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A New Page for Popular Store

Santa Monica's Midnight Special will move to a new location on nearby 2nd Street.

May 13, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Midnight Special Bookstore, the Santa Monica institution that has used its storefront to rail against capitalism, war and the political status quo, has found a new home just blocks away from its old location on the Third Street Promenade, the increasingly glitzy shopping strip that the bookseller was forced to abandon in February because of rising rents.

Manager Ruben Perez said Monday that the 33-year-old store would reopen in the next four to six weeks on the 1400 block of 2nd Street, reintroducing its critique of conservative politics and corporate culture on a street now dominated by a day spa, a martini bar and an outpost of the Buca di Beppo restaurant chain. "It's not the best location," Perez said. "But it's better than not being in Santa Monica."

The bookstore's decision to stay in town -- after considering moving as far as Hollywood -- marks the end of an embarrassing episode for Santa Monica, a famously left-leaning city that has struggled to manage the capitalist success story that the Promenade has become.

Since the government-managed renovation of the pedestrian thoroughfare in 1989, locally owned shops that once hawked bikinis, beach gear and military surplus have been slowly crowded out by national chains such as J. Crew and Barnes & Noble. Some residents and business owners have complained about a loss of character and charm.

"Santa Monica is definitely more sanitized, and less interesting now," said Mark Hennessey, owner of Hi De Ho Comics downtown. "It's a less pleasant place to live -- but I guess it's a more pleasant place to have a bistro than it used to be."

Midnight Special managed to hang on longer than most of the Promenade's mom-and-pop stores, warming the hearts of local progressives like Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, who appreciated its "countercultural message in the front windows of one of the meccas of capitalism."

Today, that storefront is being remodeled for a Benetton clothing store. And in August, Hennessey + Ingalls Art & Architecture Books, one of two remaining independent bookstores on the Promenade, also is moving out.

Like Midnight Special, the store is practically moving around the corner, to the 200 block of Wilshire Boulevard. Manager Douglas Woods said the increased foot traffic on the Promenade is no longer worth the rising cost of rent.

"The Promenade is not very unique anymore," said Woods, who skateboarded on the Promenade as a kid during the 1980s, when the street was sketchy and economically stagnant. "We might lose some postcard sales, but it's not something we're threatened by."

So far, the loss of local flavor does not seem to have hurt the Promenade's sales. According to city figures, the street racked up $208 million in taxable sales in 2002, a 2.3% increase over the year before, but also an improvement over pre-recession figures for 2000, when sales were $206 million.

That hasn't stopped government officials from tinkering with the formula to ensure the street's continued success. Fearing that rising rents are driving out the cafe scene, the city is enforcing a temporary rule that limits the conversion of restaurants into retail space.

In March, a task force also recommended a plan to limit the size of storefronts to 50 feet across, said Andy Agle, assistant planning director.

"What we hit upon with the Third Street Promenade was the perfect mix of retail, movie theaters and restaurants," said McKeown, a Green Party member. "But sometimes success can be its own worst enemy. As rents go up into the $10-per-square-foot range, you drive out the small, creative, locally owned stores and restaurants, and you get more and more national chains."

While some lament the Promenade's further homogenization, McKeown is hoping the bookstore relocations will lure pedestrian shoppers onto some of downtown Santa Monica's sleepier streets -- which could, in turn, convince other local entrepreneurs to open independent stores off the Promenade, where rents tend to be lower.

Spreading the Promenade's lure to the rest of downtown has been a major goal for the city. Last year, officials finished a $15-million project to widen the sidewalks and generally spruce up the downtown streets that run across the PromenadeMidnight Special's owner, Margie Ghiz, said she too worries about the lack of foot traffic in front of her new location. But, she said, "I just want to stay alive and make an impact. That's all I care about. The whole world is falling apart, there's horrible inequities and horrors happening anywhere.... The only reason I cared about being on the Promenade was it gave me a window on the world to talk about these things."

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