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Residents Rally for Family Store

Billings Paint & Hardware, a bit of small-town life in Long Beach, faces eviction as its rent rises.

June 18, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

More than 80 years after Belmont Shore materialized on the outskirts of Long Beach, small-town life lingers there along 2nd Street, where residents can walk to much they might need.

They can shops for toys, pick up dry-cleaning, buy a cigar, eat in or take out. They can stroll home with a box of galvanized nails -- for now.

Billings Paint & Hardware may soon be priced off 2nd Street. The owner of the store that's been in the Shore since 1946 has been served with an eviction notice by a retired dentist who paid $1.6 million for the building weeks ago and upped the rent.

That much is undisputed. Whether a new lease agreement can be reached by Doug Billings and Dr. Frank Blair Jr. and their lawyers remains in question. Neither side is talking, or returning calls, apparently to defuse what has been a charged climate in this low-key beach community.

But the threat of losing the hardware store, the oldest business on 2nd Street, has riled the community like no other mom-and-pop exit in recent memory.

More than 3,000 residents signed "Save Billings" petitions, and others opened a trust account at Washington Mutual Bank's Shore branch to help Billings fund a fight to stay or relocate nearby.

A resident of 50 years, Bud Lorbeer, even tried to buy the building to save Billings, then offered to buy out Blair at his cost, but was declined. Every day, customers stream into the store at 5308 E. Second St., pledging to follow the store if it goes and offering their campers and vans to haul the merchandise to new digs.

"If Billings were to go away, a lot of residents will be extremely upset," said Seyed Jalali, a project manager for the city of Long Beach's business development division. "How often do you find these kinds of businesses in Southern California neighborhoods where you can walk there?"

He added: "At least in the 10 years I've been with the city, I've not seen this, where a neighborhood goes to this length to keep a business."

But not every neighborhood is Belmont Shore. It's an area with about 8,500 people, according to the census, bounded by Bay Shore Avenue, Ocean Boulevard, Termino Avenue and The Toledo. It retains a small-town feel, even though brokers say commercial leases are generally more expensive than anywhere else in Long Beach, the state's fifth-largest city.

Support Is Comforting

The outpouring of support from Shore residents has comforted a distraught Billings, who some old-time customers remember holding when he was a baby. Now 39, he was mixing paint by age 12 in the store his grandfather started. Today, a fourth generation works there: Billings' daughter, 13-year-old Nicole.

Despite an increase in chain-store outlets on 2nd Street, many family businesses remain -- some of them passed down through two or more generations -- and not everyone likes to see that change, said Daniel Walker.

Walker is executive vice president of Farmers & Merchants Bank, which his family founded almost 100 years ago in downtown Long Beach. The F&M Trust Co. manages the Burkhard Family Trust that inherited the Billings property. The trust's three beneficiaries chose to sell the building to Blair to generate about $500,000 they owed last month in estate taxes, Walker said.

Summing up Billings' dilemma, tax lawyer Carol Churchill said: "This is a story about a little businessman caught up in a hurricane of other people's conflicting needs. And he's saying, 'What about me?' and the community is asking, 'What about us?' "

Churchill's client is among the three trust beneficiaries who sold the building.

Some conspiracy theories and charges of favoritism have seeped into the buzz that persists around the Shore about the whole Billings affair.

Among them is talk that Blair was always favored to buy the building, and such rumors are spurred by the fact that the trust company's lawyer lives next door to Blair.

Not true, said the bank's Walker.

"We did not bring Blair into the deal," nor did the trust company's attorney, he said. "One of the Burkhard trust beneficiaries went to a broker about selling the property," and the broker brought in Blair.

The most persistent gripe by many 2nd Street merchants is over Billings' and Lorbeer's assertion that this fourth-generation family business was never given first shot at buying the building despite its legacy in the neighborhood, from donating decorations for the annual Christmas parade to lending a ladder or tool to someone who couldn't afford to buy it.

But just as some Shore resident defend Billings, others rally behind Blair, the retiree who bought the Billings building. They sing his praises and call him a beloved children's dentist, one who would fetch youngsters if their parents were busy and drive them back to his office for an appointment.

Others have come to the aid of Billings. One such person is Karen Harper.

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