There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County, and some of these locales boast quaint downtowns that hearken back to the Pacific Electric streetcar — decades before freeways, big-box stores and massive shopping malls took over. These downtown districts stand apart from the many high-end and hipster stretches — à la Melrose Avenue, Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue, Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard and Highland Park’s York Boulevard — that dot the Southern California landscape.
Instead, they still carry a “Main Street” vibe, lined with locally owned storefronts and eateries, offering a perfect way to spend your hard-earned holiday money and some quality family time. Along the way, there is also a hodgepodge of local history. As you shop for unique gifts, celebrate some fascinating lesser-known corners of L.A. County. Here, in alphabetical order, are four neighborhoods rich with history, shopping and delicious food. There are many more within driving distance, but these four are a great start.
Bountiful in Burbank
All Johnny Carson jokes aside about “beautiful Downtown Burbank,” there is actually quite a walkable district of shops and eateries along San Fernando Boulevard between Olive and Magnolia avenues. In between shopping, make a stop by Burbank’s stunning Art Deco city hall on Olive, built in 1942, just a block away from San Fernando Boulevard.
Unique Vintage is a revered vintage clothing store on San Fernando Boulevard, while Zamba, just a few doors down, is a global gift shop selling clothing, books, novelty gifts, jewelry, candles, furniture and unique lamps. This shopping area is comprised of a mix of old buildings and renovated structures.
Just adjacent to the smaller stores on San Fernando are the Burbank Mall, the Skechers Store, Urban Outfitters and the Gap Factory Store. Though these spaces offer more standard fare, the area has lots of parking, some good deals and a variety of choices for just about any shopper. And, San Fernando Boulevard has almost two dozen eateries, including the beloved comfort-food restaurant, Granville.
Part of Burbank’s appeal is that even though it has two of the largest film studios in the world (Disney and Warner Brothers), it still has a very small-town Americana feel on many of its streets and in most of the city’s residential areas. Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank a few miles west of Downtown Burbank, where it transitions into North Hollywood, is known for a dozen blocks of boutiques and iconic bakeries such as Porto’s Bakery & Café, but Burbank’s downtown in the northeastern section of the city has its own underrated charm.
Merry in Monrovia
Officially incorporated in 1887, Monrovia is the fourth oldest city in L.A. County. Only Los Angeles, Pasadena and Santa Monica are older. Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia has to be one of the most fascinating streets in Southern California.
One of the avenue’s most popular boutiques is Dream Decor, which sells furniture, office items, bedding and countless accents — lamps, small sculptures, planters, rugs — at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, Mimmers is a boutique selling eclectic women’s apparel and Puff Monkey Pop Culture Shop sells anime-related shirts, hats, stationery and bags, as well as other pop-culture-inspired merchandise.
One of Monrovia’s most popular events is the Monrovia Street Fair & Market, which takes place 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays, hosting merchandise vendors, food trucks and live performances. The Monrovia Public Library is just north on Myrtle, and it is a picturesque structure in a park setting.
The Aztec Hotel on Foothill Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue is an iconic roadside motel that dates back to 1925-26 and the days of Route 66. It’s been closed for more than a decade, but you can still enjoy its exterior beauty. Designed in the Mayan Revival Style by architect Robert Stacy-Judd, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Monrovia’s African American history stretches back to the 1880s. The Monrovia Historical Museum celebrates these roots, along with the city’s early aviation and film industry history. Monrovia is physically beautiful because it lies at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Look north to see the majestic Mount Wilson and Mount Baldy standing in the distance.
Spirited in San Pedro
San Pedro is much more than just cargo cranes, bridges and big shipping containers. Both Sixth and Seventh streets in Downtown San Pedro rival just about any street in SoCal when it comes to boutiques, vintage stores and other specialty shops. And, San Pedro was one of the first truly multicultural neighborhoods in L.A. County, with deep histories of Croatian, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Mexican and Portuguese communities, among others.
Long known for its working-class roots and connection with the shipyards and fishing industry, there is an equally rich artistic and cultural history in the area. My first experiences in San Pedro were with my grandfather, who would take me to Point Fermin Park. We would look out at the ocean and gaze at Catalina Island across the water. He would always tell me about how he proposed to my grandmother there in 1941. Years later, I went to a lot of poetry events at Sacred Grounds coffeehouse on Sixth Street, which remains open. It’s a well-known fact that one of L.A.’s most legendary poets, Charles Bukowski, spent the last two decades of his life in San Pedro.
You’ll find an abundance of shops on Sixth Street. One of my favorites is PM Sounds, a record store filled with rows and rows of vinyl records, especially funk, soul and jazz. My 13-year-old daughter loves Old School Vintage, a thrift store full of women’s wear, leather jackets, colorful t-shirts, funky old books and a whole lot of knick knacks. Drop-In Gifts is next to Old School Vintage and it’s
loaded with items such as fedora hats, berets, hoodies, purses, bracelets, sunglasses and San Pedro-themed shirts, sweaters and caps. The Zen Den San Pedro sells crystals, incense, candles, new-age books, gratitude journals, everything astrology, body oils, earrings and more. The intoxicating scents that waft through the store will make you linger for a while.
One street south of Sixth, Seventh Street has a few less shops, but is lined with artist’s studios, a few gallery spaces and two restaurants where you can get fish and chips. The Winthrop Gallery of Art & Curiosities specializes in taxidermy, old cameras and offbeat, one-of-a-kind items that could be the perfect gift for that really creative family member.
There’s a mural of Bukowski in the alley between Sixth and Seventh streets, and storefront facades with old iron gates and tin molding. Many of the stores are in buildings nearly a century old, but the exteriors are well-kept. San Pedro is an alluring neighborhood with much more than meets the eye.
Wish-filled in Whittier
Tucked next to Puente Hills, Uptown Whittier is filled with unique and creative boutiques. One of the best known is Local Fixture, which carries mugs, greeting cards, purses, backpacks, books, stationery, art supplies, pet items and Whittier-themed hoodies and shirts. It is one of the most comprehensive boutiques I have ever seen. The shop also boasts a coffee bar selling joe, tea and pastries.
Whittier is named after the 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, so it’s no surprise Whittier College’s mascot (formerly the wooly mammoth “Johnny Poet”) is called “the Poets.” It is also apropos that Greenleaf Avenue is one of the main streets in Uptown Whittier. A few blocks of Greenleaf are now blocked off to cars, and the pedestrian-friendly stretch makes the district really welcoming. It’s a great place to sit outside, get a coffee and people watch. Your kids will love The Wishing Well toy store on Greenleaf, which is surrounded by a few small bakeries and eclectic eateries.
More gems on Greenleaf include Lovell’s Records, one of the oldest record stores in Southern California and Midnight Books, which hosts frequent literary readings and specializes in books centering social justice.
There are other Main Street-like roads in the immediate vicinity — Comstock Avenue, Bright Avenue and Philadelphia Street — that have a fair number of shops. One of my favorites is Casita del Pueblo, a designer boutique on Philadelphia Street
Our small-town-vibe areas help make L.A. an interesting place to live and explore. They are filled with one-of-a-kind gifts and experiences — which is what our most treasured ones deserve this time of year and beyond.
Mike Sonksen is a Los Angeles poet, professor and author of “Letters to My City.”