The placards on the counter at Carrows Restaurant on Fremont Avenue read: “This spot reserved for memories.”
That’s how I felt wandering around town a few days ago.
That’s not to say South Pasadena is a memory. It’s alive and as unique as ever.
Our city is, however, a changed place, as we are all changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lights at Carrows are dimmed, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone home. On the door, a sign says the restaurant is temporarily closed, as is the Canoe House restaurant on Fair Oaks Boulevard.
Some things will never return, and I’ll miss them.
After running Reimagine Your Home for 25 years, John Vandercook decided to give in to the crushing blow the pandemic had given and closed the business on Mission Avenue. Instead of saying good morning as I did when I saw him sweeping his sidewalk each morning, I now pass an empty storefront.
I loved the quaintness of the small Cookies and Cream ice cream shop on Fair Oaks. A sign in the window says the store is changing into a cooperative that lists some lofty goals and fun intentions.
One evening, I went over to Penguins in the Vons mall — opposite the UPS store — to get some soft ice cream, and the shop was gone.
And many merchants I talked to said they wonder, “Am I going to be able to hang on?”
“For several businesses, the longer [the pandemic] goes, the thread they are hanging on is getting thinner and thinner,” said Laurie Wheeler, president of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.
The thread holding up the future of the Arroyo Vista Inn, a bed and breakfast on a hill with a lovely view on Monterey Road, is thin indeed, according to manager Janice Lupien.
“We’ve been having having one, two people people a night since March,” she said. “Usually at this time we’d be nearly booked on weekends and have 80% reservations filled throughout the week.
“Lots of people are delaying or canceling travel.”
The result is the owners are working with the bank to see if they can defer payments.
“We’re hanging in there,” Lupien said.
One of the well-known small businesses in South Pasadena is the Dinosaur Farm, which has been ranked in polls as one of the top independent toy stores left in the country.
When owner Dave Plenn told me he was pondering the future, that’s when I knew for sure how insidious the pandemic has been for the businesses of our city.
“It’s a consideration,” Plenn said about the possibility of closing, “but we’re going to stick it out for the rest of the year for sure and see how it looks for the future.”
The Dinosaur Farm, like all businesses, saw the bottom fall out in mid-March, and it is just now starting to see business come back.
Plenn admitted he’s kind of resigned himself to how things will end up at the end of the year.
“I love everything about this place. I love the customers. I love coming to work every day, but I’ve got to make sure that we can pay our bills,” he said.
Plenn, like several business owners, is also trying to improve his presence on the web.
I saw evidence of owners trying to be creative and cope with the hand they were dealt by health and county officials.
There is a big sign on the side wall of American Pie that reads: “Pizza Is Essential” — an apparent reference to businesses that have always been allowed to be open during the pandemic.
The Barkley Restaurant and Bar has been serving and pouring since the 1950s at the corner of Fremont Avenue and Huntington Drive and it reminds me of the kind of place where “everybody knows your name.”
The gang is now outside at tables in the parking lot. That’s great except when temperatures soar into the 90s as they have been during the last several days.
The restaurant is serving a limited menu from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and it has a Sunday brunch and dinner, with a jazz trio playing 10 a.m.-noon and 7-9 p.m. on Sundays.
“We have had a good response. We are getting back the local regulars and we are glad to be seeing a few new faces,” said Corina Johansen, a manager, who admitted that business had been reduced by “a lot.”
Nearby, TLC Veterinary, on Huntington, has a sign outside its front door saying that no one except employees is allowed in the office and that customers should call from their cars and someone will come and get their pets to be treated. Another sign informs customers how long they can expect to wait for their animals to be treated.
Carlos Jimenez at Swarthy’s on Fair Oaks and the barbers at the Square Deal on Mission are playing by the rules and cutting hair outside their shops.
The Square Deal has set up two barber chairs in a lovely terrace behind their shop. There are even patio chairs where patrons can wait their turn.
“We’re trying to make the best with what we’ve got,” said Ronnie Hernandez, one of the barbers. Apparently, things are good enough, since Hernandez said business has been “crazy.” with no appointments available for several days out last week.
Mama’s Italian Restaurant on Fair Oaks is also making good use of its “backyard.” It welcomes guests to an “under the tent” experience where a large canopy shelters tables and is bordered by a picket fence.
Temperatures of 100 degrees on Saturday challenged even the best-laid plans.
An email from South Pasadena Arts & Music announced its online one-on-one virtual music program, and Radiant Music Studio on Mission also has online one-on-one lessons. The South Pasadena Music Center’s answering machine is promoting help by video from instructors.
And then there is SaraRose Orlandini, who has found success at her SugarMynt Gallery on
Meridian Street. She is showing what she describes as “cult movies” in the side patio next to the gallery and has sold out her 18 spaced seats every night — Thursday through Sunday — for the past two months.
“Entrepreneurs are a scrappy bunch of people,” Wheeler concluded. “They are the type of people who get creative to stay in business.”
Why a Longtime Store Owner Called It Quits
John Vandercook is 72 and he expected that he’d probably retire in a few years as the owner of Reimagine Your Home. He just never imagined that the future would be now. Like so many businessmen in town, Vandercook was hit right in the bank account by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it sent him straight into retirement. “Even during the recession [of 2008], you figured there would be a way out of that,” Vandercook said. “The pandemic is just so uncertain. The thing that is killing small businesses is that you don’t know what or when the ending is going to be.” Business at his flooring and wall covering store on Mission Avenue dropped 80% starting in March, and he soon found himself dipping into his savings to pay the bills. With the lease on his store up for renewal in August, Vandercook decided to retire early. “Small businesses are going to need a year to rebuild reserves,” he said. “Those [government] loans didn’t go very far, but we are all in the same boat economically.” Vandercook said his store was also faced with changing demographics. He said 85% of his business involved referral and repeat customers, and those people were aging out of the market. Younger buyers are now finding deals on the internet. “I’m just thankful I’m not in my 30s or 40s right now,” he said. “There are just so many challenges facing small business right now.” Vandercook has been active for years in city campaigns, clubs and activities, and said he is typical of the small business owner who is invested in the city. The next business owners — especially if they are corporate — may not have that personal interest, he warned. “It’s a changing landscape,” he concluded. — Andy Lippman