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City, Merchants at Odds With Sex Store

Shopping: Venture is a blight on Canoga Park, neighbors and police say. But a lawyer for the business says it is unfairly blamed for local problems.

August 26, 1996|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This Canoga Park shopping street is a neighborhood straight out of a different era. No glitzy strip mall. No manicurists. Not a latte to be found.

Just a string of quirky, mostly family-run businesses trying to survive despite an earthquake that almost leveled them and a recession that still stings.

Adding to their woes, they say, is Le Sex Shoppe, a Canoga Park adult book and video store sitting smack between the television repairman and the psychic. The store, according to business owners, neighbors, police and city officials, is a magnet for a host of illegal activities in the neighborhood, including prostitution, loitering and lewd conduct.

The Sherman Way store sells sexually explicit books, magazines and videos, as well as sexual devices. It has a private screening room where numerous arrests for lewd conduct have been made, police said.

It is near Owensmouth Avenue, directly across the street from a vacant lot on which the Madrid Theater will be built--a multimillion-dollar city venture aimed at bringing hundreds of Valley residents to the area for music and drama performances.

But nearly a decade of bureaucratic and legal wrangling between the city and Le Sex Shoppe could be paying off for the neighborhood shop owners and residents. A recent court decision requires the business to limit its hours and close early--at 10 p.m. rather than 2 a.m.

"We won this round and it feels good," said City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the area and has made revitalizing the Sherman Way neighborhood her top priority. "It's absolutely an undesirable, bad mark in the community. It certainly doesn't help create the kind of family neighborhood shopping area we want."

But the fight is far from over.

The store owner, EWAP Inc., is appealing the early closing hours and other conditions previously imposed by the city. Albert D. Sanchez, a Sherman Oaks attorney who represents Le Sex Shoppe, says that the business is being targeted unfairly and that the owners have gone out of their way to meet the city's conditions.

The store has hired two security guards, and installed more outside lights and a back gate. Most important, it had cut back its hours, closing at 2 a.m. instead of staying open around the clock.

"If they're going to accuse us of all the problems in the city of Los Angeles over the last few years, I can't defend that," Sanchez said. "We run a good business. We run a lawful business. We are not interested in promoting prostitution, loitering or any other illegal activity."

It has been a long, complex battle for the police and politicians who want the adult bookstore closed. Using public-nuisance laws as its primary weapon, the city has led the store owners through a maze of zoning and City Council hearings in the hope of reducing problems. Along the way, the store says it has struggled to maintain its 1st Amendment rights and to continue making money.

The battle remains in the state Court of Appeal, where the store is attempting to reverse the city's actions. It was that court that recently required the store to close at 10 p.m., but the store's appeal is still pending.

"We have a good history of relationships with various agencies of the city and this is the only store that's a problem," said Sanchez, who said the company owns half a dozen similar stores in the city. "Those people who engage in that conduct are not our customers. In fact, they cause us problems. They force us to spend money to try to abate these problems."

While the fate of Le Sex Shoppe wends its way through the courts, neighbors near the store at 21625 Sherman Way say their problems remain. They say they continue to sweep the used condoms and trash that litter their parking lot and entrances, and hope violence won't arise in their neighborhood.

"Do I have problems with it? All kinds," said Clarence Kaiden, who owns the About Time clock repair business a few doors down from Le Sex Shoppe. "Thank goodness I don't have to come here at night."

Police, however, do have to go there at night. The Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad in the West Valley considers crime near Le Sex Shoppe its No. 1 problem, saying officers have made about 1,100 prostitution, loitering and lewd-conduct arrests--most in alleys and streets near the store, and, until a few year ago, inside the shop itself.

"I really believe the only thing that will solve the problem is the shutting down of that shop," said Capt. Val Paniccia, who oversees the West Valley police station. "They don't care about the community, the betterment of that neighborhood. They just want money in their pockets."

But attorney Sanchez said crimes of this sort are a citywide problem. He said security guards stationed inside and out have reduced crime on the property.

"This isn't a case where you have a business owner who is refusing to cooperate," Sanchez said. "It infuriates us when we are accused of being responsible for all the trouble in that neighborhood."

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