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Two's a Crowd : Store Owner Sues to Halt Competitor's Sale of Collectibles

August 24, 1986|KAREN ROEBUCK | Times Staff Writer

Juliet stands in a shop window in the Manhattan Village Mall, watching the shoppers pass and listening as Romeo whispers to her, her serene face almost expressionless.

About 10 stores away, an identical Juliet stands on a shelf with her Romeo, checking out potential customers and listening to her lover.

Juliet looks calm, yet the porcelain figurine manufactured by Lladro, which sells for $750 in one mall shop and $675 in the other, is in the center of a controversy over which of the two shops in the mall of about 65 stores should be allowed to sell her likeness and other collectibles such as the coveted figurines manufactured by Lladro, Hummel and Cybis.

Kay E. Friedman, a co-owner of The Collectors Showcase, which has operated at the mall since it opened in 1981, has filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the sale of collectibles by Seaport Inc., which operates Seaport Unique Gifts, the other store in the mall that sells identical or very similar collectibles.

The suit names several companies and individuals, including Seaport Inc. and Alexander Haagen Development, and seeks a total of $6.7 million, including punitive damages, claiming breach of lease and unfair business practices. A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Orange County Superior Court.

"This mall cannot support two collectors' shops, and I'm the smallest one in this mall," Friedman said in a recent interview. "If I had the protection I was promised, I would not be struggling."

Friedman said that over the past five years she has repeatedly asked the mall's developer and part owner, Alexander Haagen Development, and the mall managers to order Seaport to comply with its lease, which specifically prohibits the shop from selling Hummel, Lladro and Cybis collectibles.

She said that when she moved into the mall she was assured that her shop would be the only store in the mall selling collectibles.

"Haagen told me that he was going to make me a millionaire and . . . with the only collectible shop and . . . my location, I couldn't go wrong," Friedman said in a statement filed with the court.

Lladros are hand-painted, porcelain statues from Spain. The average statue stands about 10 inches tall and costs from $100 to $150. But the pieces can be as tall two feet and can cost as much as $15,000.

Hummels are hand-painted porcelain figurines of children that are made in Germany. They average from 4 to 6 inches in height and cost from $80 to $150. They can range up to 2 1/2 feet tall, however, and cost up to $17,000.

Cybis porcelains are American-made, hand-painted, bisque figurines, usually of children, birds or flowers. They average about 10 inches in height and cost from $300 to $500. Some stand 21 inches tall and can cost up to $6,000.

Friedman's suit claims that Seaport has sold merchandise at less than cost and offered giveaways in an effort to undercut The Collectors Showcase, practices that, according to the suit, violate the California Business and Professions Code.

"Every time I get a new line of merchandise in, within two months, (Seaport's) got the new merchandise," Friedman said. "It's been killing me--the stress of finding new lines of merchandise before (Seaport) can get them and discount them." She said she has been taking medication for three years because of heart problems brought on by the continued stress.

"They have been out to get my shop since the beginning. . . . They come down to get a cookie (at the shop next door) to see my new lines," she said.

In an interview, James G. Dickey and Phuc Van Nguyen, owners of Seaport Unique Gifts, denied all the allegations made in the lawsuit, but declined to comment further.

Friedman said it is impossible to estimate how much her business has been hurt by Seaport.

Friedman began selling collectibles about 22 years ago after she met a Hummel distributor at a gift show. She said she purchased a few figurines from him to sell at her husband's grocery store in Artesia and out of her Cerritos home. Her interest and her sales increased, and she decided to move her business to Manhattan Beach when the mall--anchored by Buffums at one end and Bullock's at the other--opened in 1981.

Friedman said that when she first complained about Seaport, the mall management ordered Dickey and Van Nguyen to remove the collectibles from their store, but later did not enforce the order. The merchandise was allowed to remain in Seaport despite her protests, she said.

"Finally, when no one would listen to me, I had to seek legal help," she said. On Aug. 7, she and her partners--her husband, Allan J. Friedman, and Hollis Gene Emmons--filed the lawsuit.

Developer Haagen said that Friedman had complained about the overlap of merchandise in the past, but not to the extent she now claims.

"This is the first time in 30 years that I've ever had anything like this (dispute)," said Haagen. "We pride ourselves on being very caring and protective of our tenants."

He declined to comment further on the lawsuit.

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