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The Other Side of the Grove

Across the Street From L.A.'s New Chain-Store Extravaganza Is the Old Town and Country Shopping Center. It's Like Going Back in Time.

August 10, 2003|Michele Greene | Michele Greene is an actress who regularly appeared on "L.A. Law." She is also a writer and a recording artist on Appleseed Recordings.

It may look like just another Disneyland, but i find the Grove a place where worlds collide. I don't just mean the big chain stores such as Nordstrom and Barnes & Noble butting up against the kitschy independently owned stands at next-door's Farmers Market. It's easy to bristle at yet one more chain-store mall, but I like not having to drive all the way to the Westside to shop at Nordstrom. That goes double for Sur La Table, which used to require a trip to Santa Monica or Pasadena. And there's always room for another Cost Plus or Anthropologie. That it can all be enjoyed while munching a cinnamon sugar doughnut from Bob's in the Farmers Market only adds to its allure.

This corner of L.A. has always held a special draw for me. I grew up near 3rd and La Brea, blocks from where the Grove now holds court. Back in the late '60s, that sleepy stretch of the city was anything but hip. Where the Grove now sits was the Gilmore Drive-in Theater. I saw "True Grit" there, wearing flannel-feet pajamas. I loved the twinkly retro promotions for the snack bar that ran between shows, how we laughed, being Mexican Americans, when they tried to make taquitos seem exotic. But we crunched them happily in the back seat, feeling that we were somehow getting away with something.

At that time the hub of our commercial life was the Town and Country shopping center at the corner of 3rd and Fairfax, across from the Farmers Market. It had a distinctly small-town feel, and still does. The first time I went to the Grove, I tried to get caught up in its Main Street feel. But I realized that while it offers the illusion of small-town familiarity, down to the bronze statues of children selling lemonade, it is not small town at all. As hard as the Grove tries, the real deal is still across the street.

There you'll find my favorite childhood restaurant--Andre's Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria--which remains one of my regular haunts. There we would slide our trays along the counter as we chose from the large copper chafing dishes: spaghetti with meatballs or shrimp Creole sauce, baked chicken, lasagna. It was a neighborhood favorite: inexpensive home-style cooking. It was the place my mother would take me after open house night at school and where I'd see other kids from my first-grade class, suddenly strange in the context of their families. ("Is that Sandy Vitowski's dad?")

Aside from some remodeling and a few additions to the menu, Andre's is the same, down to the counter and the chafing dishes. The fellow who makes the pasta fresh each day has been working there since I was in third grade. Most of the other employees have been there more than 10 years. I've known the manager, Aron Celnik, since junior high. His twin brother, Howard, was in school plays with me. Aron got a summer job at Andre's at age 15 and worked part time as he completed high school and college. He became a stockbroker, but after the crash in 1988, he couldn't sleep at night. He called his former boss, Mike Gagliarducci, who is Andre's nephew. Aron came back to his old job, and he has been there ever since. He's the kind of guy who always asks about your mom and remembers that you like your salad dressing on the side. When the neighborhood suddenly had a huge influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America in the 1980s, Aron learned to speak Spanish.

The prices remain amazingly affordable. But what's just as attractive is the sense of community. I see people of all ethnicities and generations sharing tables and falling into conversation. At Andre's, people feel comfortable enough to connect, partly because the staff take the trouble to remember you. It's said there is no sense of continuity in our sprawling metropolis. But there is at Andre's. Ask Perry, the vendor who has been selling newspapers in the same place for 38 years.

Perry sits in his folding chair outside Whole Foods Market. He wears thick Coke-bottle glasses and an L.A. Times canvas change apron around his waist. He's got a round face, gap-toothed smile and ears that stick out like Shrek's. He's been there every day starting at 8 a.m. on weekdays and 6:30 on weekends for 38 years. As a child I never paid much attention to him, he was just the "newspaper guy." When I spoke to him recently, I noticed that his overcoat was soiled and badly frayed at the pockets and collar, and his nylon Dodgers cap had a large, dark stain at the edge of the brim. He's 80 now and walks with a cane. He takes the bus to work. "I took over this newsstand from a little old man, years ago," Perry tells me. "He was always falling asleep, and how can you sell any papers that way? I took it over and I really built it up into something." As people passed by, they greeted him by name.

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