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PAST AND PRESENT

A 20,000-square-foot love seat

The third-generation owner bids a fond farewell to a landmark L.A. furniture store.

July 12, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

SOME places have been around so long that we tend to take their presence for granted -- until we realize they're gone. About to become a memory is the Horizon Showroom of Contemporary Furniture on Pico Boulevard, just west of La Cienega Boulevard -- one of the city's oldest and largest independently owned furniture stores. When the last stick of furniture is gone on Sunday, so too will be an era.

The sprawling store -- 20,000 square feet -- has been around since 1924. It's been owned by three successive generations of the Behrstock family. Don Behrstock's grandfather, Sam, started the business at Pico and Vermont, then the heart of the city.

Don's dad, Alan, predicted the city would sprout west to the Pacific and moved the store to its current location in 1937, when the Pico-La Cienega area was still considered suburbia. Don took over from his dad 20 years later, after graduating from UCLA.

The store flourished for decades, Don says, and life was exciting. Like the curator of an art collection, he'd travel the U.S., Europe and Asia finding pieces that satisfied his aesthetic sense, putting together the equivalent of stage sets for his store. "It's been a very personal adventure. I concentrated on the best in contemporary furniture, tried always to offer what was cutting edge along with an interesting, eclectic mix. Stickley, Biedermeier, Art Deco, Midcentury Modern.... "

His prices were competitive, he says, and clients kept coming back. "Doctors, lawyers, all sorts of industry people. Not just the stars, although we had our share -- everyone from Elvis and Groucho to Meat Loaf and Magic Johnson and Joan Collins and Marla Gibbs and Gen. Omar Bradley. And lots of writers, directors, set designers, music people."

He never wanted to open any branches, he says, precisely because the store was such a personal and stylized showcase for his taste. He didn't want to dilute the premise.

But Behrstock believes independent furniture stores, like independent grocery stores and bookstores -- which used to dot the L.A. landscape -- can't easily survive in the current climate. His grown children are pursuing other interests -- his daughter fashion design, his son computers. And for him, the thrill is gone.

"The very nature of the industry has changed." Inexpensive furniture from China pervades the marketplace, Behrstock says. Instead of buying selectively, as he used to do, Behrstock now has to buy in large quantities that are shipped in big containers. What's more, he can't customize orders as he once did, he says. "If a manufacturer is shipping brown and beige, you can't ask for blue and green."

Then he has to show all the stuff he's bought, which means he's showing pretty much the same items as other stores in town. "Prices are lower, which means we need to sell in much greater volume in order to produce any profits, and meanwhile all our other expenses remain the same."

There's still high-quality furniture made in Italy and other spots around the globe, but prices of these are steep, he says. "So it's become more difficult to carry high quality at a good value and maintain any margin of profit.

"The choice for consumers is narrowing," he says. "Pretty soon, it will all be very inexpensive or very pricey, with nothing in between." But he has no sorrow or regrets, he says. Everything changes, and he isn't one to battle the inevitable, especially when he's still young enough, at 71, to start a whole new adventure. "There's lots I want to do," he says. "I'll keep you posted."

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bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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