A wall of neatly coiffed ladies charges up to the counter to place their orders for baked goods on one of the last days before the holidays and one of the last days before Brown's Bakery in North Hollywood closes its doors forever. Some of the customers have been buying their cakes, cookies and bread here for as long as the bakery has been open, and that's 42 years. Some have been Brown's customers even longer, when it was Brown Brothers Bakery on Wilshire Boulevard; some for longer still, when Brown's was in the Bronx, during the war.
Watching this crowd, it's hard to believe they could possibly purchase their baked goods anywhere else. When Brown's closes its doors April 15, God only knows what they will do. (In preparation for the bakery's closing, one customer bought her birthday cake six months in advance and froze it.)
"Things have changed in this area," said Sheldon Brown, the burly, friendly second-generation owner of Brown's Bakery. "The retail structure of the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. There's nothing here now."
Looking up and down this stretch of Victory Boulevard, one can see ghosts of a Jewish neighborhood's past. A dry cleaners, the Ventura Kosher Meat Market and the Circle M Market, all of which used to serve the large Jewish population of 30 years ago, are gone. Now there are only nondescript offices and empty shops. The only other store on the block is a beauty school, which might explain all the nifty do's but doesn't generate a lot of customers on this stretch of the Valley.
As far as closing his shop goes, there were other problems besides the neighborhood, Brown said.
"The Health Department told us that no one could walk through from the parking lot [in the rear] to the front of the store," Brown said. "Have you ever tried telling Jewish people they couldn't walk through? A tank wouldn't stop them; they're going to walk here anyway."
Case in point: a stream of elderly ladies marches through the narrow kitchen, looking around at the freshly baked goods, nodding approval, and making their way to the front of the bakery.
"The baker just kissed me," one of the ladies said before disappearing around the corner.
Ten years ago, as the neighborhood went through changes, Brown saw his wholesale business take off as his retail portion began to decline. Brown realized it would be a waste of time and money to remodel.
Even with old customers traveling from all over the Valley to buy, the North Hollywood neighborhood could no longer sustain enough business. Finally, the landlord asked for more rent.
"That was it," Brown said, and decided to get out of retail. After April 15, Brown's wife, Judy, will become new owner of the wholesale portion of the business. She plans to lease another space and continue to deliver to clients such as Brent's, Art's, Bagel Nosh, Billy's, Roxy's, Wylers, Robertson Ranch, and a number of other delis and temples and synagogues in the Valley.
"When people heard we were closing down, they began calling: 'What are we going to do?' 'Where are we going to go?'" said Judy, who married Brown shortly after he opened the bakery in 1959. "We've gotten hundreds of flowers and notes; I never would have imagined the response. We try and do a good job and have a good product, and [Brown] loves being with customers, but after 42 years, it's enough."
Enough, however, is not a word Brown's customers have ever used.
"I am really going to miss this place," said Ruth Crystal of Valley Village. "I've been coming here for 56 years. We're like family." She said she was a customer also when Brown's was on Wilshire.
"I'm going to cry a lot," said Gladys Horowitz, who travels from Encino. "I've been coming since 1960."
"My whole family has been raised on Brown's products," said Isadore Widre, an elderly gent from Encino who is accustomed to hanging around the kitchen. "I used to send packages up to my daughter when she was in college in San Francisco; I think she paid her way through school with Brown's strudels and chocolate chip rugelach. Now she's a successful speech pathologist, and she's still getting packages from home."
"I moved away from this neighborhood, and I'd come back here to buy and put [baked goods] in the freezer," Joan Stein said. "Now I don't know what I'm going to do."
"Please put a big caption in your story: We will miss you!" said Magda Hoffman.
"I used to be a customer of theirs in 1941 in the Bronx," said David Berger, an incredibly fit 87-year-old. "I worked on Park Avenue, and I'd buy Brown's bread and rolls; I've been a fan ever since."
"You see what's going on here," said Brown, standing in the kitchen, listening to his customers' accolades. "Everyone's schmoozing; it's a happening. We're like one big family."
Unfortunately, like all good things, even bakeries must come to an end, but one wonders how Brown, the preeminent baker of chocolate-chip sponge cake and babkas, who so obviously enjoys the social interaction of his customers, will adjust to not having a bakery. A guy like this must have his hands and back involved in his work and in the neighborhood. But if the neighborhood no longer exists, what does a person like Brown do?
"I can't really talk about that now," he answered.
Instead, turning to his wife, he said, "Fix her up with a little something, Judy."
That's a refrain his customers will sadly miss.