On the one hand, it is clear the Old World Village shopping center in Huntington Beach could use some aggressive marketing. It has few signs, little advertising and a dubious reputation caused by legal and administrative problems. During the week the place is practically deserted.
On the other hand, the village's low-key image is part of its charm, at least to visitors unaware of the bitter court battles that have beset the center since 1982.
Its subtle attempts to lure customers--through flyers, strolling musicians and the aroma of homemade bratwurst--reflect the small-town nature of the center and its family of resident shopkeepers.
With its cobbled streets, European-style buildings and a profusion of flowers, Old World captures the flavor of a Bavarian village. Plaster mountains rim the entrance, wrought-iron gates separate some buildings and Germanic murals grace many walls. The village's "old European" image is further enhanced by the fact that most of the shopkeepers are European.
But while the shopping village may look Old World, its problems are very 20th Century.
According to several shop owners, squabbling among the residents and disputes with the developer have prevented the center from outlining marketing goals or even agreeing on advertising strategy. Six years of litigation (primarily concerning the homeowners' governing board) have dominated village politics and affected marketing efforts, according to shopkeepers.
Old World Village is an unusual condominium-commercial development where residents own their stores and homes and a homeowner association owns and manages the common grounds through assessments. The center has its own church and "city hall" office building.
"This is a village in the true sense of the word," said Dawn Ellen Pope, owner of the Ellensgate herb and flower shop. "There have been a lot of disagreements."
But things my be looking up. Since early in 1987 when a Superior Court judge placed the shopping center in receivership, a Santa Ana attorney has been managing the center and attempting to resolve disputes (although many lawsuits are still pending).
Bern Bischof, manager of the Old World German Restaurant and son of the village's developer, Josef Bischof, is hopeful the center's stormy period is over.
"We had a huge Scottish festival in February, and that was the first time when, whether they liked each other or didn't like each other, everybody really worked together," he said. "So it's a start. Things are changing, and I'd like to get this point across and forget about all the litigation." Owners have also fought a location problem. Built in the shadow of the Huntington Center shopping mall near the San Diego Freeway, the center is on hard-to-find Center Avenue, which has little pedestrian traffic.
Regardless of Old World's future, its present offerings are worth a visit, especially on weekends when all the shops are open and musicians can be heard in the courtyards.
On Sunday the center is sponsoring a Greek Festival from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with folk songs, food and dancing. Later this month (June 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) an "Antique Street Market" will enable vendors to set up booths and hawk their wares. And German Heritage Day will take place July 10.
The village has no trouble attracting visitors come fall, when Oktoberfest events unfold and the center is alive with revelers and oompah bands.
But back to the bratwurst. One of the biggest draws at Old World is the collection of European-style restaurants, most of which have outdoor cafe tables. Before or after a meal of sausages and beer or a snack of homemade pastry and espresso, about 50 shops beckon with imports, collectibles, shoes, clothes and jewelry.
Among the more unusual gift stores are Classy Collectibles and Ellensgate.
Owned by Don and Donna Rand, Classy Collectibles is not particularly European, but it is a fun store that specializes in tole-painted items (by Donna) and hand-painted liquor decanters (collected by Don). "I have a very unusual shop," said Don with a smile. "You don't find these things just anywhere."
Don's decanters, which cost $15 and up, come from all over the world and in a variety of shapes, including likenesses of famous people (Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne and Henry Ford), cars and animals. A whole shelf is devoted to decanters from brothels in Nevada (Mustang Ranch, the Chicken Ranch, etc). The Elvis bottles command an entire corner of the shop, which also displays a handmade medieval castle created by Kenneth Linsdley. The 13th-Century fortress took 1 1/2 years to build and costs $6,000.
"I hope it doesn't sell," said Don, who besides owning Classy Collectibles is an actor who has appeared on TV and stage. "At that price it's not going anywhere for a while."
Ellensgate carries dried and fresh flowers, herbs, garden supplies and ornaments in a store reminiscent of an English country cottage.