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A Store Where Old Fashions Are Still Hip : Retailing: Greenspan's and its musty merchandise are from another era, but they've stayed in business 53 years while many other clothing stores have failed.

October 25, 1992|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH GATE — Unfazed by the old-fashioned display windows, which hold ancient overcoats and pictures of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, a woman walked into Greenspan's looking for a gold sweat suit. It wasn't until she was inside and unable to find one that she realized she was in the wrong store, the wrong era.

When she had left, Evan Greenspan, 36, who owns the vintage clothing store with his father, Eddie, said, "Our customers wouldn't be caught dead in a gold sweat suit. It's not classic, it's not cool."

The store, with its terrazzo entrance, has held forth at Tweedy Boulevard and Elizabeth Avenue since 1939. Exuding a musty breath beneath fluorescent lights, it is crammed to the ceiling with classic clothes worn in the 1940s and 1950s by Bogart and Dean, as well as by workmen, farmers and prisoners.

There are no aisles, as such, only openings to squeeze through to get at the rows of sharkskin suits, Zoot suits and Ivy League sport coats; the racks of peg and continental pants; the stacks of flairs, bell-bottoms and painters' pants; the piles of English hats of the type that Rex Harrison, Bing Crosby and Bear Bryant used to wear, and the displays of beanies, alpaca sweaters, skinny silk ties and County Jail inmates' denim coats.

Many of these items--which Eddie Greenspan bought over the years from other stores that couldn't give them away--have become popular with his regular customers: gang members, rock singers, rappers and movie wardrobe directors. Greenspan's has supplied clothes for music videos and about 50 films, including "Of Mice and Men," "Bugsy," "JFK," "Boyz N the Hood," "The Doors" and "La Bamba."

"I'm dealing with 5% to 10% of the buying public as 90% of my business," said Eddie Greenspan, who opened the store in 1939 when he was a teen-ager. "I'm not for everybody, you know what I mean? I've got a following that looks for old-time things. I'm just buying the same old things we bought in the '50s. Go try to find a cardigan sweater today. It's like looking for hen's teeth, you know?"

His son interjected: "To the people of South Gate we're more like a 7-Eleven. If they need something and can't find it in the mall, they'll go, 'OK, Greenspan's will probably have it'--unless it's a gold sweat suit."

Eddie Greenspan is a short, round-faced man of 67, with graying hair who on a recent afternoon wore a safari-style shirt, polyester pants and argyle socks. "When I'm out of the store I dress differently, a little more flamboyantly," he said.

His son, a quiet, bearded man, wears conservative shirts and pants with his Hush Puppies.

They staff the store, along with Eddie's wife, Kayla Greenspan, who is the cashier and bookkeeper, and four sales people.

Much of the clothing is unused, surviving in the jammed storage rooms in back of the 6,500-square-foot store. "These boxes are full!" Eddie Greenspan said. "We're going through them all the time. We can miss a fad, you know what I mean? I just found 300 pants from the '50s. It's a cockamamie business."

His approach, according to his son, is "total craziness."

No inventory sheets exist because categorizing everything would be as difficult as finding the fitting room.

"We think we know where to find something," Evan Greenspan said with a laugh.

"This looks like it doesn't make sense, but it does. Growing up I saw all the other stores had fancy fixtures and wide aisles, and were carrying every trend around. My father stayed with the classics. All those stores are out of business. We're the only clothing store in a six-mile radius that's been in business more than 25 years."

Almost 50 years ago, when the South Gate area was populated by farmers from the Texas panhandle, Eddie Greenspan got a big idea.

"At the end of every season there was always a lot of stuff left over," he said. "A year or two later, a customer would come in and say, 'You know that shirt with that certain collar' and I'd tell him they quit making that two years ago. But that's what they wanted. It would take them two years to decide that they liked it.

"So I caught onto this and told my dad (who owned the store for a few years in the 1940s until Eddie returned from the service) that when a store discontinues an item and we can get it for 10 to 20 cents on the dollar, buy it and we'll take a shot. In two years we'll bring it out, show it to our customers and they'll love it."

And they did.

Ever since then, he has been stocking up every time a style goes out, buying from other stores and searching manufacturers' warehouses for forgotten stock.

"I go pick up the old stuff," he said. "The new stuff I leave. I went around the country and bought out all the old hat stores, all the old clothing companies, pants 30 and 50 cents a pair. They used to laugh at me, and say, 'That crazy coot, he didn't know what he's talking about.' And all of a sudden it becomes the in look of the country."

There are no high-pressure sales pitches at Greenspan's.

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