Sundi Sage wasn't always in the antique business. She tended bar for years, dealing with drunks and flirty fishermen, wondering if she could make it on her own.
Her store, Timeless Collectables, didn't used to be on the corner of Adams Avenue and Hamilton Street in Normal Heights. The colorful mural she commissioned wasn't there either, and folks up before 8 a.m. had to drive to a somewhat-nearby Starbucks to get their morning coffee.
She began on Adams in the tiny storefront next to the one on the corner, where she is now. The walls were painted differently, she remembers, and all the shops that neighbored her store are gone now. Except for Ron at Gledhill's Vintage Furniture-he's been here forever, she says.
And Adams Avenue didn't used to be so quiet. Marie Hood of Hood Antiques, who's been selling Asian treasures and high-end jewelry out of the same store for 26 years, remembers when antique shops lined the street and even Liberace would cruise in to throw down a few bucks on something that tickled his fancy.
There's still a small sign near 30th Street and Adams Avenue letting people know as they exit the freeway that they're entering "Antique Row."
But as the years have passed, the sign and the stores it represents have faded.
In 1969, there were at least 14 shops on Adams hawking furnishings for the home and body from decades past. The interest in antiques was burgeoning and customers walked from California Craftsman to California Craftsman to peruse the latest finds.
Like anywhere else, Adams Avenue was affected by the changing times, but it managed to keep its quaint hometown feel. The Reagan era was good for the area, and Antique Row hit its stride. In 1982, the number of antique dealers on the strip had grown to 36.
"There was more interest in one's background," says Charles Molnar, whose shop, Alouette Antiques, has been doing business here for 23 years.
By 1992, just 10 years later, the number of antique businesses with their doors still open dropped significantly. But with 26 stores still alive, the area still drew quite a crowd.
Today, only 15 stores remain. Some merchants, like Country Cousins owner Sydney Cousins, who had been in business for almost 12 years, moved to an antique mall in Ocean Beach. Others simply went under.
Why is an area that at one time flourished with business and vitality now withering? The question haunts many of the owners as they wait for a customer to walk into their store. Sometimes there can be a lot of time to ponder such matters in between customers.
"We've found that if one day is busy, the other one won't be," says Scott Prine, Sage's longtime boyfriend, who runs Timeless Collectibles. "If we have a slow Saturday, we know that we're going to be rocking on Sunday. If we have a rocking Saturday, for whatever reason, we're not on Sunday."
Jennifer Riley, who owns Life of Riley Antiques, knows exactly what he's talking about. Last August, she had to close the doors of her Adams Avenue shop between Kansas and Utah streets. With the stream of foot traffic unpredictable and her monthly rent all too regular, Riley packed her old-fashioned things and moved to eBay.
She was sad to see her first shop close, but she knows that it's hard to make it as a small business. And without the support of strong neighbors, it was nearly impossible.
"My next door neighbor's sign said "11ish'!" she says, shaking her head. She remembers being asked daily where that neighbor, Sydney Cousins, was and when she would open.
Country Cousins and Life of Riley Antiques closed around the same time last year.
"If somebody drives from L.A. and they expect to see 20 stores and only five are open, that hurts the five," Sage says, sympathetic to Riley's situation. "I would be one of the five that were open.
"When you put a business on a small street like this, you're going to reflect the whole street," she adds.
Such has become the mantra on Adams Avenue as the shop owners learn how hard it is to get customers to stop in when there isn't a whole strip of interesting stores for them to spend the day perusing.
"We need a place down here like Lestat's where people can come and hang out," says Taunya Armstrong, who owns Chaos Antiques along with her partner Cliff Bair, referring to the popular coffeehouse and live-music venue located farther east on Adams Avenue "We need an anchor."
Armstrong loves the street and came to Adams to try to make a living selling off the impressive collection of vintage clothing and jewelry that had accumulated in her closet over the years. Her personal touches are apparent throughout the store-from the gold starburst designs she stenciled by hand on the walls to the name she's given the store's back room whick is stocked with vintage dresses and accessories. And if the beautifully enshrined portrait of a jewel-wearing feline isn't enough, Armstrong is happy to explain the connection between "Zsa Zsa's Closet" and her pet cat.
"This is what she would wear if she could dress," she says, smiling at the ridiculousness of her statement.
