Since the walls of several local malls came tumbling down in January, some Valleyites have been suffering from shopping envy. You know what that is: the conviction that there are people out there having more fun than you are because they can walk to the shabby chic boutiques of Santa Monica's Montana Avenue or shop to satiety in South Coast Plaza. But not to worry. Although Northridge Fashion Center and other retail venues are still recovering from the quake, the San Fernando Valley remains home to a host of first-rate shops.
Here are eight of the best, from a choice gift shop in Studio City to a store in Burbank that gives new meaning to the term weird science . Some vast, some so tiny they could use traffic control, each offers something more for your money than the goods you walk out with. They are listed geographically, from west to east. Best to call for hours, especially during the holidays. And, Westsiders, eat your hearts out.
What most distinguishes this Tarzana children's bookstore from so many others is its staff. As owner Darlene Daniel explains (in a voice so soft she makes Mister Rogers sound like a fishmonger), Pages is staffed by former teachers and others with child-development backgrounds. Each is trained in-house to direct customers, large and small, to those books most likely to inform them, thrill them, comfort them--in short, do all the things that only books can do.
How different is Pages from some discount stores? "When we go to recommend a book, many times we've read it," says manager Marge Kassorla, who retired from teaching English at Millikin Middle School and Grant High School and often recognizes the names of former students on the checks they write to the shop.
Pages stocks more than 18,000 titles, everything from picture books to young adult titles, including fantasy and books dealing with sex and other issues. Daniel thinks it's vital to provide teen-agers with books that will keep them reading for pleasure. "That's a stage where it's very easy to lose them from reading," she says grimly.
Pages publishes a quarterly newsletter that recommends new titles and announces its story hours, signings by authors and illustrators, concerts and other activities. The staff can help you choose a year's worth of books for a favorite young person, then wrap one up and send it off each month. And the store collects "wish lists" from local teachers and librarians so you can donate a book to the school on your child's birthday or some other occasion. As Kassorla says, "It's a nice alternative to cupcakes."
Pages Books for Children and Young Adults, 18399 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.
Gus' Smoke Shop
This Sherman Oaks shop is a Valley institution. According to owner Jim Hurwitz, it has been in the same spot since 1927, making it the oldest business still on Ventura Boulevard. Gus' is definitely a guy thing, filled with men staring like jack-lighted deer at sweet-scented boxes of Macanudos and other high-end cigars.
Hurwitz himself was a customer for 10 years before he bought the shop in 1985. Ever since, he has been riding the wave of the cigar's remarkable resurgence. Gus' doesn't stock coffees or other stuff that will distract from a good smoke, which can cost $10. "Our philosophy is to smoke better, but fewer," Hurwitz counsels.
Cohibas and other contraband Cuban cigars still have the most panache among aficionados, although Hurwitz warns that many smuggled into the United States are inferior knockoffs. Right now, premium cigars from the Dominican Republic are selling so well he can't keep up with demand. Regulars (who include actors Joe Montegna and Joe Pesci) can season their cigars in lockers in Gus' climate-controlled humidor. And on Oct. 1, the shop opened a private club next door, called the Back Room, where members can watch sports, play cards and, above all, "smoke in peace." Annual membership: $500.
Gus' Smoke Shop, 13420 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1401.
Star Restaurant Equipment and Supply
For a serious foodie, a restaurant supply store is a field of dreams. These are places where it is possible to imagine the pleasure of constructing a cassoulet without ever having to determine the precise nature of potted goose or even whether you can make it in an average lifetime. Instead you cruise the aisles, visions of rapid-fire mincing, precision dicing and doing unspeakable things with pastry bags dancing in your head.
Cooks feel about restaurant supply stores the way writers feel about stationers. But for the non-pro, the first hurdle may be getting through the door. Some of these places sell only to the trade. "Out! Out!" one of those exclusive proprietors yelled at an acquaintance when he confessed he had no restaurant affiliation and only made timbales on Sunday.