Column: Former Broadway store falls to wrecking ball

Demolition was already underway, but a public ceremony Tuesday at Montclair Place to mark the end of the old Broadway department store involved a crane with a wrecking ball slamming into the facade. Fun! I was there to witness it and write about it for Wednesday’s column. Above, a view of the store from Central Avenue; below, the south side of the store as the wrecking ball swings.

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Remembering the Bookworm

The Bookworm operated at 229 N. 2nd Ave. in Upland from 1974 to 1996. That means it closed a year before I showed up in the area, alas. Above is the storefront today, which sells antiques and architectural salvage. From 1997 to 2015, it was the Sideboard.

It was launched by nine women who had experience at the hospital auxiliary: Jo Ann Chalfant, Mary Gattas, Marge Melillo, Mary Ann Robinson, Barbara Rusche, Marilee Wake, Georgia Westphal and Robbe Wilcox, according to a Daily Report article about the opening.

What prompts this blog post is a recent article in the LA Times by Thomas Curwen about the closing of Caravan Books in downtown LA after 64 years due to the owner’s retirement. Curwen wrote:

“The landscape of Southern California is littered with memories of lost bookstores: George Sand on Melrose, the Bookworm in Upland, Fahrenheit 451 in Laguna Beach, Papa Bach in Santa Monica — shops that reflected a more idiosyncratic city.”

In an email, Curwen told me he was trying to hit the four points of the compass with those four stores. He never visited the Bookworm, but he said, “I do know that it had a good reputation.” That someone outside the area knew about the store and would think to mention it two decades later is impressive.

Here’s everything I know, or think I know, about the store.

A bookworm was the mascot, the idea of Robinson’s daughter Tricia and rendered by Westphal in images around the store and on employee smocks, according to the Report.

The store sold new rather than used books. Ray Bradbury signed books there at least once, but probably more, part of his mission to support small bookstores and libraries. A friend remembers the store as Jo Ann’s Bookworm, a hint that perhaps Jo Ann Chalfant, one of the founders, became the store’s face.

“We wanted to open a store with soul,” Chalfant said in the 1974 story. And perhaps they did, at least until the soulless chains took over bookselling.

If you remember anything about the store, feel free to chime in in the comments.

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Restaurant of the Week: Alex’s Tacos

Alex’s Tacos, 941 E. Mission Blvd. (at San Antonio), Pomona; open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

In Pomona, Mission and Holt are prime taqueria corridors. On Holt, I like Tijuana’s Tacos; on Mission, Taqueria Guadalupana is a winner. But there are others. Lured by reviews on Yelp, I’ve been trying Alex’s Tacos, in a small, battered building a couple of blocks east of Towne Avenue.

Entrance is through the back, from a parking lot that has been full the couple of times I’ve tried it. Might be better to park on the street or a block over on Caswell. There’s a popular boba shop in the building next door, by the way.

Alex’s has a half-dozen booths, often full, and a counter where you can sit to eat or await a takeout order. The menu is tacos, burritos and quesadillas, with a variety of meats, including one I hadn’t seen on a menu before, sessos. I googled it. Let’s say zombies would go right for it. But there’s pork, chicken and beef as well as tongue, stomach and more.

They specialize in birria, the stew that you can get as either beef or goat, and that you can get in taco form. My first visit I got three birria tacos: two goat, one beef ($1.85 each). They came double-wrapped in flaky tortillas, with red and green salsas on the side. The meat was tender, and while my nod would go to the beef, my mind might change by next time.

My next visit, I got an al pastor burrito with everything ($6.10), delicious, the pork nice and crisp.

Realizing they had hard-shell tacos (tacos dorados), I ordered three al pastor tacos on my most recent visit ($1.85 each). The outer tortilla came crisped lightly, but still flexible; the inner tortilla was warm. I prefer soft shell, but these were good.

Alex’s also has menudo on weekends and based on Yelp reviews has a consomme for $1 that people seem to like.

Service is brisk but polite and you’ll probably have to wait a bit for your food due to demand. Be patient, it’s worth it.

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Column: In line at chicken eatery, it’s always crunch time

On a day off last week, I decided to try a popular restaurant in L.A. known for its long lines (and good food), Howlin’ Ray’s. I thought a weekday would have a shorter line. No such luck. But like with other ridiculous experiences, I thought, well, I can get a column out of this, so I’ll tough it out. The result makes up Wednesday’s column. (Print readers, bless their hearts, will miss out on the tweets embedded in or hyperlinked from the online version.)

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Reading Log: March 2018

Books acquired: “Not Dead Yet,” Phil Collins

Books read: “The Harlan Ellison Hornbook,” “Edgeworks Vol. 3,” Harlan Ellison; “Tricky Business,” Dave Barry; “Hollywood Station,” Joseph Wambaugh; “How to Find Old Los Angeles,” Kim Cooper

March saw me continue my focus on reading books I’ve meant to read for years, plus one short one that was easily dispensed with.

