Who says recycling isn't working? In downtown Fullerton, it's sure a success story, although this kind of recycling has nothing to do with pop bottles and beer cans. Instead, it involves objects worth far more than a penny apiece: vintage buildings.
Long before many cities even noticed their central business districts were withering, Fullerton was already resuscitating its downtown by converting structures no longer needed for their original purpose into space for specialty retail shops.
More than 20 years after the first building was saved, the area is still a work in progress, with "For Lease" and "Coming Soon" signs in many windows and restorations in progress on several corners.
It is also a comfortable environment for a leisurely afternoon of shopping. And if you happen to enjoy browsing in bookstores, better make that a full day.
In a year or so, you can budget another day to check out the dozens of new shops being created or planned in everything from an old theater to office buildings to a Masonic temple.
It all started back in 1965, when someone decided progress would be served by razing the landmark California Hotel on Harbor Boulevard and replacing it with a car wash. Fortunately, someone else decided progress and preservation were not mutually exclusive. The circa-1923 hotel became Villa del Sol, a lush courtyard surrounded by shops and protected from the street by a wall that blends perfectly into the old mission style.
Joan Lorson, owner of Lorson's Books & Prints in Villa del Sol, said redevelopment was already well under way when she moved in 11 years ago, and "they've been redeveloping ever since."
About nine years ago, the city put in decorative brick sidewalks and crosswalks, as well as planting floss silk trees along the main streets, according to Rick Forintos, project coordinator for the city's Redevelopment Agency. The trees have grown large enough to give the street a shady ambiance.
Park free for two hours along the street or in the lot off Amerige Avenue, just west of Harbor Boulevard. Or if you prefer, take the train: Amtrak's Los Angeles-San Diego trains stop at the station at the southern edge of downtown. The city recently bought the old train station and is including it in the redevelopment, Forintos said.
Then take your time exploring Harbor from Commonwealth Avenue to Chapman Avenue, along with the smaller streets in between. Don't neglect the alleys, where you will find even more shops and restaurants.
Most of the buildings here date from the 1920s to the 1940s, Forintos said. Others are even older. The Fullerton Music Building, being gutted in preparation for 19 retail shops, dates back to 1900, he said.
"We're trying to create a small Melrose Avenue here," Forintos said, referring to the well-known Los Angeles district. "We want to save the background historical buildings and add new things that fit in. I think people may be a little tired of malls. But here we can create a sense of city, an interesting walking thoroughfare for shoppers."
Of particular interest:
Bookstores emphasize used and antiquarian books. Book Harbor, 201 N. Harbor Blvd., is the largest. Lorson's Books, 305 N. Harbor in Villa del Sol, sells new books, mostly children's. Ask to see the miniature books for dollhouses, so small you will need tweezers and magnifying glasses to read them. Aladdin Books, 122 W. Commonwealth Ave., has a concentration of movie, science fiction and fantasy books, as well as movie collectibles. Also try the Blue Wolf, off the alley at 118 1/2 W. Wilshire Ave.
Casa de Tortuga, 305 N. Harbor Blvd. in Villa del Sol, offers clothes with an emphasis on natural fibers, as well as jewelry and gifts.
The Salvation Army Thrift Store, 207 N. Harbor Blvd., is a must place to visit even if you don't buy anything, just for the 1940s atmosphere and the smell of the place. And who knows, you might find a bargain. A working IBM Selectric typewriter, for example, was available the other day for $75.
Step past the cigar store Indians and into Orange County Pawnbrokers, 101 S. Harbor Blvd., for a look at the taxidermy if nothing else. If it lived, if it can be stuffed, it's hanging there somewhere. In addition to the usual, pawnbroker Victor Pahl also offers custom-designed jewelry.
Ragztop, 101-C Commonwealth Ave., is the area's newest store (it opened during the Fourth of July weekend). The store features vintage (1968 and older) clothing, much of it "new/old" merchandise that has been stored for decades.
Many customers don't get past the front door at Vision Art, 206 N. Harbor Blvd. But do come in, even if you are not in the market for a cardboard Elvis, a Matt Groening "Life Is Hell" mug or a button that says, "Walt Disney was frozen for your sins." You just have to see the black, molded tin ceiling and gaslight pipes dating to 1910.
DOWNTOWN FULLERTON AT A GLANCE
Location: Harbor Boulevard at Commonwealth, Chapman, Wilshire and Amerige avenues.
Department stores: None.
Most unusual store: Orange County Pawnbrokers. Owner Victor Pahl has signs in the window announcing that the store will be the setting for a new movie. "Or a miniseries, they're not sure yet." The movie, he says, will be about his life, which he describes simply as "very interesting." Stay tuned.
Best place to browse: Any bookstore.
Best place to take the kids: CM School Supply, 210 N. Harbor Blvd., has toys, books, playground equipment, a child's dream come true. Enter from the rear, off the alley. Look for the window covered with stick-on Garfields.
Quick bites: Stop for lunch at the Pumpernickel Courtyard Cafe in Villa del Sol. Quiche is $2.75, or try a croissant sandwich with turkey, ham or roast beef for $4.50.