helicopters.

Someone must be making a movie, he thought.

But as he turned onto the 1000 block of North Manhattan Avenue, he saw that flames had engulfed the business he and his wife, Keyo, had started 27 years ago, Manhattan Beach 1-hour Photo. The shop’s longtime neighbors -- two restaurants, a women’s clothing boutique and an art gallery -- were in flames as well.


As devastated as Chan was by the loss of his business, he said repeatedly that he felt worse for his customers who had lost family photos and negatives.

“I just want to go in to see if I can save anything,” he said as he watched firefighters battle the blaze that smoldered well into the evening. “All I care about are the things you can’t buy.”

It would be hard to tell over the next several hours who felt worse -- the Chans or their customers, who put aside the grief of losing irreplaceable mementos to comfort the Chans and express sympathy for the loss of their store.

There was a similar outpouring for the proprietors of the four other businesses destroyed in the fire.

Hundreds of longtime patrons -- many of whom walk downtown most days -- gathered to watch the fire and comfort the business owners who have become friends over the years. They offered them hugs and help, coffee and commiseration.

The block is a throwback to a bygone era, to a time when most shops and restaurants were unique, owned by the person who opened them each morning. A time before Starbucks and the Gap.

“I raised my children in there,” said Julie Hantzarides, who with her husband, Jimmy, started Old Venice Restaurant 22 years ago, when her first child was 6 months old. The restaurant’s menu grew too, from two to six pages of Italian and Greek offerings. “It’s not just our business, it’s our life -- we lived and breathed it 24/7.”

Several of Old Venice’s 13 employees, along with some who worked there in the past, watched with her as firefighters recovered the restaurant’s sign, along with an 8-foot mural of Venice that graced the dining room, and other mementos.

The restaurant was insured, Hantzarides said, and they hope to rebuild. But she worried about the Chans. She knew they had canceled their insurance on the photo shop a few months ago, when the annual premium jumped from about $5,000 to $8,000.

Kim Riley, owner of Riley Arts, mourned not only for the other business owners and their employees who lost jobs, but for the local artists whose paintings, which range from $1,500 to $6,000, were destroyed in her store. She arrived still in her pajamas 15 minutes after the fire started at 2:30 a.m., after the alarm company alerted her that a sensor had detected movement inside the store.

“It’s just a total sickening feeling, all that artwork is totally destroyed,” Riley said.

She went from tears to laughter as her friends and customers hugged her, told her they would take her to lunch and started talking about how much better her new store would be -- with lighting that doesn’t “sizzle,” an automatic door and other updates the old building didn’t have.

Also gone were Mona’s Boutique, a women’s clothing and accessories store that had been at the site for 10 years, and the longtime El Sombrero Restaurant, where the fire was believed to have started by an electrical short in a refrigerator.

El Sombrero was where Antoine Nguyen, who has worked for a decade at the beauty-supply store across the street, would go when he wanted “the best burrito in the world” -- the $4.29 dry burrito. “I ate there all the time,” he said.

Roberto Folgarit, 51, often ordered the chile rellenos and enchiladas when he stopped in after surfing.

To Folgarit and others who have lived by the beach for decades, the block reminds them of bygone days -- when everyone knew everyone, and could count on one another. “I’m an old guy,” Folgarit joked. “I like old stuff and history.”

The one-story structure was built in 1934 and once housed a Safeway grocery store, back when Manhattan Beach was far from the tony place it is today.

It’s just a block from the beach in a small downtown neighborhood that is part of the Sand section. Once pure sand, the dunes were lopped off and sent to help bolster Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Many of the neighborhood’s residents have lived there for decades. “The lots are smaller and the people are very social, with a much stronger sense of neighborliness and community,” says Steve Meisenholder, a neighborhood resident for 60 years who serves as president of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society.

Jackie May, 50, who has lived in the area her entire life, says her grandmother bought a lot nearby for $100. A 30 x 100 foot teardown lot in the Sands area now sells for about $2.5 million to $4.5 million, with oceanfront property selling for more.

That makes the three lots that contained the fire-damaged structure quite valuable. Landlord Helen Ristani wasn’t answering questions about whether she would rebuild -- or anything else.

The Chans, meanwhile, began to ponder their next move. Vince immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong, Keyo from Taiwan. They met in Los Angeles and married about 35 years ago. Vince is 62, Keyo is “in that neighborhood,” she says.

Until last year, they worked at their store seven days a week, opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m. Only last year did they slow down, sort of, closing an hour earlier and not opening on Sundays.

Now that equipment valued at $250,000 has been ruined in the fire, they may just go ahead and retire. “Now, we have to think about it,” Vince said. “It’s too much effort to start over.”

As they were talking about their plans, Kathy Binks, who had come by earlier in the day with her two young daughters, Katrina, 4, and Emma, 6, walked up. Katrina handed the Chans the handmade cards she and her sister had drawn. “Broken House,” Katrina had written in large crayoned letters. “I am sorry. Love, Katrina.”