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At the still-open Grove, ‘we have to find a way to put some smiles on our faces’

The Grove during the coronavirus shutdown.
Most of the Grove shopping center’s stores and restaurants are closed, but on Thursday afternoon owner Rick Caruso still had the lights, fountain and music going.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Travel writer Christopher Reynolds is bringing readers along on daily walks.

Five hundred twenty-four spots were available on Level 8. Also 426 spots on 7, 448 on 6, and so on. Parking at the Grove on Thursday wasn’t much of a problem, even though it was free for a change.

I had come to see how the mall would feel without most customers, but with owner Rick J. Caruso keeping the lights on and fountain flowing “to offer respite during these tough and uncertain times,” as the Grove website has been saying this week.

I also wanted to see who was afoot at the Original Farmers Market next door at 3rd and Fairfax. If L.A. has a living room, Farmers Market and the Grove are it.

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This was in the early afternoon, before state and local officials issued the “stay-at-home” order that will even more tightly constrict public life.

The first surprise, well before the parking lot, was driving past the line at Pink’s on La Brea. More than two dozen people were queued up under shade umbrellas, some observing the prescribed 6 feet of social distancing, some not so much.

Around the Grove fountain’s dancing waters, I found about a dozen people, two with masks, many brandishing cellphones like me, while the sound system played “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Two LAPD cops sat in a booth with little to do.

I looped down to the Farmers Market where — to my second surprise — two dozen vendors were open. Among them: Bennett’s Ice Cream, whose sign said “Life is short lick fast!” That’s where counterman Genner Moreno, 45, who has been working in the market for 21 years, told me, “It feels like a different place, even though it’s the same place.”

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A little farther west I came across Scott Kaylin, 56, co-owner of Kaylin & Hobbs Pickles.

“We opened a month ago,” Kaylin said, brimming with optimism. “It’s all pickles! The premise of our business is an East Coast taste with a West Coast vibe.”

He’d had about 25 customers that day, Kaylin said.

market1CR.jpg
Many vendors at the Original Farmers Market were open Thursday afternoon, including Kaylin & Hobbs Pickles, which was opened last month by co-owner Scott Kaylin, center.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s my first time in the food business and the happiest I’ve ever been,” Kaylin said. Even in the middle of all this!”

All that optimism — not what I expected. But the biggest surprise turned up back in the Grove.

At first glance, yes, it looked like a ghost town with an Apple store on Main Street. But the longer I looked, the more I saw stirring. Although most of the stores were closed, Barnes & Noble was still selling books (it has since closed). A family of four had just grabbed snacks from Wetzel’s Pretzels.

On the artificial turf in front of J. Crew (closed), Aldrick Chavez and Elise Quintanilla, both 18, had flopped to make a picnic of some Chipotle takeout. When a man in a dark blue suit strolled past with a golden retriever on a leash, Chavez called out to compliment the dog, and the man stopped to say thanks.

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It was the mall mogul himself, Rick J. Caruso and his dog Dodge, joined by a scrupulously distanced entourage of half a dozen more men in dark suits. They moved through the mall like a school of dark blue fish in a mostly empty aquarium.

I introduced myself and asked Caruso how he had arrived at the decision to keep the music and fountain flowing.

“For that reason right there. For that couple,” said Caruso, nodding toward Chavez and Quintanilla. “We have to find a way to put some smiles on our faces.”

He said he’d keep the water, lights and music going as long as he was able. After Caruso headed off to the west with his crew, Chavez asked me, “Who is that?”

I told him, and asked Chavez and Quintanilla how they’d ended up there on the turf.

“It’s just a nice day for a picnic,” he said. “You kind of fail when you start to live in fear.”

The counterpoint to that argument, of course, is that living in fear — staying inside, or keeping to wider-open spaces like grassy Pan Pacific Park, just across the street from the Grove — might well keep us all healthier. As Thursday’s moves by state and local officials show, our leaders are getting more nervous by the day about public interactions.

But we’re also social animals, whether we scoop ice cream, peddle pickles or own malls for our living, and lately we’re choosing moment by moment between ancient instincts and new imperatives. Let’s hope we’re doing it right.

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The outdoor areas of the Grove remained open Friday morning, as did several of its restaurants, offering takeout orders only. The Original Farmers Market remained open as well. “Grocers are open and [some of] our restaurants are open for takeout. And our post office is open,” said Ilysha Buss, the market’s marketing director. “We’re happy to provide services to the community.”

If you choose to visit any of these places, call your destination or check its website first. Things are changing fast.


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