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Grocer Reaps Bushels of Love

The produce store owner reopens his Westside market after customers plead with him not to retire.

February 15, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The produce man figured he was ripe for retirement.

He had just turned 65. His wife had died. And his own health was shaky -- he suffered first from a heart problem, then from hepatitis.

So Stan Pascal gave away his huge inventory of fruit and vegetables, locked his shop door and put his market in the Pico-Robertson section of Los Angeles up for sale.

Stunned customers responded with a flood of notes pleading for his return that they taped to the shop's front door and stuffed through its mail slot.

And on the day that Stan's Produce Market was scheduled to go into escrow, Pascal decided to shelve retirement and reopen the business where shelves had bulged with fresh apples, avocados and squash for 39 years.

"I've got tomatoes in my blood," Pascal said, explaining his decision. "And the best, most loyal customers in the world. I couldn't quit."

The tiny market's four-month shutdown for Pascal's hospitalization and short-lived retirement had been a jolt for shoppers who defiantly preferred the independent corner grocer amid a sea of Whole Foods, Gelson's and Pavilions markets.

Wedged in a small strip mall at the corner of Pico Boulevard and Glenville Drive -- between a dry cleaning shop, a laundromat and a kosher Chinese restaurant -- Stan's Produce is something of a landmark in the heavily Jewish Westside neighborhood.

Vegetables and fruit were always fresh and prices were always reasonable, according to the locals.

"He's a neighborhood fixture," said teacher Susan Davidson, a customer for nearly two decades. "I was very upset when he closed. We all were."

Iann Weiss of Beverly Hills, a 10-year customer, said she was stunned when she came to shop and saw the notes taped to the front of the market.

"People had written things like, 'Stan, we miss you!' and personal things like, 'Please get well soon and hurry back,' and, 'My daughter had her baby,' " Weiss said. "Stan didn't know how many people love him. It's not just his produce. It's him."

Pascal acknowledged he was taken aback by the reaction to his retirement.

A customer had offered to purchase the store and continue running it and had agreed to continue employing the shop's two produce clerks, Pablo Baltazar, 28, and Jose Luis, 21. And Pascal had begun mapping plans to move to Las Vegas -- "my favorite place in the world."

Pascal said he had undergone an angioplasty heart procedure in September. He felt unusually tired after arising as he always did at 3 a.m. to start his 15-hour workday by driving his battered 1992 delivery truck to the downtown Los Angeles produce district to stock up.

At first, he blamed his fatigue on new medications he was taking. But he soon found out he was suffering from hepatitis A.

He took that, coupled with his birthday and the loss of his wife, Susan, as signs that it was time to retire, he said. But then he saw the notes on the front door.

Baltazar and Luis returned when he reopened last month. So did his grateful customers.

"I was surprised but very glad when he came back," said Beverlywood resident Joe Silver, shopping with his wife, Simone. She chatted with Pascal in French.

The produce man is fluent in the language because it was in Canada that he began his career, working weekends starting at age 7 for his father, Harry Pascal, in shops in Montreal and then Windsor, Ontario.

His family came to Los Angeles in 1956 when the elder Pascal took over a produce stand at the downtown Grand Central Market. With his wife, Stan Pascal ran his own shop on Fairfax Avenue for a quarter-century before moving it to Pico-Robertson 14 years ago.

Susan Pascal was the shop's cashier. She ran tabs for customers, tacking the IOUs on the wall behind the store's worn Formica-topped checkout counter. She knew every customer's name and family history and enjoyed weighing customers' babies on the counter's produce scale.

Customer Susan Nemetz, who lives in the Carthay Circle area, telephoned Pascal at his West Los Angeles home when he was recuperating from hepatitis. "He cried because he wasn't here for his customers for the High Holidays," she said. "We were all very concerned because he'd had a tough last few years."

There was another brief round of panic last week when Pascal closed the shop two hours early to keep a doctor's appointment. Customers were relieved when they learned that the appointment was routine -- and that Pascal's resolve to keep the store open was absolute.

"If I can still pick up a box of potatoes, I'll be here until I'm 85," he pledged.

Shopper Myles Skolnek, a landscape architect who is a third-generation Stan's Produce customer, was confident as he plunked down $22.82 for five bags of fresh goods.

"Stan," he predicted, "is going to outlast all of us."

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