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Small Business Secrets: Get Creative

It takes creativity and guts to stay in business these days, especially for small specialty stores like Leland's and Potter's Ensemble in Hermosa Beach and Harmony Works in Riviera Village.

Editor's Note: This article is part of an occasional series profiling South Bay businesses that are thriving.

At Lelands Just For Fun, a costume/gift and magic shop in Hermosa Beach, surviving the bad economy sometimes wasn’t at all fun.

“About six years ago, I had one of my best Christmases ever,” Leland Van Andler said as he led a tour around his novelty shop, one crowded with shelves of colorful wigs and racks of costumes, from Renaissance gowns to 1920s flapper dresses. “The next Christmas was my worst.”

Lelands was in another part of the city back then, about six blocks from the beach. Van Andler made the move to a strip mall on Aviation Boulevard four years ago. The proprietor, 72, who has grown accustomed to customers saying he looks "just like Hugh Hefner" (only cuter), said his business has survived via longevity. Not because of age, mind you.

“There are a certain amount of people who are loyal to me because I’ve been around (the South Bay) for 20 years,” said Van Andler, whose former shop held forth on Hermosa Avenue for 17 years.

“Two things affected (my) particular business and a lot of brick and mortar stores,” he said. Even before the bad economy struck, “the main pothole was the Internet.”

People gravitated to online sources, where “they have over a million costumes” to choose from, the proprietor said. “It’s deceiving and they use deceiving tricks to get people to buy, so we had to get over that hump.”

He found that customers who ordered something online were frequently disappointed with their purchase and would come to him to complain. “This is what I got!” they’d say, holding forth some sleazily made costume or pathetic tri-cornered hat.

At Lelands, customers can see the merchandise, try things on and know what they are getting, he said.

Speaking of tricks, Van Andler knows his way around slight of hand. “Magic goes with me wherever I go,” said the Redondo Beach resident and magician, who classifies magic as “a sideline, a hobby.” But his magic sales always bloom when a magician is featured on television, he said. The original Lelands, in fact, was right up the street from the Comedy and Magic Club, one is his favorite haunts.

Nevertheless, Van Andler admits that he waits all year for one holiday. He was about four years into his first novelty shop (mainly cards and gifts), when he “discovered Halloween,” he said. “So Halloween has been the main thing (ever since).”

What sustains him for the rest of the year? “School projects; (students) have Colonial Days, special reports, that gives me a few sales every day,” he said. Although he doesn’t work directly with the schools, “word of mouth” has sent legions of South Bay kids to shop for period costumes for a George Washington day or to represent the Dark Ages.

Aside from costumes, Lelands Just For Fun carries all sorts of accessories, everything from police caps to suspenders to hippie paraphernalia to pirate gear. Van Andler recently added a lot more accessories “because people will buy accessories even if they go online to buy (a costume).”

Wigs are another popular item. “I have them at very low prices,” he said, indicating a pink flapper wig for $15.95. People wear them to theme parties, out dancing and to clubs, he added. “I just have a reputation that if someone wants a wig, they come in and get it.”

That his stock is good and his prices low are what keep him going, if barely. “I have good prices and people know that,” he said, grinning his Hugh Hefner grin. “Normally, when they discover me, they stick with me.”

And did we mention that Lelands also carries "sexy" costumes, some suitable for pretending to attend an event at the Playboy Mansion? 

Harmony Works

“When you own a small business you are basically living day to day,” said Royce Morales, proprietor of Harmony Works with husband and community activist Michael. “If you have a few bad days it can completely put you under. It’s not like a corporation that has some float money and can last a few months.”

The Morales’ gift shop—a veritable gallery of whimsical sculpture, off-beat frames and books, paintings and jewelry—has been a gathering place for artists, craftsmen and environmentalists for 19 years.

Looky-loos are drawn into the environmentally-dedicated store with its artful displays and oceanic floor painted with sea creatures, just as loyal customers flock to buy the unusual cards and gifts, many created by local artisans.

But about six years ago, the downturn in the economy changed things. “It hit us really hard,” said Morales, a diminutive, dark haired woman with a pixie quality. “Basically, we tried to stick with it for at least six months or a year. We were struggling (and) got really behind on everything.”

Customers who would ordinarily buy a piece of jewelry or art “would look around and say, ‘Well I’m sorry, but I’m just going to buy a card today.’”

Business dropped at least 50 percent, she said. “Even people that were financially OK—hadn’t lost their jobs—were freaking out because maybe they lost some of their retirement or their stocks dropped. So it was a scary time for people.”

The worst was when the couple's landlord put the “For Lease” sign in front of the store. “We had gotten far behind on the rent,” Morales said. “We were literally packing up, and we had everything on sale.”

Then something magical happened.

“It’s quite a beautiful story, (and it) still tears me up to tell it,” she said with a glossy-eyed smile. “But I sent an email out to my customer base and said, ‘We’re closing. Come on down and get some stuff on sale.’ Within minutes, we had people coming to the store, in tears, crying, saying ‘What can we do? How much do you want us to buy?’”

Morales compared it to a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, where “everybody was throwing money at Jimmy Stewart. Everybody was coming in a crying and hugging me, saying, ‘You can’t leave!’ They literally bought about 60 to 70 percent of our inventory.”