"They all have stories," she says as her hand gently passes over the racks of dresses and suits hanging in the tiny shop. The pink-and-turquoise-painted walls and giant framed mirror create an inviting ambience that promises the glamour of old Hollywood with each purchase.
"I wore this one to a school dance," she says, smiling. "And this one was part of my everyday wardrobe."
Armstrong has watched as shops she admired have closed one after another, and her face looks troubled when she thinks about her own future. Right now her rent is manageable, but she wonders where she and Cliff will go if things get even tighter.
"It's not that beneficial to be here. There are so many stores that have closed that it's not a mecca anymore," she says. "But we'd hate to move."
Armstrong and others whose livelihood depends on the success of Adams Avenue have had to give a lot of thought to what would happen if their landlords decide to raise the rent. She's heard of the success antique malls are having on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach but isn't too keen on the mall atmosphere. Though the online auction sales she racks up while waiting for customers to walk in keep her going, she can't help but wonder what life would be like at another location.
Kathy Decorsey has had to give it more than a passing thought. Having worked for almost a decade at Revivals, one of the few antique shops left west of the 805 freeway, Decorsey has grown with the business and came to love what she does.
Sitting in the eclectic store, she proudly points to different pieces and boasts of how they've appeared in movies and TV shows-the white ironwork trellis hanging in the next room was used in an episode of Veronica Mars, she says.
She motions towards the garden room and reminisces about time she spent with her friend, Joan Seifried, who owned the store back when it was called Retreads. "We'd have parties, take that old bath tub, put ice in it and put wine in it," she recalls.
But with plans to turn the shop into what's known as a staging business-providing furniture for homes up for sale-when the store's 10-year lease comes up for renewal in March, current owner Brian Cegelski knows he won't need any employees. Decorsey, with nothing but kind words for her employer and his store, has had to start looking for work.
"I've asked around here, but everybody's like a one-person thing now. [The businesses] are so small that they can't afford the overhead of hiring someone else," she says, her eyes gazing off, focusing on nothing. "We'll see."
Decorsey's spirits rise and then fall as customers greet her, browse the store and then walk out the door. "You get to know people here, watch their kids grow up," she says, her hand on a beautifully crafted solid wood headboard that sits in the front of the store.
"See why I don't get attached? It's here and you love it and then it's gone," she says. "Just enjoy it while it's here."
But while some ready themselves for a move, others hope to remake the street. With antique store closures along the avenue outnumbering openings over the years, those that remain seem to cling to each other for survival.
The Adams Avenue Business Association (AABA), run by a 14-member board of directors who all own shops on the street, has recognized the exodus and enacted programs aimed at attracting more shoppers and viable businesses to the strip.
For the last 32 years, the street has hosted the Adams Avenue Roots Festival, which showcases national and local musicians and brings people and their disposable incomes in. The Adams Avenue Street Fair and the Antiques Street Fair also attract patrons to the shops as vendors and customers fill the street. Most of the antique merchants on the avenue look forward to the events and the tremendous sales opportunities they present a few days each year.
Zac's Attic owner Dave McPheeters, who completely remodeled a 1920s home and made it into one of the most successful businesses on the street, says these events can help sustain and grow a merchant's customer base.
"The first year we did it, I had 1,100 people come through my store in one day," he says of the Antiques Street Fair, noting that between 45 and 75 people come through on a typical Saturday or Sunday.
The AABA tries to keep the excitement going year round and issues permits from the city to dealers who put appropriate visual displays outside their stores as long as they don't get in the way of foot traffic.
While only a few of the businesses on the street have taken advantage of the program, those that have see it as a valuable contributor to their sales.
As soon as she heard about the project, Sage knew she wanted to get involved. Hoping to supplement her income as well as boost the sense of community, she decided that having a coffee cart outside her shop would be the best way to go.
"When people walk onto our corner I want them to feel good," she says earnestly. "They'll spend a dollar, a hundred dollars or nothing, but they'll come back."
In the three years since Sage moved to Adams Avenue, four of the five stores on her block have turned over and been replaced with dedicated dealers. And the landlord has her to thank.
As unusual as giving one tenant the power to select her neighbors sounds, Sage says that's exactly what happened. As she invested her own time and money into the building she was renting, the owner stepped aside and now allows her to manage the entire commercial complex.
