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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

It’s time for an old Echo Park store to change once again

When the Stone family opened up their Echo Park furniture store in the 1940s, most of the clientele was Jewish. By the 1960s, however, Latinos has begun to patronize the large Stone Bros. outlet on Sunset Boulevard in ever growing numbers. In the 1990s, Stone Bros. changed its name to La Popular, a familiar store name to Los Angeles’ Latino immigrants, as the Stones chased after the Spanish-speaking consumer. Today, Neil Stone, the third generation of his family to operate the store, is managing the business through yet another transformation. Not only has business withered as a result of the recession, many of the Latino customers the store had come to depend on have moved away as Echo Park and surrounding neighborhoods have gentrified, Stone said. The store has changed its merchandise – carrying low-budget versions of Pottery Barn-style sofas and tables – to appeal to the tastes of new residents. Stone said he might even drop the La Popular brand and revive the Stone Bros. name. “Echo Park is changing,” said Stone. “I’m trying to change with it.”

Stone is part of a line of Jewish merchants whose stores once catered to generations of immigrant shoppers across Echo Park, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and other Eastside communities. His grandfather, Stanley, helped opened the first family store on First Street in Boyle Heights in the 1920s. About 20 years later, the family had branched out to Echo Park with a store on Sunset Boulevard just west of Alvarado. Stone’s father, Mike (who passed away about a year ago), managed the Echo Park store, where the younger Stone and his brother would come in as kids to help sweep floors. The 50-year-old Stone has worked full time at the store for half of his life.

Stone is now struggling to keep his family’s business viable. Sales have fallen so low that Stone is seeking to lease out a big chunk of the 12,000-square-foot store, notable for its neon sign, to other tenants. Meanwhile, he has been shifting his merchandise. The large, over stuffed sofas and bright and floral upholstery favored my many immigrant families has largely disappeared from the crowded showroom. Instead, there are sleek sofas upholstered in leather and muted shades of green and brown. It’s a “loft style” that Stone features in his new advertising circulars and appeals to the increasing number of Anglo customers walking through the door. “Buying habits are different,” he said. “Buying tastes are different.”

At one point, perhaps 9 out of 10 La Popular customers were Latino. That number is now about 3 out of 10, Stone said. Still, Stone said he’s waiting for the store shift in strategy to pay off financially. Though more of his customers come from more affluent Silver Lake and Los Feliz, many are still looking for deals. A new sofa and love seat clad in red leather, for example, was recently marked down to less than $1,000. “A lot of the young kids walking through here are price conscious,” he said.

A Tuesday night visit to La Popular offered a glimpse into the change Stone is struggling to keep up with. At one point, an elderly, grey-haired Latina woman walks in and heads to a bilingual sign that reads “Cashier Caja.” She’s here to pay her monthly bill in person and in cash, a common business practice among Latino immigrants. After helping the older woman at the cashier window, Stone then heads to the showroom floor to wait on a younger, English-speaking woman shopping for furniture.

Stone said he never asked his father what it was like to deal with the change in demographics 50 years ago. Now, Stone said he hopes he can change fast enough.

The black & white photo is believed to be the interior of the Stone Bros. Boyle Heights store. Photo from Neil Stone.



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