“People are walking and walking, but they’re not buying,” Carlos tells me one October morning on the Venice Boardwalk. His family has been supporting itself here for over a decade by making and selling jewelry, and business has never been so bad.
The Boardwalk is home to hundreds of vendors, many of whom make their living selling art, music and handicrafts year-round here beside the Pacific Ocean. Post-summer months are always slow on the strip, but the recent financial meltdown has made this fall the worst in memory for many of these local merchants.
“It really got drastic in the last month,” says C. Bobby Brown, a fifty-ish man who has the unmistakable look of a severely inebriated Dr. Seuss character. He’s wearing a yellow “Got Beer?” top hat, beer-bottle novelty sunglasses, and carries around his neck a large, colorful, hand-painted sign that reads “World’s Greatest Wino.”
Mr. Brown has been pacing the Venice Boardwalk since 1994, bewildering tourists and shoppers into offering him money for his next drink. When I ask him how business has been since the economic collapse, he turns away and grabs his left butt cheek.
“See this pocket here? Change!” he says, rattling around the coins. “Pennies, nickels, dimes. Used to be bills. Dollar bills! It’s like that.”
And if the panhandlers are hurting, the vendors are faring no better.
Stella, a short woman in her mid-forties, has made the Boardwalk her office since 1979, singing into a microphone and selling her CDs out of a cardboard box. She’s giving her voice a rest when I walk up to her and another vendor.
“It’s been slow since nine-eleven,” she says. “That was the start of it, and it’s sorrier each year.”
“In the last three weeks it’s just collapsed,” says her friend. “Most people can’t even afford what we’re selling now.”
And those who are buying, they both note, are a completely different set of customers from even a year ago.
It used to be locals — city folk — coming in from Hollywood or Orange County to patronize this market by the sea. But now the locals are gone, replaced by tourists with accents from Australia, Germany, Italy and the UK.
Even with the slow trickle of paying customers who’ve converted their golden Euros into the play money that is now United States currency, it is simply not possible for some Venice vendors to get by on foreign largess alone.
“Up until September I lived off of this,” says Daniel, a friendly middle aged artist who motions to the paintings around his stand. “It paid for my rent, my insurance, my child support.” But since Labor Day he’s been forced to dip into his savings.
While the past six weeks have been particularly hard, Daniel acknowledges that the economic problems have been building up over time. “The money changed here a year ago, [it] just dried up. It hurt the street really significantly.” Daniel made $400 on a good day back in the ‘90s. By September of 2007 that number had shriveled to $150. This year’s daily average? 50 dollars.
As bad as things are though, the general mood is holding steady, just north of depression. And shockingly, some vendors are actually upbeat.
Jeremiah is dressed in flowing robes with a set of Tibetan prayer chimes strung around his neck. He smiles when I ask him about the economy. “If I’m not making money, that’s fine. At least I’m giving creation,” he says, pointing to his homemade drums and jewelry. “When the economy hits bottom, it’s time to create.”
Unlike the pasty Wall Street businessmen who’ve unleashed the insidious virus of American financial ruin upon the world, Carlos, Daniel, Starla, Jeremiah and the other Boardwalk vendors cannot count on a generous taxpayer-funded bailout to help them through these hard times. Yet their solidarity and perseverance and attitude, even in the face of what many are considering the end of capitalism as we know it, is remarkable.
“I’m not affected,” Jeremiah tells me with a goodbye handshake. “I still got my spirit. I’m still happy. It’s love man, it’s love.”