“The Harlan Ellison Hornbook” (1990) collects general interest, usually autobiographical columns the writer best known for science fiction wrote for LA alt-weeklies in 1972-3, after his Glass Teat TV columns for the same venues. These are minor entries in his oeuvre. The one about how he hates Christmas is a welcome jolt, though. The added essays at the back, including one defending the positive impacts of the 1960s, were more substantive. I bought this used sometime in the ’00s.

“Edgeworks, Vol. 3” (1996) collects “Hornbook” and an unproduced script, “Harlan Ellison’s Movie,” from the same era. It’s about a young idealist who inherits a bank and sets out to change the world. It has its moments, but it’s ultimately as heavy-handed and self-indulgent as a project titled “Harlan Ellison’s Movie” would suggest. I bought this omnibus when it came out, nearly 22 years ago. It was part of a series aiming to collect all his work but which ended at Vol. 4. I still have Vol. 1 to read.

“How to Find Old LA” (2016) is a slim, illustrated guidebook with a good mix of better- and lesser-known spots — diners, steakhouses, bars and more that retain the feel of the old days — organized by area and with handy capsule descriptions. Many of the listings were unknown to me, so as I read I kept a running list of places I’d like to check out. I bought this at Distant Lands travel store in Pasadena in 2016.

“Tricky Business” (2002) was the humorist’s second crime novel. It’s a breezy caper with a dozen-plus characters, in which things work out pretty much as you’d hope: good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. The fun is in getting there. As a Dave Barry fan, it’s interesting to see how he adapts his writing style to fiction. There’s gunplay, and romance, and an amateur rock band, and also literature’s best mass puking scene. That said, I suspect I’m going to forget it pretty quickly. I bought this at Vroman’s upon publication and Barry signed it to me. It’s the last Dave Barry book I own that I hadn’t read.

“Hollywood Station” (2006) was Wambaugh’s return to the LAPD as subject after almost 30 years away. The novel brings him into the era of post-Rodney King federal oversight, cell phones, woman cops, ethnic food and hair gel. You may think there are too many characters and not enough plot, but the scenes of day to day life on the beat are vivid, Wambaugh’s characters seem real and he succeeds in humanizing his cops and sending up the bureaucracy. It’s definitely sunnier than “The Choirboys,” the only other Wambaugh I’ve read.

I got this directly from Wambaugh during a December 2006 interview at Vroman’s that focused on his childhood here and, as I was reading “Choirboys” at the time, I set this aside to read at a later date. A much later date, as it turned out.

Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing that it took me 11 years and some change to get to this book, and 15-plus years to get to Barry’s, and even longer to get to one of the Ellison books, but that’s how it goes sometimes. It’s not like I wasn’t reading other books. On the bright side, it’s satisfying to have these read, and I would recommend Wambaugh’s book with few reservations, Barry’s with more reservations and Cooper’s if you’re into that kind of thing.

I managed to finish these all by the 21st, with “Hornbook” having largely been read in January and February, and spent the last part of March reading chunks of three other books. Then I got a running start on an 800-pager, which I was going to read in stages during 2018 but which is enjoyable enough that I’m going to keep reading. If I can average 20 pages a day in April, which I believe I can, I can finish it.

How was your March, readers? Let us know, please.

Next month: one or two (or three?) looks back at the 20th century.

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Restaurant of the Week: Lotus Cafe

Lotus Cafe, 9775 Base Line Road (at Archibald), Rancho Cucamonga; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except closed Tuesday

The 99 Ranch Center at Base Line and Archibald in Rancho Cucamonga is home to several Asian eateries: Min’s Dumpling House, Red Chili House, a boba shop, Myung Dong Tofu House and the food court inside the 99 Ranch market. Connected to the market but with a separate entrance is the small Lotus Cafe, where two friends and I had lunch recently.

It’s a modest place, and they offer steam table basics for quick service, but they also have an extensive menu. Not Min’s-extensive, with 100-plus items, but there’s dozens to choose from. Reviewer David Cohen says the cuisine is from northern China.

We got pan-fried dumplings ($8, top), a beef roll, kung pao chicken, fried lamb with cumin (above) and a unique item, the Chinese burger ($3.45, below), which based on the name we simply had to order. (Amid the conversation I didn’t get prices scrawled down for the other items before the menus were taken away.)

The Chinese burger was ground pork inside a rice bun with cilantro and grilled onions, and very tasty. It might not be dissimilar to a Maid-Rite sandwich. In descending order, we ranked our items this way: dumplings, lamb, burger, beef roll and kung pao. And there was nothing wrong with the kung pao, except that the peanuts were on the side, which bothered the guy who ordered it. He ate them by hand, like bar snacks.

The only problem with the meal was that the beef roll (above) arrived about 45 minutes after everything else. The server updated us a couple of times on its progress. Not sure what the issue was there; it’s possible they had to buy an ingredient at the market. Thankfully we weren’t in a hurry, although we also weren’t hungry anymore by the time we got it. Not that that stopped us from eating most of it.

“I like Min’s better,” said the guy who had been there before, “but for a little place inside a grocery store, it’s good.” The other two of us agreed.

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