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Little shop of horrible hours

The shop’s front door was shut tight. The little “Will Return At” sign that was attached to it was of no help -- its clocklike hands were conspicuously missing.

It was another business day at the Never Open Store.

At a time when vacant storefronts and “For Lease” signs dot Melrose Avenue, Stephanie Mata’s tiny shop is doing just fine, thank you.

The Never Open Store is open only when Mata feels like unlocking it and allowing shoppers inside.

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Those who do get in are intrigued by the merchandise that fills every cranny of the 245-square-foot shop.

Collectibles, eclectic art assemblages and funky antiques are crammed onto tables and shelves and hang from the walls and ceiling. Fanciful clothing and accessories are draped in any leftover space.

“I pick who I want to come in here. I basically choose my clientele,” said Mata, 47.

“People put their noses to the glass windows to look inside and see if anyone’s here. I can hear them asking each other why this place isn’t ever open. They wonder how they can get in.”

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When she is working in the store -- gluing odd pairings of items such as toys and ceramics together or customizing a battered picture frame for assemblages she creates -- Mata doesn’t want to be distracted by paying customers.

“I say ‘no’ with tact and grace. I’ll tell them I’m cleaning and the shop isn’t open,” she said. “My store hours are hit or miss.”

A few moments later, Alexandra Guaderrama timidly poked her head inside the Never Open Store.

“I saw the door open. I’ve lived up the street for a year and this is the first time I’ve seen this place open,” the Cal State Northridge screenwriting student said.

“It’s amazing. The stuff here is random, eccentric, artistic. Some of the things are weird, but it works. It’s perfect for Hollywood.”

Mata introduced herself as the owner. “I love your place,” Guaderrama told her. “But why are you so rarely open?”

Mata explained her philosophy as she checked the size of a green satin vintage cocktail dress that Guaderrama was admiring. “I’m the boss, and I don’t like bad vibes,” she said.

Guaderrama commented on a dartboard that was riddled by labeled syringes, some bearing the names of deceased celebrities, and on a handbag decorated with tiny liquor bottles and an Alcoholics Anonymous emblem. “She gets it,” Mata said, nodding.

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Like her policy with customers, Mata’s prices are arbitrary, too. “Nothing in here is marked. I basically size people up. I know it’s unethical, but it’s based on what I feel -- whether I think they really love the item.”

She recognizes when studio set designers with a substantial budget to spend come in and charges them accordingly when they need a funky piece of artwork or a hip knickknack for the background of a scene. Young people decorating their first apartment on a budget are likely to catch more of a break.

The green satin dress would be priced at $125, Mata said; the dartboard $75 and the handbag $125. Guaderrama left empty-handed but promised to return.

The most expensive thing Mata has sold was a “cool chandelier I found on the side of the road” that went for $1,500. The cheapest items are $20 stainless steel fortune cookies. She bought a box filled with them at a clearance sale she happened upon in Northern California.

Mata prowls garage and yard sales and thrift shops looking for one-of-a-kind items. “I usually like things that other people don’t like. It’s almost psychic -- spooky -- how things find me,” she said.

She has several “routes” that she travels on the lookout for castoff treasures on the nights before trash pickup day. Mata makes the loop about 1:30 a.m., after she finishes her shift working the door at local clubs such as the Roxy.

Her longtime career as a professional doorwoman helps give her the financial independence to be picky about customers at her store, she said. It also has taught her how to politely tell them, “No, you can’t come in.”

Her nighttime curb searching often pays off. “You’d be so surprised what people throw away. There are some amazing things. And the books that thrift shops throw out. It’s heartbreaking. Sometimes I’ll take the books and just leave them for people on a corner in a poor neighborhood.”

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Mata’s husband of 18 years, musician Dave Gibney, and their 15-year-old daughter, Molly, do not share her love of recycling, she said. They live in an apartment above another shop that is next to the Never Open Store.

“When I find something on the street, they cross to the other side and pretend they don’t know me,” she said with a laugh.

Mata decided to open her business eight years ago when her collection of objects d’art outgrew their living quarters.

Her small storefront, built in 1929 at 707 N. Poinsettia Place, formerly housed a poodle grooming business and, later, a tiny art gallery.

Both the merchandising and the nightclub door work come naturally for Mata. She was born in Las Vegas to a pair of designers who ran a clothing store that catered to such customers as the musicians and actors who made up the famed “Rat Pack.” When she was 8 her family moved to Los Angeles, where she said her father worked with singers Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett.

Her first husband was a musician who played in local clubs and that is where “somebody asked, ‘Steph, can you do the door?’ ” and her nightclub career was launched, she said. Besides keeping the size of the crowd at the correct occupancy level, she turns away those who are underage, intoxicated or “are weirdos,” as she puts it.

For 18 years, starting in the 1980s, she held a series of daytime jobs in shops and boutiques on Melrose Avenue. “I did arrangements and design work without being compensated,” Mata said. “I finally decided I might as well not get compensated at my own shop.”

She says she is comfortable as a merchant because her rent is reasonable and the income from her club “night gig,” as she calls it, is reliable.

So the Never Open Store remains open. Even as some shops on Melrose Avenue struggle to stay that way.

bob.pool@latimes.com


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