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The iceman goeth

Mike Costello's Huntington Beach store sells nothing but ice, and the customers are nice. But business has cooled dramatically over the years.

December 20, 2010|By Britney Barnes, Los Angeles Times
  • Brewster's Ice owner Mike Costello is getting out of the ice business.
Brewster's Ice owner Mike Costello is getting out of the ice business. (Kent Treptow, Huntington…)

Mike Costello sells ice. Nothing but ice.

Crushed ice, cubed ice, dry ice. Ice in small bags and big bags and solid, 300-pound hunks. He sells blocks of ice for sliding down hills and ice luges for parties.

It's a slow time for business right now, summer being the hottest season for the frozen stuff, of course. But even Halloween and the Fourth of July — days that would traditionally put the business into the black — aren't what they used to be, Costello says.

"The ice business used to be a good business, but not anymore," he said.

Costello, 64, and his wife, Ellen, are the owners of Brewster's Ice in Huntington Beach, a store that sells to restaurants, residents and tourists who need to pack their ice chests for the day.

The store is believed to be the second-oldest family-run business in the city, having opened in 1945, but that legacy looks to be coming to a close. Costello's children are uninterested in continuing the ice business.

"It will probably end with us," Costello said.

Costello started working at Brewster's Ice more than 20 years ago. Living in Mammoth Lakes at the time, Costello was offered a job by his soon-to-be father-in-law, Virgil Brewster. He was getting older and wanted Costello to help run the store.

It wasn't hard to learn the business, he said. He learned how to use the crusher, how to run the machines and where to order the ice from.

"It took me all of a week," he said.

Costello didn't think it would turn into a career but, he says, he didn't have too much going on at the time. He stayed.

He enjoys the job, saying he doesn't have to deal with frustrated or angry customers. People who come for ice are generally nice and upbeat. Even those buying ice for a funeral are never in too bad a mood, he said.

With roughly five customers a day, there is a lot of down time, but Costello says he's never bored. He keeps busy reading mysteries or books about exotic fruits and vegetables, or making birdhouses and signs in his office.

The business retains the quaint atmosphere of a simpler time. With only one type of product, the choices are limited and prices are plain and simple. They're displayed on a small sign up front — tax included.

The store is open every day, closing early every Tuesday and Thursday in the winter when Costello goes bowling.

The building has been a draw in the community. Several companies, including a jewelry store and Harley-Davidson, have filmed commercials in front of the place, taking advantage of its old-fashioned look. Couples have taken wedding pictures out front, and last month a family took Thanksgiving photos there.

Now, with his best ice days behind him, Costello is ready to retire. His two grown stepsons, Steven and James Parker, have their own careers and no interest in changing to the ice business.

So the business is up for grabs, but Costello said the lessee wouldn't have to keep it. A new owner could tear the building down and put up something else. After all, there are a lot of places that sell ice, including gas stations and grocery stores, and most people have an ice machine as part of their refrigerators — practically everyone but Costello.

"There's a lot of ice places in town," he said. "It's getting to be a harder and harder business."

britney.barnes@latimes.com

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