First published in the Dec. 25 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
By Jonathan Williams
For virtually all merchants in and near the Montrose Shopping Park, the year 2020 brought many challenges.
Some businesses closed for months; others struggled to keep their doors open. Now, as 2021 wraps up and vaccinations continue, the holidays have brought shoppers back to those small businesses. Supply chain issues continue to plague major retailers and as a result, more shoppers are flocking to Honolulu Avenue, according to some merchants.
For the Montrose shop openers, business seems to be back to normal.
“This has been an incredible Christmas,” said Mary Dawson, who runs publicity for the Montrose Shopping Park Association. “People have been out shopping and I think they’ve been making up for last year where they couldn’t do what they wanted to do. This year, they are ready to shop.”
However, the future does come with some uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic is still a reality with new and more contagious variants, and it’s impossible to predict what will happen with government restrictions. Additionally, inflation threatens higher prices, which can drive shoppers out of small businesses and back to the major retailers.
Since 1968, the Montrose Shopping Park Association has represented the interests of the nearly 200 shops wedged in the half-mile section between Verdugo Avenue and Orangedale Avenue. The area is known for its events such as the Montrose Arts & Crafts Festival, Halloween Spooktacular and Montrose Old Town Christmas. In pre-pandemic years, they’ve hosted the Montrose-Glendale Christmas Parade on the first Saturday of December.
Along Honolulu Avenue, the heart of the shopping park, trees line the boulevard to create a picturesque backdrop for benches and other gathering spaces. It’s common to see entire families out lounging at the Black Cow Cafe enjoying their breakfast or residents walking their dog past Andersen’s Pet Shop on an early December morning. At night during the holidays, the strip comes alive with festive Christmas lights where hundreds gather with relatives — whom they likely haven’t seen in months or even years since the pandemic started.
“I really think people want that ‘Hallmark movie’ experience,” said Dawson, who owns with her husband both Mountain Rose Gifts and Revelation Tops. “They want the lights. They want warm feelings. They want Christmas music. They just want to feel good.”
Dawson said there’s been a resurgence in supporting small business and it’s been felt by the community during this holiday season after an unprecedented 2020.
“I think it means a lot because we’ve all been through a lot,” Dawson said. “It’s been a tough couple of years. It’s really amazing because we have no vacancies in town. As soon as something opens up, there’s people that are making plans to take it.”
Dawson added they recently had their Small Business Saturday, which encouraged shoppers to support the mom-and-pop businesses.
“It’s a labor of love,” Dawson said. “We do what’s in our heart. For a retailer, nothing is more encouraging than somebody coming into your store, and not only sharing kind words like ‘I love your store’ or ‘I’m so glad you’re open,’ but what really drives it home is when someone buys something. They’re spending their money. That is extremely encouraging. Foot traffic and people shopping.”
With 2022 on the horizon, and a coronavirus caseload surge being driven by the Omicron variant, it’s hard to predict what it’s going to reveal for Montrose moving forward.
“I hope it’s good,” Dawson said. “There’s a lot of predictions about 2022. There’s a lot of bad news out there. There’s talk of inflation and all kinds of things. I think under that, there’s always that entrepreneur spirit that you can’t crush.
“People that want to do what they’re gifted to do and love. I think the good thing about Montrose is that it’s a very close community. We came through this horrible pandemic. If we can come through that, I think we can come through anything,” Dawson added.
Shop owners in the park described what the pandemic has meant to their business in 2021 and shared what their thoughts were on the future of Montrose moving forward into 2022.
Corey Grijalva, owner,
Joselito’s Mexican Food
Corey Grijalva has owned Joselito’s for 26 years, after his parents opened the popular Mexican restaurant in 1981.
Like many restaurants hit by the pandemic, Joselito’s had to change the way it did business. Due to the ongoing labor shortage, it’s been difficult for the restaurant to hire during this time.
“It’s hard to find help now,” Grijalva said. “I’m exhausting every resource I can to hire. I’ve placed ads in papers, gone on Indeed and spent hundreds of dollars trying to hire some people.”
Through the tinted doorway, the hostess counter stands right in front so customers can be helped to be seated. Above it, a sign highlights the “Special of the Day.”
“When I come out of the kitchen and see a full restaurant, there’s something inside me that makes me happy,” Grijalva said. “I believe it touches their heart and it touches my heart. I’ve had customers come in and give me an envelope with a few hundred dollars to hand out to my employees. Every cent helps.
“It’s everything,” he added. “We wouldn’t be where we are without our community and the people that back us and love us. We love them back. I’ve seen customers grow up from highchairs to buying margaritas here, it’s something that warms your heart.
“We know our customers by name and by heart. … I’ve been invited to weddings and to funerals. It’s because we love our customers, and they love us back.”
Robert Russell, owner, Andersen’s Pet Shop
“Business is definitely different these days,” said Robert Russell, whose family has owned Andersen’s Pet Shop for more than 60 years. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve stayed fairly steady. We were considered an essential business throughout the closures, so we didn’t have to close our doors like so many of our neighbors. We’ve been very fortunate.”
Through the glass doors with black trim, there were dozens of photos and paintings of animals along the wall. Hanging above was a sign that read “Home Sweet Home,” outlined in the shape of a dog bone.
“When the businesses closed, Montrose was a ghost town for a while,” Russell said. “I know that it’s had such a huge impact on all of the small businesses that had to close. Hopefully everyone will be able to reopen their doors completely … it’s bittersweet seeing other businesses closed which is really painful for us because these are our neighbors, friends and family.”
