SHERMAN OAKS — The nature of antiques shopping on Ventura Boulevard can be summed up with a story about a map that no longer exists.
It was created by a pair of store owners who hoped that a guide listing all the antiques shops between Sherman Oaks and Studio City would give the San Fernando Valley's premiere commercial street an identity as a destination for buyers and collectors.
While other shopkeepers also saw the wisdom in presenting such a united front, the map's ink was barely dry before the squabbling began, recalls one veteran dealer.
This merchant thought his store's name should go ahead of that merchant's. One store objected to the inclusion of another that sold reproductions as well as antiques. And so on.
Not long afterward, the women who published the map went out of business, taking with them their vision of cohesion.
Although carried out six or seven years ago, their failed experiment is an apt metaphor for the eclectic, individualistic and disparate character of the antiques trade along Ventura Boulevard.
Within a three-mile stretch, enough vendors offer enough kinds of merchandise to make a visit worth it for those who don't mind a hunt-and-peck approach to antiquing, particularly on weekdays when metered parking is fairly easy to come by.
But it would be more than a stretch to consider the collection of about two dozen far-flung businesses an antiques district per se.
"Here, we are just every man for himself, and everybody is pretty much across the board in terms of what they sell. Little stores spring up and they spring down," said Rick Johnson, whose 17-year-old Sherman Oaks Antiques Mall at 14034 Ventura Blvd. showcases the wares of 97 dealers selling everything from exquisite vintage jewelry to Pokemon cards.
Yet even though Ventura Boulevard's pedestrian-unfriendly streets don't exactly encourage leisurely browsing or window shopping, some individual stores have become destinations unto themselves.
The venerable Mitchell Litt Antiques at 14918 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks has been selling fine English and French antique furniture and decorative accessories for 26 years without ever advertising or holding a sale in its 25,000-square-foot showroom.
Another local draw is the Cranberry House, 12318 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, a 7-year-old store featuring top-of-the-line collections of 140 dealers that has been described as "the Nordstrom of antiques malls."
Smaller specialty shops, such as the 22-year-old Piccolo Pete's, 13814 Ventura Blvd., an emporium for Art Deco devotees, and Hadley, 13023 Ventura Blvd., a 4-year-old purveyor of decorative home furnishings in a romantic "shabby chic" style, also have loyal clientele.
Frank Piccolo, owner of Piccolo Pete's, says his store is so established that he has started selling to the adult children of some of his longtime customers.
During the years he's been in business, more than 200 brides-to-be with a passion for 20th century modern design have registered at Piccolo's store.
"My customers have grown with me," he said. "Tastes change, but within the style, not necessarily from style to style."
Ventura Boulevard also has several stores catering to budget-conscious consumers whose taste in antiques is informed more by function than form.
Ross Crawford, who opened A Place in Time Antiques at 13327 Ventura Blvd. about 18 months ago, takes pride that the highest-priced item in his store--a burled walnut armoire--sells for less than $3,000.
"At some of these places you need a loan officer and a tax accountant when you go to buy a piece of furniture. That's just not my style," said Crawford, whose store specializes in painted and inexpensive antique furniture.
Crawford credits the moderate success of his business more to the foot traffic generated by several nearby restaurants and a carwash across the street than the presence of other antiques stores in the area.
"We get people from Agoura Hills and Westlake who are working nearby or going to see a friend for lunch and happen to see us and stop by. They didn't come shopping here," he said.
The lure of wholesale prices has also made the cleverly named Aunt Teek's at 4337 Woodman Ave. (just off Ventura) a popular haunt for dealers and designers. Owners Edna and Larry Lee opened the store five years ago after they bought an entire houseful of furniture from a retired actress.
Today, they get their inventory from estate sales and individuals who sell their goods on consignment. Among the arcana on display recently was the moose-engraved front door from a former home of Shirley Temple Black, as well as several pieces of furniture from the Benedict Canyon home where the Manson murders took place.
Although several shop owners stressed that pricing their merchandise reasonably is essential to success in the Valley, they also rely heavily on customers from outside the Valley for much of their business.