The Moraleses were able to pay everything off. “And our landlord let us stay,” said Royce, who, with her husband’s help, remodeled the entire shop. “We had a pretty empty store for about two or three months. We slowly built up our inventory. Got a lot of artists to come on consignment, so we didn’t have to put money out. And the rest is history.”

Morales learned from it all, to send out emails to customers on a regular basis, for one, and to hold more sales. “I used to email maybe once a month; now I email probably once a week.”

But her major lesson was one of joy, she said. “It’s a wonderful life!”

Potters Ensemble

Charles Howell started The Potter's Ensemble in 1983. It’s a combination gallery and studio, where potters can throw clay, fire in two huge kilns and display their work. “I’ve been here 30 years this month,” Howell, 62, said.

Located in a modest storefront on Aviation Blvd, where cars zoom by and there is little foot traffic, The Potter's Ensemble survives via a number of inventive ways dreamed up by its artist/owner. 

Retired from teaching art in Los Angeles public schools since 2011, Howell regrets that budget cuts are depleting schools of of the arts.

“I was forced out,” he said of the RIF (Reduction In Force) notice he received two years ago. "That was after 30 years of teaching. My students always won many first place awards and now there are no visual arts in the (Monterrey Park area) school district."

On the plus side, Howell now devotes himself to the studio full time. It hasn’t been easy.

Although he has definitely felt the economy slump for the past few years, this past Christmas was one of his worst. “I normally always sold between $2,000 and $3,000 worth of ceramic work. And (last) Christmas I didn’t sell anything.”

He admits, however, that his business has always been more about making art than making money. “For me, other than teaching classes or leasing out space to other studios (or) ceramicists, it’s always been a little bit on the slow side,” he said.

In 2003, he bought his portion of his building, part of a triplex. Despite being laid off from teaching, he was able to "subsidize (the business) out of my own pocket," he said, adding that he has one other property in Indiana.

Howell had long ago decided to plan ahead. “I put off being a full time artist to save money to be able to afford to have this facility later in life,” he said. Throughout his teaching career he invested in property. “One thing people don’t understand about investing is time.”

The idea is to buy while you’re young, he said, and get the property paid off. “So if anything happens to you, it’s like a place you can always go to. Always pay the taxes on it, keep it rented and well maintained, and keep that as a sacred cow.”

Still, even Howell, who had been divorced and remarried, almost threw in the towel when his second wife died of ovarian cancer in the summer of 2000. Valerie MacMillan, a fellow potter, was only 49.

“I just barely held on,” the artist said. “I just really wanted to end the business. Then I put it up for sale, but I was so depressed, I couldn’t leave my art and everything else. So I got everything I could together so I could buy the buildings. Now I'm a landlord as well as an artist.”

He got back to what he loves, and now his show window and shop are full of his own high-fired pots and stunning vases, and those of fellow potter, Tim McGovern.

To make ends meet, he rents to other artists. “Some come in and just need a studio for a month or two.” Others come in and want to lease his studio, the kilns and all the equipment. “So I’ve done that, too,” he added.

It’s a barter system that works for him. “A lot of artists say, ‘I have no money, but I have this order. If I can (use) your equipment, keep the shop open and do other things for you (in exchange for) studio time, I can pay you later.’”

One thing he doesn’t do is overcharge artists who want to exhibit their work in his gallery. “Most galleries charge up to 60 percent of the artist’s sale price," he said. "I’ve always felt artists are kind of robbed in that context. So I only change artist 25 percent of the selling price.”

The bad economy scare “has kept people from spending money because (art) is not a staple; it’s not food, shelter or clothing,” said Howell, something of a Renaissance man. The artist, who holds two master’s degrees (one in art and the other in education administration), paints large impressive abstracts composed of oils and ceramics. Along with art, he’s also taught music and worked in the theatre.

He’s also broadened his business by taking on different jobs, like restoring paintings and ceramics. “I have a commission right now for four or five funeral urns,” he said, leading me back past a work room filled with unfired pots and out to where two huge kilns stand in the sun.

“It’s a privilege, a very sacred kind of thing. The lady is dividing the ashes up among her children.”

For more information on any of the shops, visit Lelands, Harmony Works and Potter’s Ensemble websites.

Lelands Just For Fun is located at 1109 Aviation Blvd. in Hermosa Beach and can be reached at 310-379-3504. Harmony Works is at 1705 S. Catalina Ave. in South Redondo Beach and can be reached at 310-791-7104. Potter’s Ensemble Gallery and Studio is located at 1093 Aviation Blvd. in Hermosa Beach and can be reached at 310-318-6116.

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Wolfman April 09, 2013 at 02:59 PM
I remember Lelands when he was located in Old Town Mall in Torrance and I still miss going there.
VMacmillan April 10, 2013 at 04:08 AM
I <3 Potters Ensemble. Thanks for writing up a great shop:)
Neil MacMillan April 10, 2013 at 05:12 AM
Hey! That's where I learned to throw pottery! Charles is an excellent teacher!
Maggie Keller April 10, 2013 at 08:20 PM
Charlie at the Potters Ensemble is so truly talented and a heart of gold. Live his shop and his amazing knowledge. Everyone should stop by and see his work.
Paula Taylor April 12, 2013 at 05:31 AM
I have known Charlie my entire life and he is like no one you will ever meet. He's an amazing teacher, putting 150% into everything he does and makes you laugh while doing so! An inspiring artist and person! Go visit him at Potters Ensemble. You will not regret it!

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