Russell added they were so fortunate to be able to keep their doors open and provide their goods and services to customers.
“I think we have a bright future,” Russell said. “We’re all very positive here. I think we have a great future ahead. There are certainly going to be some speed bumps along the way like trying to get a product. That has been very difficult. The inflation issues are huge. …
“Most of our customers and their animals are family,” Russell added. “Helping those family members means the world to us. This is our livelihood.”
Jillian Wahlquist, vice president, Tom’s Toys
Jillian Wahlquist grew up in nearby La Crescenta and has worked for Tom’s Toys for nearly 17 years.
“Business has been really good,” Wahlquist said. “We’ve seen huge gains in retail. It’s especially surprising because the last five or 10 years have really been steady. This past year, we’ve seen large increases in customers shopping locally. I think the product shortages and shipping delays of online retailers have really helped drive people into the stores.”
Tom’s location in Montrose was closed for almost nine months, not only due to the state-mandated closure, but there was a structural issue within the building. Now, hundreds of new toys line the walls and sounds of a coin-operated Batmobile, helicopter and purple dinosaur kiddie rides sound throughout the store.
“It was really tough during the shutdown,” Wahlquist said. “You really have to be there to pick out the product. We’re pretty old school. Allowing customers to be back in the store was really important.”
Wahlquist explained that the ceiling began to sink last year, but their landlord was instrumental in fixing it and getting the store back open, just two days before Christmas last year.
“We’re not planning on going anywhere,” Wahlquist said. “We’ve got a good landlord and a great location. We’re looking forward to bringing whatever the next big thing is to the Montrose community. We’re just helping people find gifts. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
Amanda Nix and Dalynn Sandine, owners, Nix Marie
Amanda Nix and Dalynn Sandine secured their lease for Nix Marie in February 2020.
Following that, the childhood friends-turned-business partners went to their first public market on March 10, 2020. Then, the entire state went into lockdown. When they opened doors in May 2020, customers had to try on clothes outside on the sidewalk.
“We didn’t sell a lot of pants at that time,” Nix quipped. “We’d hand them all the perfume testers. We’d hand them all the different candles, or they’d try on jewelry. It was like a walk-up window. We were like a little hamburger stand.”
At the storefront of Nix Marie, two large glass windows stand next to a blue Dutch door with their logo on the front. They ended up with the perfect utility for their business when the restrictions didn’t allow in-store shopping.
Now, Nix Marie hosts small gatherings at their shop like a “Sip & Shop” where customers can enjoy wine while they browse through the store. Nix said they’re looking to expand the events even further like featuring local makers to showcase their products.
“I think Montrose is going to hit an upswing,” Nix said. “We want people to come here because it’s a destination where they know they can go to 12 awesome shops while they’re here.”
“All the shop owners, we all know each other,” Sandine added. “Everyone’s friendly and we help each other out.”
Ken Grayson, owner,
Grayson’s Tune Town
Grayson is the owner of the shop and has been for 40 years. He’s a past president of the Montrose-Verdugo City Chamber of Commerce and the Montrose Shopping Park Association.
“We saw businesses just close down completely,” Grayson said. “It almost appeared that they just gave up. It’s like anything else in life, in order to be vital you’ve got to participate the best you can.”
His grandson, Connor, works with him in the shop as the third generation in the family to be employed there and is now a board member of the association. Instruments lined the gray and white walls. Hanging were guitars, basses and violins.
“We care about this little town,” Grayson said. “The people in this town love Montrose because we’ve spent years in many events to get them in the habit of coming here. … You have to offer convenience and service to make people feel at home. … That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
Tom Christopoulos, co-owner,
Gus & Andy’s
Tom Christopoulos, who plans to open Gus & Andy’s at the old Rocky Cola Cafe location, has been in the restaurant and construction business for almost 30 years.
When Rocky Cola closed in 2012, he took over the lease in 2017. Since then, it has been a five-year process working with the city of Glendale just to get the doors open to the new restaurant. One issue he’s currently dealing with is correcting water pressure lines to the restaurant, after he said the city initially provided incorrect information on it.
“I would understand why anyone would give up,” Christopoulos said. “This has been a difficult process working with the city of Glendale. Right now, we’re waiting on the correct water pressure … we’re working to solve that problem.”
Christopoulos said they also needed to get some administrative use permits for parking, alcohol distribution and sales for the restaurant. Gus & Andy’s will feature a full restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner cooked on a wood grill over California red oak. Christopoulos said his love for Central Coast, Santa Maria-style barbecue inspired the design.
“I think we are going to be here for a long time,” Christopoulos said. “I think the community will definitely support us and we definitely want to support the community. Our intention is to support the community by working with the schools, churches and all kinds of community programs to donate whatever we can to help them all out.”
Albert Hwang, owner,
For Albert Hwang, what his store means to him was a simple answer.
“Personally, it’s my livelihood,” Hwang, the owner of Froyo Life, said. “It’s everything. I’m grateful that I got to bounce back. I know people who have closed down.”
The shop did have to shutter its doors for two months from March to May of 2020. Hwang said he had time to think of some new ideas on how to adapt, like adding pressed juices or partnering with third-party delivery apps.
“Everything is not lifted,” Hwang said. “There are new restrictions so it’s not all back. Hopefully by spring. We’ll see.”