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First Person

A Legacy Gratefully Accepted, Passed Along

July 20, 1998|KATHLEEN ROGERS-VENEMA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

George Barth is the second West Hollywood shopkeeper I have known who was murdered in the past five years. The first was Melanie Flannery, proprietress of Flannery's Pet Grooming on Santa Monica Boulevard. Fred, our dog whom she tended so lovingly, has been gone three years, and her once-bustling, warm shop turned into a video rental store. George was shot to death in his antiques gallery on Memorial Day. The shop is still there, but with a new owner. How time buries the past.

The first time I talked with George, a decade ago, I sat across from him in the small, cluttered back office of Shapes Gallerie, his exclusive store on Melrose. We were locked in mortal battle for a couch and two chairs, perhaps by the famous Art Deco designer Donald Deskey.

The suite, as George called it, had been promised to me by the concert promoter who held the lease on the Beverly Theater when it became apparent that the owner, Columbia Savings & Loan, was indeed going to do the unthinkable and tear down the exquisite, opulent Wilshire Boulevard venue. In the 1920s, the suite, luxuriously covered in lizard skin, furnished the lobby. It had since been relegated to the promoter's shabby office, upholstered in 40-year-old red vinyl that smelled of rancid cigars and grime. I openly admired the moderne lines of the couch and chairs, and the promoter said he'd sell them to me for $500.

But George Barth, the sophisticated, savvy French antiques dealer, swooped in and bought the suite right out from under me, along with numerous lighting fixtures, iron works, golden sinks and the like from the theater.

"You know," he said at his gallery, fixing me with steely eyes, "this suite could be by Deskey, though it's not signed. Deskey designed Radio City Music Hall. The pieces could go for 10, 15, perhaps even 20 thousand dollars in New York."

This was impossible news for me, a newspaper editorial assistant.

"But they were promised to me for $500. I've got to have them," I cried and then literally started crying in his office.

To my wonder, George softened, offered me a tissue and said he'd sell the furniture to me for the low, low sum of $4,000. Although I didn't know it at the time, Shapes Gallerie did not sell anything for less than $4,000. "Four sousands," as George would say in his heavy French accent.

I was determined to have the suite, and I had an ace--the vintage 1957 MG sports car I had bought for a song from an out-of-work actor. Racing to the bank, somehow, miraculously, I obtained a loan on the car for the magical sum. Thus began my friendship with George Barth.

*

My husband and I soon learned that George not only was just a regular guy, much different from the intimidating high-end antiques dealer he had at first seemed, but also was one of the most knowledgeable dealers in his field, eager to impart his invaluable insights to Art Deco enthusiasts. He had an impeccable eye that outstripped his competitors on Melrose, La Brea, Robertson or Ventura Boulevard. He elevated our taste from the kitschy to the sublime.

It was nice to know he was always there, someone to count on to recommend a reputable refinisher, lecture us on the importance of maintaining the integrity of a piece, excitedly show us the contents of his latest crate from France or give us an honest evaluation of a piece we were contemplating adding to our collection. But now he is gone, another L.A. casualty.

An endless stream of cars flows down Melrose Avenue, the drivers mostly oblivious to the fact that George Barth lived passionately and died violently in his small store. In his memory I took my two children around the house and introduced them to each piece we had bought from George, in hopes that they will grasp the importance of appreciating how things came to be here and of what they mean, of preserving our memories--and of the importance of all the people who touch us in one way or another in our daily lives.

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