'It Just Breaks My Heart': Pandemic Tales Of Business Loss, Survival In Burbank's Magnolia Park
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This is the first in a series of stories on how different communities around L.A. County have weathered the pandemic.
You might know Magnolia Park by the Porto's Bakery there, or more recently, the continuing saga of Tinhorn Flats.
Beyond those big names, the neighborhood's identity is based on small businesses -- especially those selling antiques, vintage clothing, memorabilia and specialty books.
Magnolia Park is only about one mile in diameter, in a fairly middle-class part of Burbank. Even within that small area, the pandemic's impact was quite uneven.
Some businesses struggled and survived, others closed for good, and a few actually thrived.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Larry and Kathy Ross have run the Blast From The Past toy store in Magnolia Park for over a decade. The huge brick building, once a bank, now has a mural of the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda watching over the entrance.
Technically, it's a vintage store. The clientele picking through Ninja Turtle and Power Ranger action figures usually aren't kids, but nostalgia-seeking adults. And in spite of the pandemic, those customers are still coming by in droves.
"I hesitate to say this because I'm aware of how tough it's been for so many people, but our business has increased a great deal," Larry Ross said.
The business didn't turn a profit in its first decade. Then, just in the last year, revenue at Blast From the Past doubled, he said.
"I don't know exactly what to ascribe that to other than there's nothing else to do," Ross said. "Coming into a place that's friendly and nerdy and at least somewhat entertaining can be a huge relief."
The store's success is not representative of the neighborhood, he said. Co-owner Kathy Ross, president of the Magnolia Park Merchants Association, knows of five businesses that closed for good in the last year.
That isn't just a pandemic problem. Even before the coronavirus hit, there was a "Save Magnolia Park" campaign. Driving around the area, I saw more than five stores boarded up or empty.
"It's gentrification," Ross said. "Some of those quirky mom and pop-type shops can't make it in the steeper rent world."
The pandemic definitely made things harder, though. The Rosses gestured to a clothing shop across the street. That's the place to go, they said, to see what it's been like for most local businesses.
JUNK FOR JOY
Junk For Joy is not a thrift store, owner Kathleen Lenihan immediately explained. It sells vintage clothing and costumes, including goods from before 1976, when the store opened.
Behind the counter, Lenihan keeps a collection of deadstock sunglasses. That's where a pair featured in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood came from.
"That's the picture the costumer sent to me of Brad Pitt wearing them," Lenihan said, pointing to a printout of a photo taped to the box.
In the last year those big sales, international customers, and even the usual visitors dried up.
"It's a lot slower," Lenihan said. "I'm here by myself. Normally, I would have at least one other employee."
When the pandemic hit, Lenihan shut down for six months and couldn't afford to keep her staff. She reopened in October, but only after giving up half of her space to another business.
"It was painful and stressful and I was anxious through the whole thing," she said.
Now, business is gradually starting to come back.
While I visited, a longtime customer and musician named Tripp Denom was putting together a '70s soul outfit for his upcoming album, searching for something Al Green or Teddy Pendergrass might have worn.
"I'm emulating some of my favorite artists that I grew up listening to," Denom said, looking over the outfit in the mirror. "We have these nice brown bell bottoms -- I love these."
Lenihan picked it all out for him (including some fake chest hair, which Denom politely declined). Demon said seeing Junk For Joy make it through the year was a relief.
"This particular store is so unique. Where we are, everybody's a creative," he said. "These places will survive just off of us needing it."
Christy Hicks chose to start her studio, Yoga Blend, in Magnolia Park because it had a small-town feel, like the south, where she's from.
"I owned it and operated it for 16 years ... almost," Hicks said, "It was my baby. It was my everything."
Hicks closed the studio preemptively last March, before the lockdown. It will not be reopening. At first, Hicks tried teaching yoga over Zoom.
"It was a disaster," she said. "Some people went online but some people just didn't want to do that."
When the lockdown started, Hicks lost 75% of her students and revenue overnight. She got a government PPP loan, but it wasn't enough. Worried about keeping up with her lease and loan payments, she started spending her savings to keep it open.
Eventually reopening at limited capacity didn't seem feasible, financially or emotionally.
"I started thinking about [people] coming in, afraid of each other, afraid to be close, afraid to breathe," Hicks said. "To try to teach that way ... I would feel fraudulent. I would feel like I'm not the teacher that I claim to be."
Imagining that, Hicks got nauseous and threw up.
"That was the answer," she said. "If my body is having this kind of violent reaction to what it would look like if I reopened. I was like, I gotta get out of this. It's not mine anymore."
In June, Hicks gave up her lease and moved back to Tennessee. She's still teaching some yoga classes online, but the Yoga Blend business is over.
She stands by her decision, but misses Magnolia Park.
"Things have changed so much and it just breaks my heart to think of my little gem in L.A., that place that was so special to me," Hicks said.