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A MALL WITHOUT THRONGS : L.A. Mart's Gifts Priced to Sell--but Only to the Trade

March 07, 1988|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

There is a mall in downtown Los Angeles where furniture and gift items often sell for half the normal retail price--but few consumers have heard of it and most can't shop there.

The L.A. Mart, celebrating its 30th year at the corner of Broadway and Washington, has become the unchallenged spot where the Southern California gift industry shops for merchandise. Officials don't seem to mind the low profile the 13-story mart has with the general public or begrudge the more glamorous image of its West Hollywood neighbor, the Pacific Design Center.

In fact, as more and more so-called wholesale marts and districts appear around Southern California with at least some entree to the public, the L.A. Mart stands firm on its strict policy. A sign in the lobby, reinforced by a uniformed guard, keeps out nearly everyone who isn't a retail buyer, designer, architect or someone suitably armed with a business card and resale number.

The shop-til-they-drop crowd is missing out on nearly 400 showrooms comprising 750,000 square feet of space, selling everything from California Raisin windsocks to fine crystal to expensive leather sofas. About three-fourths of the showrooms carry such things as silk flowers, housewares, china, stationery and gift items. The rest sell furniture and accessories, such as lamps and rugs.

You can find a trendy Southwestern-style bench or a classic pine dining room table. A plastic beer mug atop a muscle-building barbell--so you can pump up while you drink up--is displayed not far from the Lalique crystal. Many showrooms carry what public relations director Sue Birch calls "nifty gifties," and in some it's Christmas all year long.

Some Sneak In

"This building is never open to the public--that's important," said Birch, who joined the operation 29 years ago when it was known as the L.A. Home Furniture Mart and carried no gift items.

Added Mart President Henry Brandler: "The retailers and designers are happy that we're this strict because you don't get the street vendors who come in and buy and then sell at swap meets." Selling to the public also puts the wholesalers in competition with their own retailer customers, he said.

The public isn't always understanding, particularly the Southern California bargain hunter who has become accustomed to shopping in wholesale districts, even those that post "to the trade only" signs.

Sometimes people do sneak into the L.A. Mart, and they can find some showrooms willing to sell samples or discontinued items. But the mart's tight screening usually keeps out the casual shoppers who aren't accompanied by their interior designers.

"Sometimes it's a little bit annoying because they think they can buy one of anything they see," said Klaus Stricker, whose Harriette & Co. showroom carries dolls, lamps and collectibles. "There's always a minimum order, and if they want credit, that's another problem."

Receptionist Barbara Jones said the front desk personnel, who check visitors' credentials on computers and then issue identity badges, turn away 10 to 15 people a day. "Some people cuss us out when they can't get in, especially if they've come a long way."

Across the street at the municipal court building, "a lot of people have made at least one attempt to get in there," said Lenore Cadwell, a health investigator for the court system. "I would spend my money if they would let me in. Even the judges can't get in. Political power doesn't even do any good."

"I wanted to," said another court worker. "But once I heard that you couldn't, I didn't even try."

The building was constructed with buyers in mind. They can circle a floor without ever having to double back, Brandler said. "There are no hidden corners," he said. The mart also has a coffee shop, a separate restaurant, two bars, a banquet room, a travel agent and a florist.

"I say this without fear of contradiction, there's no other building that caters to the gift industry the way the L.A. Mart does," Brandler said. The building hosts major shows in January and July that attract 30,000 buyers each from all over the country as well as Europe and Pacific Rim nations, he said. Smaller shows are held in between.

Buyer Julie McFadden, who works for Costa Mesa-based Toys International, was looking for Easter basket items on a recent visit to the L.A. Mart.

"A lot of the reps that we deal with have their showrooms here," she said, adding that she finds more unusual things at the gift shows than at toy industry shows. "I don't come to L.A. without coming here."

The L.A. Mart wasn't always so well regarded. The building began its life as a furniture mart, but as large furniture companies with their own sources of supply began to drive under small independent furniture stores, the mart lost many of its clients.

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