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LOS ANGELES

Western Wear Store Rides Into the Sunset

Antelope Valley: Circled by suburbs where commuters outnumber cowboys, a Lancaster institution is closing down.

January 27, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The proprietor of the Antelope Valley's last locally owned western wear store has a passel of reasons for going out of business.

The rise of the sneaker was a big blow to The Westerner, the Lancaster institution that will close its doors sometime in the next six weeks. So was the triumph of area shopping malls, which came at the expense of downtown's Lancaster Boulevard, where the store's hay-strewn display windows have been a fixture for nearly 30 years.

Art Ekizian said he's calling it quits mostly because this northernmost flank of Los Angeles County--once a dusty hinterland of alfalfa farms and roughhewn rural folk--has finally been overtaken by the forces of suburbia.

"When I started, this place was rural," said Ekizian, 66. "And during the Antelope Valley Fair, everybody dressed up western. I mean everybody--from waitresses to receptionists.

"That was my second Christmas. But it's a tradition that's been lost."

A touch of Wild West ambience has by no means vanished from these parts. The towns of Acton and Agua Dulce are home to many horse enthusiasts and the yearly rodeo still draws a crowd. Local nabobs such as U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon and Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts still clack through the halls of power in pointy-toed boots.

The Westerner still attracts its share of weekend cowboys, but Ekizian said the bread-and-butter customers--the kind who sport boots and jeans every day--are vanishing. During the 1980s and '90s, the Antelope Valley's building boom made it one of the fastest-growing suburbs in Southern California. Although growth squeezed out the farmers, it brought in construction workers equally fond of Justin Ropers and Pendleton shirts.

But it has been 22 years since John Travolta squeezed into his Wranglers on screen in the film "Urban Cowboy," and the line dance fad has long since faded. The boot du jour tends to be of the hiking variety.

The Antelope Valley's Howard & Phil's Western Wear store folded in 1999 after the bankruptcy of its parent chain, which was owned by McKeon's family. The Westerner's demise will leave only the Boot Barn, part of a regional chain, located near the Target store.

Pace of Development

a Big Concern for City

Boot Barn Manager Christine Coppini, an avid equestrian, said that with 15 riding clubs and a few others dedicated to the art of roping, the western life hasn't completely disappeared in these parts.

"We had, like, 26 girls run for Miss Rodeo Lancaster last year," she said.

But a conversation with two 18-year-old members of Ekizian's sales staff reveals the extent to which times have changed. Corey Jordan's father is an aerospace engineer; Amanda Wiley's is a computer programmer who never wears western duds. On a molasses-slow afternoon recently, both girls were dressed in standard casual wear: no fringe, no fancy arrow-point pockets, no hint of rootin' or tootin'.

"Wait," Wiley said to Jordan over a soundtrack of piped-in twang. "Didn't your dad used to have a hat?"

"No, but he used to wear boots to work--you know, with the shirt and tie." Jordan said. "Now he wears Adidas tennis shoes."

The pending demise of Ekizian's store--and the unknown fate of the 8,000-square-foot space it occupies--comes during a political season in which the future of downtown and the pace of development have emerged as major issues. In recent years, the 25-year-old city's redevelopment agency has aggressively wooed national retail chains such as Costco and Wal-Mart, filling the area's wide-open spaces with big boxes and blacktop. Norm Hickling, who is challenging Roberts in the spring mayoral election, doesn't think Lancaster has done enough to promote the sleepy commercial corridor in downtown. And another mayoral candidate, William Fender, said he doesn't want the city bringing new businesses "until we fill up all the empty buildings first."

Fender said he also wants to preserve what's left of Lancaster's rural character. But David Myers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, said that character has been a bit misleading since World War II, when the country's top engineers came to work in the area's aerospace industry.

"People have called us the cultural backwater that produces the most sophisticated technology ever known to man," he said. "But these days, the ranches and farms are definitely being pushed out. The ranchers are being pushed toward Tehachapi, and the farmers are being pushed a little further east."

According to alliance figures, just 1% of the Antelope Valley population works in farming and ranching these days. Although historical figures weren't available, Myers said that number was "definitely much higher" 30 years ago.

Baggy Jeans

Tell the Story

At first glance, Ekizian comes across as a pretty good cowboy. He dresses in the full western get-up--black boots, cowboy-cut Levi's with a horseshoe belt buckle, a Panhandle Slim shirt with shiny pearl pocket snaps.

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