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August 12, 2004

Melrose: Avenue of the Stars of David

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/melrose_avenue_of_the_stars_of_david_20040813

The street was made famous by the TV show "Melrose Place," and for years, scores of tourists have trawled Melrose Avenue every day, hoping that some Los Angeles stardust will rub off on them.

They find a number of things as they stroll down Melrose: They discover that while there are almost no chain stores, it's a great street for those who want to dress like Paris Hilton but can't afford to, because so many stores stock a full array of cheap, tight, midriff-baring T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Juicy," which look great with thong underwear that peeks out from the top of hot-pink hotpants.

They also find that Melrose is like Little Israel. Between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, most of the stores on Melrose are owned by Israelis who came to the United States looking to own and operate their own stores, and many are staffed by newcomer Israelis who might not yet have green cards and want a job that can pay cash.

The milieu of stores that sell cheap merchandise and proprietors who are amenable to customers haggling over prices is somewhat similar to the souks in Israel. While the Valley might be the home away from home for Israelis in Los Angeles, Melrose is, perhaps, their business away from business.

"Israelis are attracted to anywhere where there is business to be made," said Rafael Cohen, an Israeli and president of Rafael and Associates Real Estate, which specializes in properties around the area. "I think that the bazaar, open-market type environment on Melrose is similar to what we are familiar with in Israel, and the fact that Melrose is a place to be seen and show off matches the Israeli personality nicely."

On Melrose, the Israeli store owners tend to have a friendly, yet competitive camaraderie. Their watering hole of choice is the Vienna Cafe, where many meet daily to sip coffee and schmooze about business.

They speak to each other in Hebrew so much that even some of the non-Israeli store owners, such as the Koreans who own accessories stores, are starting to pick up a few words of Hebrew. And they watch what goes on in each other's stores, in both an effort not to duplicate and to assess how well other store owners are doing.

"We try to stay away from each other's [merchandise]" said Dror Avisov, the proprietor of American Rebel. "When I go downtown [to buy wholesale merchandise], if I see something I like, I wouldn't buy it if I know someone else stocks it. We are friends with everybody, as long as the guy is not trying to copy you."

"There's always competition," said Alon Zeltzer who owns the XCVI clothing store with his father, while his wife, Milla, owns the Milla Angelina Gallery. "But it's not ruthless competition by any stretch. Still, everyone counts each other's bags -- we check to see how many people are walking on the street with a store's bag."

Not everyone is happy about the bazaar-type environment.

"Unfortunately, there is haggling on Melrose," said Gila Shlomof Leibovitch, who owns two stores, Blowout and Matrix, at opposite ends of Melrose. "I think it started about four years ago. There were too many desperate store owners trying to sell stuff, and someone started this whole price war. He had signs everywhere, '$5', '$10', 'Make me an offer,' and he created this whole swap meet image on Melrose, and now everyone expects that from every store."

But sustaining a thriving retail business on Melrose is not so easy any more. Owners complain that there is no longer enough foot traffic to justify rents of $3-$5 a square foot, and that their niche of cheap clothes for clubbing has been co-opted by stores like Forever 21, which sell similar stuff in the Beverly Center and The Grove.

"We used to have buses of tourists come to the street, but after Sept. 11 that decreased dramatically," Zeltzer said. "The retail business has seen better times."

Despite that, Melrose maintains a flavor of its own.

"It's a young, crazy, fun, funky, promiscuous street," said Shlomof-Leibovitch. "You have celebrities, interesting-looking people and half-naked girls walking down the street. The other day, Snoop Dogg had his whole band crammed into a truck that was playing up and down the street. And you can still find products here that nobody else has."

"I guess Melrose is the closest thing to Dizengoff," said Zeltzer, referring to the famous pedestrian street mall in --where else? -- Tel Aviv.

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