Retail is a tough sport. My mom had a shop, and we grew up hanging and ticketing schmattas. Retail was in my blood, but I promised myself no more retail ever again!
Then my detached retina surgery went awry, and I was sidelined for a period of months. The doc said I would never drive a car again. Pavillion’s had their grand opening, and I walked down and saw a ‘for lease’ sign at
A Different Light bookstore
So I called the leasing agent: “I have a client interested in the space.” (I’m a licensed real estate agent). “Sorry it’s taken,” he said. I spoke a good game and the agent, Gabe Kadoosh, was engaged by my story: “Grew up in retail, founded clothing brand YMLA, lost my eye and can’t drive –how much?” He explained that American Apparel was going to expand its women’s line and take the space and give up the other space on the corner. That was that.
After one last eye surgery it was hopeless, my sight was lost and my other eye could not drive at 20/100. Not sure how to live and stay in Weho, so I called the agent again. “What’s going on?” American Apparel was dragging their feet, I asked for one meeting with the landlord.
Up at 9000 Sunset I met the landlord, Michael Pashaie, and with tears begged for the space. “I can do it!” I said, and a week later dropped off a check and hoped they would cash it as a deposit. A bunch of friends thought of names and it came down to TeeBar,or BlockParty. Over lunch with Jeffrey Sanker, he gave the thumbs up for BlockParty, and that sealed it.
I stood on the sidewalk as they painted for the grand opening , Abbe Land cut the ribbon with my late sister. A guy walks by and I overhear “They will be gone in a few months.”
It wasn’t going to be easy to pay $10,000 a month in rent (my sister loaned me $50,000). But life seemed hopeless with one eye. I was embarrassed to look somebody in the eye or go on a date. My bud Gary encouraged me: “It gives ya a place to go.”
I knew I can handle the store. With Jim Hieronymus and Chris Garcia, my 25-year YMLA buddies, at my side we set off to create something great. Victor Mizrahi and the Hard 8 creative team came up with the logo and color story. The rest came down to handshakes and building vendor partnerships.
Most brands were off limits. Other retailers had exclusives. Competing on a street with other underwear manufacturers such as Andrew Christian or LASC — we had to play a different game. An odd deal with my friends at International Male catalog was a real lesson. It was moving warehouses and wanted to unload branded odds and ends. I was disappointed when they came in so assorted. Somebody said put them in buckets by size for $9.99. Everything blew out. One hundred thousand units of underwear later, we have become a top destination for value-price, top-brand underwear. But you need to sell a lot of $9.99 underwear to pay the $10,000 a month rent. And that guy on the sidewalk might have been right. We were not doing very well.
Then I got engaged in city life. One hot summer day a customer came into the store with gum sticking to his sneakers. There was gum all over the streets. The city seemed to be power washing across the street all the time where barely anybody walks. But they never came here! I decided to go to a city council meeting and speak up. My friends Mary and Natalie came along for support. But I chickened out, too afraid to hand in a speaker slip. We left, and I felt like such a faggot, afraid to speak up at the podium.
I couldn’t live with myself, so I went back two weeks later by myself. “Clean up the gum! Appreciate our history and dedicate Boystown!” I said to the city council. The crowd went wild. A lady in a wheelchair held out her hand in a high-five. I was shaking.
As a disabled person I learned about city programs and applied for a seat on the city’s disabilities advisory board and was honored to be John D’Amico’s first disability board appointee. Ten months later they named me chair in a meeting in which I was out of town. Staff called. “Would you accept?” “Of course, I would be honored.” You don’t learn to speak up until you speak for somebody else. You really speak up if it is for somebody else in need. I would learn to advocate and be a good chairman to make Mr. D’Amico proud and make a difference.
Then city council term limits took center stage in West Hollywood. Volunteers paraded up and down Santa Monica Boulevard gathering signatures to put term limits on the ballot. Lauren Meister ran the campaign, but everyday on the street they gathered names, and it was my baby too.
Block Party had become the political center of the city whose heart and soul was at stake. On election day there was a tremendous victory in which the incumbents won re-election but the electorate parsed the difference to vote for term limits. I’ve had one drink at a bar in six years of owning Block Party, and it was at Eleven with Steve Martin and Allegra Allison on the night of our term limits victory.
Celebrating our city before it changed too quickly also was an issue for me. That meant putting a rainbow flag on City Hall. Getting respect for our history in this changing city was something of a dream of mine. The flag went up, and the city manager took it down, and people flocked to the store to join in the fight to restore the flag. BlockParty was the epicenter for the fight for the rainbow flag on City Hall. The city compromised and changed our flag. The rainbow would be on City Hall and city buildings.
Then Clint Bounds got killed while crossing Santa Monica Boulevard. Ron Davis came to the store, and Cross Safe WeHo was born. Since the city has installed the temporary warning pedestrian warning signs, there has not been a single pedestrian crosswalk death. The store became the hub of the fight for pedestrian safety and crosswalk updates.
East West bar closed in 2012. When its outdoor patio was removed, we boomed. Our best year was when Revolver was under construction. Sales dropped the day the patio was re-built. Then came the changes to city parking meter rates and extending meter hours till midnight — sales dropped further all around me, and businesses folded. Tango Grill became Bite, Something became Pho became Skynny Kitchen (which is closing soon), Playtime and Showtime, Steak Depot, Debauchery, the Horn, Champagne, all closing. Business was rough.
All this is to say that 8853 Santa Monica Blvd. the location of Block Party and before that of A Different Light, has been filled with LGBT history, and it looks like that will continue. Our lease expired in October 2014. I was running for city council, and the election was March of 2015. I asked the landlord for a six-month extension through that month. Business was tough. We were liquidating inventory, and come January we used our security deposit to pay the rent. We gave up all rights to the store. February and March we paid no rent as a new tenant was expected.. We sold the mannequins, the security cameras and, on March 26, with a only a few racks left on our floor, the landlord made an offer to stay for one month at less than half rent.
I chased vendors for support. The landlord promised to let us know by the tenth of the month if we would have another month. The store took on a different flavor. The employees hung on, ready to exit on three-week notice. I wanted to protect my promise to the landlord for a smooth transition to a new tenant, but months and months of indecision were taking their toll. The staff, customers wondered: “Are you staying or going?”
It felt it would really hurt to leave something I loved even if it wasn’t doing well enough for me to afford to live in West Hollywood anymore. I love West Hollywood. We’re the only place that makes West Hollywood tee shirts, magnets, greeting cards to celebrate this incredible city
At YMLA I had spent many years, booking three million airline miles, and making connections far and wide. But as I got older, having deep roots in my city mean more and more to me. I enjoyed going to work and having people around and being part of things that were bigger then myself or the shop.
A few days ago we signed a new two-year lease. It was a hard fight. We hung in long enough for things to unravel in our direction. Thank you to our incredibly patient landlord, who valued our commitment to the community. Thanks to our vendor partners, who help us bring value to the customer to survive in this atmosphere where mom and pops and gay ‘hoods are disappearing all over.
Thanks to my staff, who had faith in me. And thanks to a community that reminds me everyday how much they enjoy a kind of quirky down-to-earth and fun mom-and-pop shop, And thanks to you, because it’s great to live in a place where everybody knows your name.