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Sunset in Lincoln Heights

Generations of Lanzas have offered stamps, Italian produce and a homey community ambience in the store on North Main Street since the 1920s. Now, after several holdups, it may be time to move on.

October 08, 2000|RICK GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The evening phone call from my mother-in-law caught my wife, Kathleen, off guard. For the second time in a month, there'd been a hold-up at the family store. It happened shortly before the 6 p.m. closing, and fortunately (also for the second time), no one had been hurt. But the Lanza Brothers Market had been held up, again, at gunpoint, by a group of young men.

My mother-in-law, Gloria Worsham, was calling to let us know that she and her brothers, Anthony and Louis Lanza, had decided to sell the store and retire.

My wife's family has tried its best to keep the place open in an area of downtown Los Angeles that has become increasingly difficult for such an enterprise. The store is on North Main Street in Lincoln Heights, a mile or so from Union Station and County-USC Medical Center, surrounded by automotive salvage yards and abandoned factories. In an economically depressed neighborhood that only the most positive minded would consider working class, the store is an oasis among boarded-up industrial buildings and weather-beaten wood-frame houses.

My wife's family still owns most of the city block where the store sits, and her mother was brought up in the family compound that consists of the seven houses directly behind the store. But the family moved away long ago, Gloria and Anthony heading to the suburbs of San Gabriel a few miles away, Louis a little closer in Silver Lake. The Lanza Brothers market remained behind, however, and has served the neighborhood for 80 years.

The first time that I entered it, I had known Kathleen only a short time. She had referred to the store as a deli, which it is, I guess, but it looked to me like a liquor store, complete with homeless guys coming in from Skid Row to buy their 32-ounce beers.

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One of my wife's uncles, Anthony, stood behind a sandwich counter, and I ordered the "Italian Special," which was as good a deli sandwich as I had ever eaten, but I still left thinking that this was a Skid Row liquor store.

When my wife and I became engaged, I went to the store more often, and watched my mother-in-law and her brothers interact with their customers. My future in-laws knew almost every customer by name and were clearly liked by the people who came in. About half the customers came at lunchtime; Anthony knew most of their orders by heart.

There are old advertising signs throughout the store (my favorite is a Peter Max-style 7-Up display board), and products on the shelves that I wouldn't expect--glass screw-in fuses, Lava soap and fresh produce, including the Italian vegetable staples cardoon and finocchio.

I asked about a picture of four men standing by a produce stand, and one of my wife's uncles told me that those were the original Lanza Brothers, my wife's grandfather and his brother, with two workers.

When the Lanza Brothers opened their store in the 1920s, Lincoln Heights was a working-class neighborhood. In a time before supermarkets, it was the place where the Italian immigrants would buy fresh groceries on their way home from the nearby rail yards and factories. People would come to talk, buy stamps and money orders, and have a feeling of home and community in a strange new land.

The store was never burglarized or robbed while my wife's grandfather and his brother owned it. Sixty years would pass before the store was finally broken into; someone came through the air shaft on the roof. Ten years later, they were held up for the first time, and in the last decade the store has been held up seven times, two of those in one month.

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My mother-in-law is the youngest of the Lanzas in the store, now 55. Anthony is 56; Louis is 64. (Their oldest brother, John, died three years ago at 67, after working in the store for 47 years.)

No one has been hurt in the robberies, yet, but they had made a vow before the last robbery that if they were held up again, it would probably be time to sell and retire.

Times change, neighborhoods change, people change. After all, there is no new generation to take over. As my mother-in-law put it the other day, "We sent all our kids to college so they didn't have to work six days a week, 12 hours a day like we did."

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Rick Garcia is a resource specialist and water polo coach at Oxnard High School.

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