It may be Southern California's trendiest--and tackiest--place to shop: the Venice Beach boardwalk, a year-round hangout of bargain-conscious fashion mavens who prefer sunshine, an ocean breeze and live entertainment, while they survey the latest styles.
This is where you'll find designs more likely to show up on MTV than "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Garments such as skintight leggings in every shade of the rainbow. Outrageous sunglasses at drugstore prices. Oversize jeans jackets printed with stars and polka dots. A seemingly endless supply of $1 earrings. And all manner of sparkly, glamour gear intended to be worn for day as well as night.
But shopping Ocean Front Walk, or the boardwalk as it's more commonly known, is hardly an encounter with elegance. On the way to their purchases, visitors may have to dodge roller skaters, dogs, wandering guitar players, bicyclists, Tarot-card readers or perhaps all of the above.
As the enthusiasts say: It's just part of the adventure on this surprise-laden concourse that stretches roughly from Windward Avenue on the south to Rose Avenue on the north.
Shopping here requires a tolerant mind-set, one that's generally willing to forgo such traditional amenities as plush dressing rooms, validated parking, complimentary gift wrapping, attractive shopping bags or, in some cases, even mirrors.
Those who want to try things on in vendor booths, which are swiftly erected each day in front of buildings, parking lots and yards, may find themselves contending with a "dressing room" that consists of two sheets of fabric hung from a rope (a setup that affords about two square feet of space in which to change).
These shoppers are lucky. While there are some permanent stores on the boardwalk with more conventional dressing rooms, many vendors don't provide any changing facilities at all.
Truly dedicated beach shoppers simply try clothes on over their bathing suits, ask other vendors if they can borrow their dressing rooms for a moment, hide behind whatever they can or throw caution to the wind and change without privacy.
What's the lure that makes people put up with this stuff?
Joni Consroe, a model whose closet contains both $1,000 evening gowns and $12 suits, frequently walks from her home in Marina del Rey to survey the latest offerings on the boardwalk.
"It's fun and it's festive," she reasons. "You go out and you have a good time while you're shopping. There's no pressure, no hard sell. And there are great bargains. Occasionally you can find some unusual items or hand-painted things you wouldn't normally find."
In addition to modeling, Consroe also takes people on makeover shopping outings and occasionally brings them to the boardwalk. This specialist in what she calls "Zen glamour," cautions, however, that there some guidelines that should be observed in beach shopping.
For instance, clothes should always be tried on, she says, explaining that while many vendors sell first-quality merchandise, others may sell "irregulars" or "seconds" that aren't always marked as such. Or shoppers may find some garments that are first quality but marked with the wrong size.
Consroe also recommends shopping on weekends (she estimates that only about 60% of the vendors offer their wares weekdays, while virtually all the retailers are out on weekends, usually from 10 or 10:30 a.m. to about 7 p.m.).
"I would go on Saturday morning about 11 o'clock and try to complete everything by 2 p.m.," she says, adding that the larger crowds on Sunday make it "very, very difficult."
Consroe finds that many vendors--but not all--are open to bargaining on the price of their goods. And she's also noticed that despite the transient appearance of many booths, a tremendous number of vendors are consistently present. She says she's even returned things she decided were inappropriate once she got home.
How can beach vendors sell at prices lower than other retailers?
According to Pam Rogers, owner of Reckless Women, a costume jewelry store on the north end of the boardwalk near Rose Avenue, it's due to a combination of shrewd buying practices and big crowds--but not necessarily lower rents.
"We have a lower profit margin," she says, noting that this is possible because ofthe large number of people who pass in and out of her store (a permanent fixture, open daily). "Usually we buy from manufacturers and sometimes through jobbers (wholesale middlemen), and we import some things directly."
But boardwalk rents are not particularly low priced. They run as much as $10 a square foot, Rogers says, with the highest rents at the heavily traveled, south end of the boardwalk.