When stores we love close, it hurts

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Photos by Iris Schneider

I saw it out of the corner of my eye while driving home on Sunset. While I knew what it meant, I chose to ignore it at first, hoping it was just a clever way to get people's attention.

"End of an Era Sale. 50% off" screamed the sign painted across the store windows.

Could it be that Uncle Jer's was closing?

I finally dragged myself over there, feeling as if I were attending a wake. I've been visiting that store ever since I moved to LA in 1980. I'd always found unique treasures to admire, take home, or give as gifts. I talked to Rob Graney, the owner since 2001, whose face and smile I had come to know so well over the years. He confirmed it: Uncle Jer's, an icon of Silver Lake since it first opened in 1978, was going out of business. "It's really been a grind over the last few years," he said. "You have to pay the rent, make a living and have a life. We were barely maintaining two of those. It will feel good to spend time with my kids." Graney and his wife Cassandra, both former employees, bought the store from the original Uncle Jer, Jerry Morley [name fixed], who with his wife Berda opened it in 1978.

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Graney assured me that the cornucopia of little treasures--unique locally-made jewelry, clothing and an array of international folk art--will be available online and perhaps in popup stores. But more than their merchandise, it was the feeling of the place that made it special for me. If a store could hug you, Uncle Jer's did, and places like that are rare indeed. It even smelled good when you walked in, and their unusual way of wrapping gifts became an undeniable tipoff that something special was inside.

The news hit me hard, coming on the heels of an earlier blow. Sweets Beads, where I've gone for years for beading supplies and special shopping excursions with my daughters, was also closing after 25 years. Susan Elias, the diminutive owner, as sweet as the name of her store, was closing down. She had opened the tiny store on Beverly near Fairfax with her husband in 1986 and "spent almost all my adult life standing right here." She always planned to retire at 65, but she would have put it off a few years if the economy hadn't wreaked havoc on her customer base. Elias was always willing to give advice and assistance when you were stuck on a project. She'd throw a few extra things in your bag for free and make you feel welcome. At one time they tried giving classes but she realized, "One on one is the best way to teach." She and her daughter Rebecca, who's worked in the store the past eight years, were always so generous with their knowledge.

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Both shop owners echoed each other's sentiments--relief and sadness, but guarded excitement about moving on with their lives. Over the past few weeks, the stores have been crowded with shoppers, some familiar and some new, taking advantage of great sale prices. I've been there too, but for me the sales are no cause for rejoicing. In fact, as I passed by Sweets over the weekend and saw the tables outside laden with bargains, I couldn't even stop. While the owners are surely happy for the business, I keep thinking, if we all had come in to shop more often, maybe this would not be happening.

It's no surprise that times are bad for everyone and the kind of disposable income spent on crafts, jewelry and gifts has dried up. But when these kinds of stores go away the loss means so much more than just a shopping trip.

"A lot of people have said that they think of this place as a refuge, a blissful place," Graney said. "They come here to take refuge from their day. It's been really touching. A small portion of our identity is tied to a store sometimes. For some people it's part of the way they define their city." In their own way, each of these stores was that antidote to the craziness of the day, a chance to look at beautiful things in a welcoming environment and just breathe.

sweets10sm.jpgIt must be hard for the owners to hear customers tell them: "I've been driving by your store for three years and always meant to stop in." Somehow, we think these special places will be here forever. Reality feels like a slap in the face.

Elias was musing about the future: "Someday people will drive by and say...what was here? And after a while, everyone forgets." But she realizes what her store has meant. "A man used to come in every day after his wife died. He said he loved the light in here, the feeling, the aura of the place," she said. "He used to sit at that bench right next to the windows. I think we saved his life." He never bought a single bead.

"We mattered for a lot of people," she said.

I couldn't agree more.


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