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It Pays to Learn the Lingoes in This Biz

I was on my way out of the courthouse in Van Nuys one day when a man seated on a folding chair under a tree, playing with a nine-iron, asked if I was starting a business.

“No,” I said, walking away briskly.

Twenty paces later I stopped, turned, and wondered what he was up to. So I walked back and asked.

George Christopher Thomas, 29, told me he was fishing for people who had come to the Los Angeles County office of the registrar/recorder/clerk to start businesses. There are legal requirements, Thomas said, if you want to set up shop in Los Angeles, including filing a “doing business as” form and publishing a notice of your DBA in a newspaper.

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“I can do that for them,” the blue-eyed, sandy-haired Thomas said, adding that he can communicate with clients in five languages and get the notice published in the Valley Vantage newspaper in Woodland Hills.

Five languages?

Yes, he said, explaining how it came to pass. Thomas was working as an aide to Rep. Brad Sherman five years ago when he met a Beverly Hills newspaper publisher who told him his people skills could earn him good money selling legal notices.

The publisher was right. At first business was great, but then several competitors moved in on Thomas’ territory. That has led to the occasional nasty battle for clients on the lawn outside the county office. He decided to get a leg up and protect his turf by learning how to attract customers in many tongues.

First thing Thomas did was drop by a nearby bookstore for phrase books, which he began studying in his spare time on the job. He also bought a CD-ROM tutorial called “31 Languages of the World.” If he’s not sure about pronunciation, he’ll go into the county office and find an Armenian American or Filipino American clerk to practice on.

“That’s how I’ve managed to survive out here,” said Thomas, who’s got English, Welsh and Swedish blood.

It’s L.A., he said, and the majority of people he sees opening businesses through the Van Nuys office are Latino or Armenian. He also sees a lot of Filipinos, Iranians and Israelis.

Thomas estimates that roughly 50 to 70 new DBAs are filed daily in Van Nuys, not to mention dozens of renewals for existing businesses.

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It’s a sign of a flourishing entrepreneurial spirit in L.A., especially since there are several DBA filing locations throughout the county.

“It’s every business imaginable,” Thomas said. “From porn to churches to everything.”

I returned to Van Nuys one day last week to see Thomas, an L.A. native, in action. He and two friendly competitors, Julie Hongvarivatana (it’s Thai) of the Tolucan Times and Mike Saghian (Jewish, born in Iran, raised in L.A.) of the Beverly Hills Weekly, were in a snit about another competitor who gets on their nerves at times.

“Satan’s Child,” Saghian called her, saying she had been messing with the other solicitors’ carefully crafted turf agreements and codes of conduct. She also had just outflanked him, grabbing a client who walked right past Saghian while he was distracted by the Dodgers playoff game on the radio.

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It does occasionally get nasty, Thomas agreed. You can make about $50,000 a year at this game if you keep your edge, so the hustle never stops.

“I’ve seen about 10 fistfights out here over the years. The police have had to come.”

Saghian also objected to the way his aforementioned demon competitor stalked prospective clients pulling into parking spaces, giving the solicitation profession a bad name.

“I feel uncomfortable harassing people the second they step out of their cars,” said Saghian, 22, who speaks fluent Hebrew and Farsi and is working on Armenian and Spanish.

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Hongvarivatana, meanwhile, is L.A.-born and doesn’t speak Thai, but gets by in Spanish. The consensus is that Saghian and Thomas are now roughly tied in the multilingual sweepstakes, with each at least somewhat conversant in five languages.

They’ve also become good friends, golfing together on their days off, and they help each other bone up on language and the finer points of reeling in customers.

They say they’ve learned to read people from half a block away as they approach the county offices. They can usually guess their native tongue and their reason for coming to the county office, whether it’s to get a birth certificate, marriage certificate, or DBA.

Para certificado de nacimiento?” Thomas asked a trio who appeared to be grandma, mom and granddaughter.

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Yes, they answered.

“It had birth certificate written all over it,” Thomas explained to me. “You wouldn’t bring the whole family, with a child, if you were opening a business.”

Satan’s Child just doesn’t have that kind of profiling talent, Saghian said.

“She’ll say ‘Shabbat shalom’ to someone wearing a cross,” he said with pained indignation. “If he’s got a cross, he’s probably Armenian. She’ll say goodbye to an Israeli in Armenian. She doesn’t know about the accent stuff or how to profile them.”

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Thomas, who carries Czech, Farsi and Armenian phrasebooks in his backpack, was polishing his accent on “God bless you” in Tagalog. He went inside the office to test it on a county clerk, who smiled and nodded. He’d nailed it.

Outside, he and Saghian try to work in tandem at times, making sure one person doesn’t ruin the other guy’s sale. For instance, if Saghian is offering a rock-bottom deal to someone in English, he might warn Thomas in Armenian, so Thomas won’t come within earshot with a client he’s hooked at a higher price.

Thomas approached a middle-aged man headed toward the office and said something that sounded like:

Varev inch bassas.”

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Translation: How are you?

The man he was talking to said Thomas’ Armenian was pretty good.

Shnor avor nortari serb zanoon,” Thomas continued. At least that’s how it sounded to me.

Which means “Happy New Year and Merry Christmas,” in that order, which is how an Armenian would expect to hear it, according to Thomas.

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“It’s a tickling phrase,” he said, explaining that many of the clients speak English, but if you greet them in their native language you’ve got a better chance of doing business.

“It’s the tickle,” he said, “that lands the sale.”

When three more Armenian men approached, they greeted Thomas in Armenian. He didn’t recognize them, but they said they’d done DBAs with him previously and remembered him going by the name Kachik -- Chris in Armenian.

The men were filing for businesses in the jewelry district in downtown Los Angeles, and one of them wanted the name Quality Diamond Works. That was already taken, Thomas said after a computer search. The man settled for Quality Works instead.

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Inside the office, the Armenians, Saghian and Thomas put on a clinic, each of them showing off his language skills. If it was all part of a tickle, it worked.

Thomas did a DBA and publishing deal with one of the Armenians, a $70 fee, for which Thomas would clear about $26 after a split with his newspaper. But the Armenian gave him a $100 bill and told him to keep the change, and that was Thomas’ 15th sale of the day.

You have good days and bad, Saghian said, but there are ways to grow the business.

“We need to break out into the Asian languages next.”

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.


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