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The End of an Era at Union Station

January 04, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Following the buttery smell of popping popcorn wafting into the majestic, marble-floored hall of Union Station, Metrolink conductor David Tellez entered McCarthy's newsstand one day last week and ordered a bag.

"It'll be 10 minutes," cashier Phan Long told him.

"OK, I'll hold the train," Tellez joked.

Then Long broke the bad news:

"Did you know we're closing this week?"

Only a month earlier, the McCarthys learned their lease had been terminated and they would have to close their store on New Year's Eve after 20 years of selling newspapers, candy, popcorn, lottery tickets and train memorabilia at the station.

"It's sort of like a meeting place," Tellez said. "It's sort of like Mayberry. It's like Floyd's barber shop. You come in here, play a little bit of keno, talk to the help."

Shuttle driver Charlie Crummer had been stopping by McCarthy's for a year, since Metrolink boosted traffic through the station.

"They have super popcorn," he said. "People are really going to be up in arms if they don't continue having (it). I'll miss the service. It's sort of part of the place, part of the ambience."

Mary McCarthy opened the stand and a restaurant in Union Station with her late husband, Justin, in 1974. Their son Sean now co-manages the business with her.

"When we came in, mostly there were rats and cockroaches here," recalled Mary, 75. "We put a lot into this station. We completely remodeled the counters, we put new walls in. There weren't even lights when we came."

The stand slogged along through two decades of stagnant rail traffic, but business began to improve in 1993 with the advent of the Metrolink commuter trains and Metro Rail subway.

"We've been here through some real hard times," said Sean, 35. "Now that things are going to pick up, they're throwing us out."

*

A few days before Friday's closure, McCarthy's displayed dozens of fragrant cedar boxes, each overlaid with a photo of the elegant station hall, and a sign advertising a two-for-one special.

"Have one of them," Mary McCarthy offered a regular customer. "I ordered these before we knew we were closing and now I'm trying to get rid of them."

Besides snacks, newspapers and sundries, the shop carried an impressive collection of train memorabilia. Along with magazines from Mad to Playgirl are a half-dozen train journals. A glass case displays train medallions, and on a wall are samples of the 847 different train badges for sale.

"We had a whole bunch of books printed up last year called 'Last of the Great Stations,' " about the history of Union Station, she said. They're just lying in a warehouse now. "Those kinds of things are hard to sell in San Francisco or Oakland."

The McCarthy family has been running newsstands in California since 1932.

The first stand, on the Oakland ferry boat The Klamath, closed in 1936 when the opening of the Bay Bridge killed off ferry service across the bay. A stand at the Pacific Electric building in Downtown Los Angeles went out of business with the closure of the Red Car trolley line. And a second Bay Area operation, open since 1938 in the Oakland train station, shut in February after the building was condemned because of damage from a 1989 earthquake. A stand in San Jose is still operating.

The business would seem to be a natural for Mary McCarthy, the daughter of a railroad man. She remembers her awe at seeing the first refrigerator cars in the 1920s, and watching workers unload elephants and lions when the circus came to her hometown of Joplin, Mo.

Now, travelers at the station sometimes rely on her for information.

"Do you know the history of this station?" asked David Ihlenfeldt, out from Milwaukee for the Rose Bowl game with his wife, Elly.

"I know quite a lot," McCarthy answered.

"We were just arguing about the seats in the hall," he said. "I said they would have had wooden seats originally."

But his wife insisted the plush, padded seats are original. "They used to put class in these places," she argued.

Mary resolved the dispute. "They're original."

*

The store's closure is part of a plan by the station's owners, Catellus Development Corp., to attract new businesses. The McCarthys will continue to operate their restaurant in the station, but a bagel and cappuccino shop will take the place of the newsstand, and Eastern Lobby Shops, a national retailer, will open a news kiosk nearby.

Stephen Hess, director of marketing for Catellus, said turning the news operation over to a company that is nationally recognized will attract other businesses to the station.

"It's important to be able to lure in and attract some of these better-known retailers," he said. "We're looking for one that will bring an awareness to other tenants."

The change has been a source of contention between Catellus and the McCarthys. Hess said that when the McCarthys' lease ended in 1991 they expressed little interest in continuing the operation, saying it was unprofitable.

"When we spoke to the McCarthys about the newsstand, they always told us it wasn't a profit-maker for them," he said. "We were led to believe that they weren't interested in remaining in the space."

The lease was extended on a month-to-month basis and finally terminated in November.

The McCarthys, however, said that while they knew their lease was up, they expected to receive another site for the newsstand. They denied ever telling Catellus that the shop was unprofitable, or that they no longer wanted to run it.

Although there will be another place to buy reading material--possibly within a week, Hess said--for some of the McCarthys' customers, it won't be the same.

"I don't know what I'm going to do without them," said Beverly Smith, who has commuted with her mother from San Diego every day for two years. "We depend on this shop every day. And they always greet us with a bright smile."

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