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Customers battle Whole Foods to save a newsstand, and a way of life

Marck Sarfati, has run the Brentwood newsstand for 28 years, now faces eviction. (Video by Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Not that long ago you didn't have to travel far to find a well-stocked newsstand in greater Los Angeles. I'm talking about those fabulous outdoor libraries with knee-deep piles of out-of-town newspapers and neatly arranged rows of magazines calling out to anyone hungry for gossip, history, culture.

The half-block-long buffets were neighborhood landmarks and meeting places, impossible to walk past without pausing over a headline or a captivating photo. But they've been dying off for years, thanks to online content and other challenges.

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It's about to happen again. This time in Brentwood.

Marck Sarfati, who has run the Brentwood newsstand for 28 years, is fighting an eviction notice by Whole Foods.
Marck Sarfati, who has run the Brentwood newsstand for 28 years, is fighting an eviction notice by Whole Foods. (Gelnn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Or maybe not.

More than 900 customers have signed a petition to save the newsstand that's been ordered to vacate the Whole Foods parking lot on San Vicente Boulevard in the heart of the hamlet. Another petition has drawn roughly 500 signatures at change.org. The rabid defenders range from people you've never heard of to big-name celebs.

"C'MON!," wrote actor Luke Wilson, who signed the petition.

A save-the-stand Facebook page features a video of teen actor David Mazouz perusing a magazine.

"I'm here at my favorite newsstand," says Mazouz, of the "Gotham" TV series, "and there aren't a lot of places like this anymore. And I hear this one's going away. Sad."

And it isn't just Brentwood that's in danger of losing a little piece of its soul.

Here's the question:

How much are we sacrificing as Internet shopping kills off malls and empties once-bustling main streets, and digital devices become the only way we read, robbing us of chance encounters and serendipitous discoveries?

I used to work near Brentwood and can recall the simple pleasure of checking out the new arrivals at Dutton's books and then picking up a newspaper at the nearby newsstand. Dutton's, a beloved institution, shut its doors in 2008, and the death of the newsstand nine years later would be a double blow to neighborhood history, character and sense of place.

Owner Marck Sarfati, who has run the stand for 28 years, said Henry Winkler is a supporter and Dustin Hoffman signed the petition last week.

"He wrote WHY in big letters, with a question mark after it," Sarfati said of Hoffman.

Why, indeed?

The official answer from Whole Foods was served up half-baked, drier than a toasted kale chip and nutrition-free.

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"We appreciate the longstanding relationship Mr. Sarfati has had with the Brentwood store and we did not make this decision lightly."

And?

And that's it. That's all the corporate flack was willing to say on the record.

More useful information could be found in the letter Sarfati received March 27 and hung at the newsstand for customers to see. It's from the Whole Foods "Real Estate Asset Manager," in response to Sarfati's request for a lease renewal.

"We have seriously considered your request … and unfortunately it was concluded that it is time to make some changes at the store and with the parking situation. Therefore, your lease will expire per its terms on September 30, 2017. Again, thank you for your partnership and we sincerely wish you the best of luck going forward."

But Sarfati isn't ready to surrender.

Born in Greece, he looks after a father — now in his 90s — who survived a Nazi labor camp in Greece and came to the U.S. more than half a century ago. Sarfati got into the newsstand business in 1983 and once had five of them. Greater Los Angeles had about 60 newsstands back then, said Sarfati, who estimates that only 15 or 20 remain. He still has one at Pico and Robertson boulevards in addition to the Brentwood site, which he has operated since before Whole Foods took over 20 years ago from another grocer.

The problem isn't just rising rents and online reading, said Sarfati, but magazines are practically given away through discounted subscription offers, so people are less inclined to fork over eight or nine bucks for a single copy.

But Sarfati argues that the setup in Brentwood has been a symbiotic relationship. You pick up a newspaper and you buy a dozen eggs, or vice versa.

Maybe he can find another location, he told me, but he's not going anywhere without a fight.

"These people are not just signing a petition to keep the newsstand open," he said of his supporters. "It says that if we're forced to close, they will not patronize Whole Foods."

Hard to say whether that will work. Whole Foods is slumping financially and shaking up its leadership, but it's still an addiction for some people. You have to wonder if certain Brentwooders would be lost if, after a Pilates workout, they didn't have unfettered access to coconut water, hemp hearts and chia pudding.

"I'll go to another Whole Foods," said Linda Garbett, a longtime new stand customer and Whole Foods shopper.

Prena Kunnath, who's been working the newsstand register for 14 years and supports a wife and two kids, handed Garbett the petition.

"I'm gonna sign it a hundred times," said Garbett. "You can browse here, the guys are great, this is where you meet people. It's a lovely thing. I don't wanna go online, it's too flat. This is 3-D."

Leonard Frank, a longtime customer and former city planner, said he's ready to walk a picket line if it comes to that. He said he doubts many more parking spaces can be squeezed into the lot, so he'd rather keep the newsstand.

"It's an integral part of the Brentwood community," he said. "I don't think Whole Foods understands the community."

Shauna Sorensen bought a copy of BBC History magazine and wondered where she'd go for obscure titles if Sarfati is run out.

"I'm interested in the British Reformation," said the retired book editor, who also picks up an archaeology magazine on occasion. "It's very alarming for those of us who like books and paper and want to support the people who write the articles."

Ocean breezes or not, my forecast calls for a long, hot summer in Brentwood.

I'll keep you posted.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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