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Styled for a Comeback : Fire Ruins Vintage Clothing, but Greenspan's Isn't Finished


SOUTH GATE — Eddie Greenspan stood dazed outside his store and held a picture of James Dean the flames had spared. Beyond the boarded-up doors, the clothes popular in Dean's era were soggy, black lumps.

"I lost two-thirds of my stock," said Greenspan, who opened the store and named it for himself in 1939 when he was a teen-ager. "What can I say? No insurance. What am I going to do, sit down and cry? Who's going to cry with me, you know what I mean?"

This was Friday afternoon, the day after boys playing with fireworks caused a $700,000 fire at the vintage clothing store at Tweedy Boulevard and Elizabeth Avenue.

But by Tuesday, Greenspan and his son, Evan, were talking about reopening in less than two weeks in a small section of the store that sustained the least damage.

Specializing in clothes from the 1940s and '50s, Greenspan's had become popular in recent years with rock singers, rappers, gang members and movie directors. It has supplied clothes for music videos and movies, including "Bugsy," "JFK," "La Bamba" and, most recently, "Last Action Hero."

The store had been filled with clothes Eddie Greenspan had bought over the years from stores that could not sell them. He assumed correctly that bell-bottom pants, skinny silk ties, cardigan sweaters, old-fashioned overcoats and denim jackets would come back in fashion.

"Business was just booming," he said. "I'm working on five movies now. I just had all these rappers come in. I just dressed Kris Kross last week and I did House of Pain yesterday. We had some stuff put aside for them. I don't know if it's still there. They're going to Europe during the winter so they're looking for heavy clothes, fur collars."

The fire started shortly after 8 p.m. last Thursday. Officials said two boys, ages 6 and 10, were playing with illegal fireworks that ignited cardboard boxes outside the entrance. Then the building caught fire.

Mark Savage, a Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector, said it took about 40 minutes to put out the fire, which caused $500,000 in damage to the contents and $200,000 in damage to the building.

He said that the boys were released to their parents after being detained by Sheriff's Department deputies. They will be placed in the Junior Fire Setters Program, which counsels juveniles about the dangers of playing with matches and fireworks.

"It's just a fluke, that's what life is," said Greenspan, 67, who lives in West Los Angeles.

"We just do the best we can and keep fighting the battle. Thank God I'm still healthy. My son's healthy. I got nice people working for me. Three of them were here all night with my son."

His employees were still there Friday afternoon, young men wearing the baggy-style pants Greenspan's was noted for. They shoveled glass and debris from the display windows.

Phillip Flores, a salesman, had already been inside to inspect the ruins.

"You don't want to go in there, man," he said. "It will make you cry."

Flores, who lives across the street, saw the fire soon after it broke out and called Evan Greenspan, the store's co-owner. "They're like family," Flores said. "I felt their sorrow. It was like watching your own house go up in a fire."

Eddie Greenspan's head was spinning Friday afternoon as the traffic whizzed by on Tweedy. Was any electricity left? Were loans available? Was everything boarded up? Could he find a warehouse? How much was salvageable?

"I keep thinking of things to do," he said.

He peered through a smoke-streaked window into a recently enlarged section of the store. "From there back I'm OK," he said, adding that everything in the main section was gutted.

A rear storeroom was unburned, but it was impossible to get back there and determine if the clothes sealed in crates had escaped smoke damage.

The building, except for holes in the roof made by firefighters, had survived. "I'm surprised it's still here," Greenspan said. "I didn't think the store would stand. When you have plastic on everything, it's oil. When you have nylon shirts, nylon this, this is all oil. And it explodes. It's like a paint factory. That's why you can't get insurance."

He hadn't had insurance for years. "This is a high-risk area, and my place is like a paint store," he said. "And with it as crowded as it was, they wouldn't even think of insuring me at a rate a person could afford."

The store, crammed from floor to ceiling, had never had a fire. "We were always smelling for smoke," Greenspan said. "I turn off all the electric in this store at night when I leave. There's no juice except my burglar alarm. I said how can there be a fire with nothing to spark?"

Greenspan's first thought when he arrived at the store early Friday morning and saw the damage was, "We're finished."

Now he is planning to come back.

"I made a good living for my family and myself for 50 years," he said. "I owe it. I've got customers who have been trading with me for 50 years. And they all want to help. I transferred my (phone) line to my home. At 6:30 this morning they were calling me, and I didn't even know who they are. They said they saw it on TV."

A man drove by on Tweedy and said, "Hey, you going to open again?"

"Give me a couple of weeks," Greenspan said.

The store was silent and smelled of smoke when Greenspan went inside to inspect it. It was dark, except for where a dusty shaft of sunlight shone down from a hole in the roof. It illuminated a pile of nylon shorts in various bright colors.

"There are so many things that can't be replaced," Greenspan said. "They are gone."

He walked across the wet bags of sweaters that covered the floor and rummaged amid charred, twisted belts and blackened shirts until he found his Rolodex.

He went back out into the dazzling brightness and tried to think of what to do next.

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