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It's Small Town U.S.A., With a Bit of Seashore Class

January 15, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young lives in Irvine and writes regularly for Orange County Life.

Malls throughout America are trying to re-create the Main Streets of yesteryear with park benches, homey storefronts and potted trees. But the shopping district of Corona del Mar really is Main Street, with all the charm and problems of an old-fashioned commercial strip.

This seaside hamlet, a folksy enclave of affluent Newport Beach, still centers on the ribbon of shops that stretches for 1 1/2 miles between MacArthur Boulevard and Poppy Avenue along East Coast Highway. Here, where the streets are named after flowers and customers risk their lives crossing them, is an impressive array of galleries, antique stores, pharmacies and restaurants. Interior design shops and art dealers rub shoulders with acupuncture clinics, surf shops and tanning salons. Restaurants and snack counters are popular and plentiful, park benches and the occasional outdoor cafe provide comfort and atmosphere, but parking can be dangerous and is limited.

Surviving in the shadow of Fashion Island has not been easy. Many merchants met their demise when the huge shopping area in Newport Center was built in 1967. But many more have stuck it out, and, while the strip is not booming, it is far from dead. If the area's pride was buffeted a bit in the '60s and '70s, those decades did not diminish the aggressive "I love Corona del Mar" spirit.

The rectangular-shaped town was created in 1904 when Los Angeles hotel owner and real estate developer George E. Hart bought 706 acres for $106,000 from the Irvine Co. Because of its isolation and difficult access roads, growth was slow at first. But the highway construction that brought prosperity after World War II has in some ways developed into the curse of Corona. Merchants fear that older residents will avoid the heavy traffic that slices through the district or that shoppers will resist trying to park in front of their shops right off the highway. Public parking lots, many of them behind the shops on the ocean side, have been added recently, although more parking is still needed.

But parking and traffic are only a small part of the colorful personality of Corona del Mar, literally "crown of the sea." The individuality and quality of the shops, the ability to still walk most of the strip, and the friendliness of shopkeepers make this a good daylong stop for a shopping spree. It's also a good place to tie on the feed bag.

Chamber of Commerce president Royal Radtke says approximately 200 business are located in the district, including physicians, interior decorators, real estate offices and insurance brokers. The area doesn't have a wide selection of clothing, shoe or toy stores. It is, however, especially rich in interior design and home-furnishing shops. Among them are:

Artisans, a store featuring folk art from Mexico, Africa, South America and other parts of the world. At the intersection of Orchid Avenue and Coast Highway, Artisans offers giant clay urns, copper plates and trays, candles, painted wooden fish and mirrors, all handmade, mostly by Third World artists.

Anna Gray Gallery, 2737 E. Coast Highway, specializes in antique jewelry but also carries lots of antiques and other decorations. Its most unusual items include an antique painting on ivory from the 1800s ($4,900) and a large 1890 Venetian mirror ($2,800).

Pine Trader, 2912 E. Coast Highway, sells 19th-Century European (mostly from Ireland) pine furniture, including armoires, tables, chests and chairs. The only new items are the Windsor chairs. All the restoration of the furniture is done at Pine Traders in Santa Barbara. The prices are good; an example is an Irish pine chest with drawers for $695.

Caprice Imports has pretty things, many of them country items, at good prices: a small decorative rocking horse for $7, trays and vases for under $20 and party plates for under $20. This shop also has beautiful cards and purses.

Also worth visiting are Warren Imports, Europa furniture and Expressions d'art.

While not abundant, some interesting clothing shops are sprinkled in among the furnishings and antique stores. Recycled Rags has used clothing of good quality at relatively low prices. Although a Ralph Lauren suede jacket is selling there for $240, another suede jacket without a designer's label, but in just as good a shape, sells for $120. Mark Schell sells attractive and unusual men's clothing: all-cotton shirts in white with black detail for $57.50 and arty-looking ties for $47.50.

You can't venture far along Coast Highway in Corona del Mar without bumping into a newspaper stand or a restaurant. Grab some reading material (everything from adult singles newsletters to the New York Times is available) and head for one of the many eateries. Good bets for lunch are Puffins for "natural" foods; Mucho Munchies for chips, salsa and real lemonade; Gary's Deli for pastrami on rye ($2.45) and La Dolce Vita for Italian pastry and ginseng cola.

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