In the shop next to where she is now, she learned the business and what it takes to run a store. Soon, her sharp thinking and strong work ethic began to pay off, and the business outgrew the tiny space.
Now, shoppers don't even need to walk inside to get an idea of what Timeless Collectables is all about; the eye-catching window displays can be seen from across the street. "From Deco to Disco," as Sage puts it, her wares span the gamut of fascinating finds, and she and Prine do their best to find out the story behind each piece.
When it comes to flare, nothing in the shop rivals Sage's five-foot-tall mermaid sculpture. Sitting on a giant blue clamshell, she has become the centerpiece of the store. One can only imagine what Bette Midler must have looked like in her place, as the bottom-lit shell was originally used for one of the star's stage shows.
"The little antique fairy didn't drop this stuff off on the porch the night before," Sage says, explaining that she works hard to make her store as compelling as it is. And with all the time and sacrifice it has taken to make her business profitable, Sage does whatever she can to keep it going.
When neighboring spaces open up, she and Prine interview potential business owners and choose those who they believe will contribute to the growth, she says.
"Everybody here had to sign a basic agreement saying they won't park in front of their own store, they'll have a proper store front and that they'll post hours and live by those hours," she said. "As long as you do what you're supposed to do, which isn't that hard, you'll never have problems. If you're not going to do what you're supposed to do, don't do it on this corner."
And slowly, it's working. Her shop always seems busy. She makes at least one sale a day-whereas three years ago she could go an entire week without a customer stepping foot inside the store. Now people sit at the table and chairs she has set up and read the morning newspaper, sipping Italian sodas.
And Sage enjoys the days as much as anyone, though she works an average of 72 hours a week. Her face has become familiar to frequent customers and sometime-shoppers alike as she takes the time to greet everyone she passes.
"I have a huge Palm Springs clientele," she says, "but let me tell you, my [neighbors] are the ones that pay my bills every month. You be good to your neighbors and be good to your community, they will always support you."
The new heartbeat on Sage's end of the avenue surprises AABA president Mike Magers, and others who were around to see Antique Row in its prime.
"There was nothing out that way. That was no man's land," he says, remembering the days when he visited the street to help his grandfather run the shop. The section of Adams east of the freeway always got more attention from the AABA, he says, and though it wasn't intentional, some have resented it.
But things are changing. As the enthusiasm grows on what was once the outskirts of the avenue, the AABA has redirected its focus. Since January, workers have been installing new trees and lights to enhance the character of the area.
In the next few months, the AABA plans to erect a new sign at the corner of Arizona Street, designating it the entrance and exit to Historic Antique Row, a term that makes purists like Magers wince.
"It's not historic!" he says, smiling like he's said the words over and over again. He loves Normal Heights and, technically, Antique Row was always part of Normal Heights, not a separate area, as he thinks the sign will suggest.
But, being someone who picks his battles wisely, he lets it go.
Though change in such a tight-knit community isn't always welcome-Decorsey, for one, cringes at the thought of a Starbucks west of Kensington-the new energy that stores like Sage's bring is much-needed and much-appreciated.
Jennifer Riley, who's stayed close with Sage since Life of Riley closed last year, reopened her doors in a new location-the store next to Timeless Collectables. Riley never put much thought into renting a space anywhere other than on Adams Avenue, she says. And with her store neighboring Sage, who encouraged her to take a second chance, Riley's sure things will be different this time around.
Two young women with trendy hair and wide sunglasses browse Riley's shop on its opening day. One picks up a wooden book holder that's been painted gold and walks it over to Riley.
"Great store," she says, comparing Riley's prices to those in the store next door. "If this was over there, it would have been $80."
Riley forces a smile as the women leave, happy with her first sale but visibly upset by the mild attack on her mentor.
Now, sitting at the coffee cart with Sage, in front of both of their stores, she can look back on her shaky antique past and laugh, confident that she'll be around for a while. Who knows, maybe she'll even be in the corner store one day.
"I can remember my heart used to pound when people would walk in my store," she says, rolling her eyes. "It's geeky, but what can you do?"Now she spends her mornings shopping for treasures to fill her shelves and passes her afternoons in her tiny shop helping customers find what they're looking for. Things are still a little dusty and a few boxes have yet to be unpacked, but it feels good to be back in business.