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NEIGHBORHOOD SHOPPING : Olvera Street: The Flavors of Mexico

November 29, 1991|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back before the ubiquitous suburban shopping center was a twinkle in some developer's eye, before one-day sales and mall Muzak, historic Olvera Street was tempting the pocketbooks of area shoppers.

But nowadays, the 61-year-old Mexican-flavored marketplace is perhaps better known for its cultural significance--it's part of the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles park that marks where Los Angeles was founded in 1781.

Olvera Street is indeed a marketplace. And the shopping there has never been better as the merchants strive to practice modern merchandising and display techniques.

There are still plenty of cheap plastic toys to tempt the kids. And schlocky souvenirs. And Lakers/Dodgers/Raiders T-shirts. And plaster Ninja Turtle statues. Don't expect climate-controlled comfort in this open-air attraction, and the crowds can be thick on weekends and during special events, such as the \o7 Las Posadas \f7 Christmas procession scheduled nightly Dec. 16 through Dec. 24.

But an afternoon spent poking around the old shops and colorful \o7 puestos \f7 (booths) can turn up something for virtually every member of the family, including a wealth of ethnic clothing for children and adults, Mexican sandals, leather jackets, curios, folk art, fancy candles, specialized cooking utensils and even refrigerator magnets shaped like tamales.

Add to that some good food and historic information about the early days of Los Angeles and a few hours of pleasant shopping are assured.

The street, for walking only, is a converted alley between Main Street and Alameda in downtown Los Angeles. Macy Street borders it on the north and a historic plaza forms the southern border.

Parking lots surround Olvera Street, on Alameda, Main and Arcadia streets. Metro Plaza, at the corner of Main and Macy, is $3 per day for secured parking. Terminal Annex on Alameda is $2.75 for a full day, but without security services. The area is a popular holiday shopping area, but tends to be least crowded on weekdays and weekend mornings.

Visiting Olvera Street is much like a trip to Mexico without the foreign language prerequisite. Despite its distance from the border, the prices remain surprisingly low as merchants maintain a healthy spirit of competition with each other.

Hand-embroidered and lace-bedecked dresses for children are seldom more than $20 and frequently hover closer to $10. Colorful blankets can be had for as little as $15. Traditional \o7 huarache \f7 leather sandals run less than $25 for adult sizes, less than $10 for children's sizes.

A variety of folk art can be found in several shops on the one-time alley at prices that are much lower than those in trendy galleries and shops on Melrose and elsewhere. Merchants Jeanette Rondeau and Irma Gutierrez periodically bring Oaxacan artisans Arturo and Elvis Castillo to their Olvera Street\o7 puesto \f7 to carve and paint the wooden creatures for which the region has become famous.

"Melrose comes here to get ideas," said Vivien Bonzo, owner of La Golondrina restaurant and president of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. "Some of the shops have gone Southwest, but most are mainly Mexican."

A striking quilted jacket commissioned especially for one of the street's clothing stores, Olverita's Village, sells there for $99.99, but owner Martha Vasquez has spotted it being resold on Melrose for much more.

"We get people from Melrose Avenue" snapping up merchandise, Vasquez said. "Most of them double the price" when they resell it, she said with a laugh.

Getting a variety of merchandise that differs from store to store has always been a struggle for the merchants, Bonzo said. Merchants are constantly working to improve supply lines, and the merchants association has brought in experts to advise them on how to display their goods more attractively, she said.

One practice that does not travel up from the border is the sport of haggling over price, Bonzo said.

"A lot of people think it's fun to haggle, but the merchants hate that. They actually get their feelings hurt because they think their prices are as low as they can possibly be," she said.

"What keeps the prices low is the merchants competing against each other," Bonzo said. "I think the prices here are better than in Tijuana now because the merchants keep competing with each other."

Olvera Street is popular with schoolchildren on field trips and tourists. But the local Latino community also maintains a fondness for the romanticized Mexican marketplace that was carved from a crime-infested alley in 1930.

"It's the historical core of Mexican Los Angeles," said Frank Cruz, president and executive director of the Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture, which is in formation and hopes to find a permanent home by next year.

"It's an attractive area," said Cruz, a former newsman who was an anchor at KNBC and general manager of KVEA. "It's centrally located, easily accessible and well known to both Hispanics and non-Hispanics."

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