While the Thursday night crowd at Freddie's 35er bar in thriving Old Pasadena isn't nearly as large as the one at the Cheesecake Factory just down Colorado Boulevard, it's still not a bad showing.
The 35er's dozen or so casually dressed patrons sit or play pool, in stark contrast to the mass of tweed-and-khaki-clad diners at the nearby chain restaurant just across Fair Oaks Avenue.
At the 35er, the vibe is laid back and sociable. Even if they don't know your name, the regulars are affable and happy to engage strangers in conversation. It's scruffy and a little worn. But in a good way sort of like that frayed-at-the-edges bathrobe or those old tennis shoes that are worn out but so damn comfortable.
The 35er's not going to win any awards for d & #233;cor, but it gets bonus points for its lack of pretense.
In fact, the 35er seems to recognize what many Old Pasadena boosters don't. "Not everybody who comes to Old Town wants to eat or drink in a trendy chain," asserts Stacey Shaw, who has tended bar at the 35er for six years. "Boosters cling to the history of Old Pasadena, but they're making it almost impossible for old businesses to operate. We're still here after 37 years because people want an alternative."
Indeed, the 35er is one of the last survivors of the days when Old Pasadena was seedy. Along with the X-rated Le Sex Shoppe and the Crown City Loan & Jewelry pawn shop, the bar provides a gentle some might say embarrassing reminder of the district's somewhat checkered past, when men were men and women of good repute wouldn't be caught dead on this side of town.
"This store's been a pawn shop for 47 years," boasts Mike Robinson, manager of Crown City Jewelry & Loan at the corner of Colorado and Raymond Avenue.
Robinson's father bought the business and the building in 1990, just as the area was coming into its own. But Crown City is no stereotypical pawn shop. It's bright and airy. The merchandise mostly musical instruments, bikes, scooters and jewelry is nicely displayed and priced to move.
People with items to pawn enter through a door on Raymond while retail customers and tourists come through the door on Colorado. The only real evidence that you're in a pawn shop is the signage (required by law) proclaiming the dangers of firearms, which aren't displayed.
Ready to spend money
Robinson has seen the pawn trade decline, as much from the upscaling of Old Pasadena as the up-ticking economy.
"The parking situation and the crowds have really hurt the pawn business," he says. "But people come to Old Town with money in their pockets. They come in here and see what we've got and they buy. And once you buy from me, you'll never go back to retail."
He admits, however, that many people drop in just for the thrill of setting foot in one of those places their mama told them never to set foot in.
A few doors down at Le Sex Shoppe, lunchtime business is brisk. Nicely dressed men and women look through porn videos and DVDs or peruse the wall shelves displaying a variety of sexual apparatus. Sex toys hang on one wall, slinky lingerie on the other. The shop's attendants, wearing smart black smocks bearing the store logo, are courteous but uninterested in being interviewed.
Years ago, most businesses along the six-block stretch of Colorado were pretty seedy, recalls Gary Nissle, a Pasadena native and proprietor of Poo-Bah Record Shop at 1101 E. Walnut St.
"Back in the '60s and '70s, the street was rough," he recalls. "It was mostly bums, thrift shops and live music-dive bars. They don't tell you that in the historical museum."
There were places like Hazel's, a legendary bar that smelled bad but drew performers like Chuck Berry and David Lee Roth. And the County Jail Saloon, a country/western dance hall where patrons could have their pictures taken in the cells downstairs for a small fee. Or Pookie's, which hosted hair bands like Motley Cr & #252;e and RATT.
"I liked it better then," Nissle confesses. "When you could pay $2 for a beer and (hear) Motley Cr & #252;e."
But most of these places were gone by the mid-1970s, driven out by dwindling patronage or the city's efforts at revitalization. Today, bums have been supplanted by shoppers in designer suits. Second-hand stores have been bumped by chains like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, and the rowdy bars displaced by Starbucks and Jamba Juice.
"We'll never have it back," Nissle laments.
Today, the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau provides this glowing description of the area: "This historic 20-block area, noted for its quaint alleyways and breathtaking architectural styles, is filled with an array of leisure opportunities. Choose from a dazzling selection of designer retail stores, art galleries, trendy boutiques and vintage clothing stores "
Lease by lease, block by block, a transformation occurred. "We've spent millions on building restoration, lighting and other activities," says Norm Sauve of Sauve Reigal, a commercial real estate group dealing almost exclusively with Old Pasadena retail properties since 1989.
Of course, like most things in Old Pasadena these days, the transformation didn't come cheap.
"I remember five years or so ago, retail space on Colorado Boulevard was going for $1.50 a square foot (per month)," laughs Sauve, who puts today's market rate at between $3.85 and $4 per square foot.
Geoff Martin, retail property specialist for CB Richard Ellis, says he's seeing 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot spaces moving for as much as $4 a square foot, with smaller spaces going for as high as $6 a foot.
Many newcomers are seeking better deals along side streets and even in alleys. Rates on streets like Fair Oaks and Raymond range from $2.75 to $3.50 a square foot. And the deals get even better on parallel streets like Green and Walnut, where lease rates run from $1.50 to $2.25 per square foot.
Some businesses have managed to survive only because they own the building where they're located and don't have to pay the exorbitant rents. In fact, owning a building may be the only way to fend off encroaching chain stores.
"Businesses like Crown City (pawn shop) and the others that own their buildings are here to stay," Martin says. "They won't turnover until they're ready to."
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