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Leaf and Jean | FREE ENTERPRISE | SO SoCal

June 08, 1997|Ed Leibowitz

Ensconced behind his cashier's counter, Leo Tannenbaum looks out at the demolished stretch of Beverly Boulevard and puts the flame to a Marlboro Light. The black jeans he wears, the smoke that curls above his troubled brow, are appropriate attire for an entrepreneur who has reconciled the nicotine and denim chic of James Dean with the relentless discount ideology of a Costco.

Hoisted above the traffic barriers and MTA tunneling equipment, the banner over Tannenbaum's store promises "Levis Jeans and Cigarettes for Less." Perhaps the banner is calling for a renewed bond between cigarettes and denim in this nicotine-savaging age. Maybe it is extracting some measure of consumer justice for products priced through the roof by escalating tobacco taxes and a surging upper-class obsession with Levi's 501s.

"People like buying cigarettes, you know," Tannenbaum says without enthusiasm. "A lot of people are looking for Levi's jeans. They say, 'oh.' "

People may like buying them, but Tannenbaum betrays no great passion for selling them. It's not like selling flowers, as he once did on this southwest corner of Beverly and Vermont Avenue. "It's a beautiful business," Tannenbaum says, brightening at the memory of his scuttled flower shop. "Flowers have a way of making people happy. It's a different kind of people who buy jeans and cigarettes."

A half-dozen posters do their best to cheer up the store--a carefree Mariah Carey, models in loose-fit Levi's cavorting beneath a night sky. Acid-washed jean jackets hang from white pegs; piles of Levi's 501s and 505s, legs dangling like freshly caught fish, drape across folding banquet tables. The jeans retail for a demure $30, $25 if the leather tag is missing. (Some used jeans go for $7.99.) The cigarettes, deployed in immense plastic dispensers around Tannenbaum's cash register, are even more steeply discounted: $1.62 plus tax, $15.99 a carton.

Tannenbaum immigrated to Southern California 22 years ago from Ukraine, working his way up from Long Beach taxi driver to flower shop entrepreneur. "I tell you, God bless America for me," he says. "I come to have everything, whatever I need."

But, he says, Red Line construction has negated almost all of his gains. First, the intersection near his Allan's Flowers franchise was torn up. Then his parking lot--along with much of the scant street parking--was swallowed. Rats fled the earthmovers to the comfort of his sales floor. The construction pumped so much dust into the air that even his five daily cleanings couldn't get rid of it. Still obliged to pay rent, Tannebaum shut down his flower shop and segued into his less-cheerful commodities earlier this year.

"The last three years there's so much, I lost almost everything," he says.

In the 1992 riots, looters broke into Tannenbaum's flower shop and made off with flowers and vases, the cash register and computer. But the riots lasted only three days. Faced with a choice, Tannenbaum would prefer renewed looting to further Red Line construction. "I tell the truth," he declares. "If I have another riot, it will be a lot easier, long term, than this legal riot."

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