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Cigarettes, Water and Weed: Some L.A. Businesses are Slammed, While Others are Closing Their Doors

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The following article was originally published March 16, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with LAist and KPCC.

LAist and KPCC logos

Story by Emily Guerin

Stay open, or close down?

City and state authorities are requiring bars, movie theaters and gyms to close to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But for other kinds of small businesses, the decision is up to them.

So how are they making up their minds?

We surveyed over a dozen small business owners along a short stretch of Lincoln Boulevard near Rose Ave. in Venice on Monday morning. We avoided stores that have already been instructed to stay open (restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies) or shut down (gyms, bars, movie theaters).

Lincoln and Rose seemed like a good cross-section of Los Angeles. Here, homeless people sleep in RVs in front of upscale stores that specialize in alkaline water, and a payday loan store shares a corner with Whole Foods.

We found that the decision to stay open, or close down, depends on how many customers were still coming in to shop. And that appears to depend on what those customers consider essential.

Lincoln Tobacco Shop is firmly in the stay-open camp.

"Business is super busy, non-stop, parking lots have been full. It's crazy," said employee Danny Borghesani while standing behind a counter full of glass pipes.

Business has been crazy at Lincoln Tobacco Shop on March 16, 2020. Danny Borghesani says smokers are stocking up on vapes and cigarettes. | Emily Guerin/LAist
Business has been crazy at Lincoln Tobacco Shop on March 16, 2020. Danny Borghesani says smokers are stocking up on vapes and cigarettes. | Emily Guerin/LAist

On an average day, he'll make $3,000. He told me that last Friday, he raked in $9,500, mostly from cigarettes and vapes.

"If you have a pretty ravishing nicotine addiction and you can't go out, a lot of people are going to stock up," he said.

Just down the street, the box store of pot shops, Med Men, was also full of people.

"Anything people can't live without is busy," said the employee checking IDs, who declined to give his name.

Fancy water, apparently, is one of those things.

At The Better Water, which specializes in "Pure Antioxidant Ionizing Alkaline Water," there were so many customers filling massive glass jars that an employee told me to come back later.

Business was also good, surprisingly, at Fabric Planet, a warehouse-like building overflowing with colorful spools of fabric, buttons and thread.

Creative Director Jack Jacob Sapar said people were coming in to buy crafting supplies so they had something to do while they were self-quarantined. This made him happy.

"One silver lining here is that when people are home and bored, they're gonna be creative," he said. "So we'll see a lot more art, hopefully, as a result of this."

But at stores that sell unambiguously non-essential items, business was slow.

At Frame 2000, owner Sam Moaven said, "It's a picture frame. It's not food. It's not medicine. You really don't need to have it today, it can wait."

Sam Moaven, owner of Frame 2000 in Venice, says business has fallen to nearly zero. | Emily Guerin/LAist
Sam Moaven, owner of Frame 2000 in Venice, says business has fallen to nearly zero. | Emily Guerin/LAist

Business is down 90% from last week. As of 11 a.m. today, just one customer had come into the shop, and Moaven was starting to stress about making rent. Still, he agreed with his customers' decision to stay home due to social distancing, and has accepted that business will be slow for a while.

Moaven worried the federal government is focusing too much on the stock market and slashing interest rates, and not enough about assisting small businesses like his:

"Stop the politics, stop blaming others and start writing checks. It's simple. Plain vanilla. Put money in the hands of folks. How hard is that?"

Still other businesses along Lincoln Boulevard were empty for a different reason: By their nature, they cannot practice social distancing.

"It's our job to touch people. There's no way around it," said Trevor Plough, a barber at Manly & Sons. "My hands have to go on every customer's head."

As we talked, another barber sprayed down mirrors with bleach. Every chair was empty.

Plough said he's had a lot of cancellations, and no appointments for the rest of the day. He pays $500 a week to rent his chair, but said the barbershop's owner has offered to let him pay less if business keeps dipping.

Still, Plough said the barber shop would remain open until they were forced to shut down.

"If we don't cut, we don't eat."

A single man gets his hair cut on March 16, 2020 at Floyd's 99 Barber Shop on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. | Emily Guerin/LAist
A single man gets his hair cut on March 16, 2020 at Floyd's 99 Barber Shop on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. | Emily Guerin/LAist

Finally, I swung by the Fox Swap Meet, where I saw one single customer in the entire flea market. Most of the little booths were closed, with metal gates dragged across windows full of discount bras, sneakers, and Kobe Bryant jerseys.

Janet Jung was fitting a wig to a manequin in her beauty supply store, which she has owned for 30 years. She said business has been slowing down for years: maybe because the neighborhood is changing, or because the people who were her customers have less money to spend. She laid off her last employees years ago.

But this feels different, she said:

"This time, it's more slow."

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