Originally published April 8, 2015 at The Los Angeles Beat
Driving past the intersection of La Brea and 1st streets in Hollywood is sure to cause some distraction. Your head might swivel as you try to get a better look at a giant dinosaur, a cement horse or a massive can of Spam. Your curiosity might get the better of you and you might park your car and wander in, through mazes of dusty memorabilia piled high to the sky, though aisles of technicolor letters and mannequins and signs from long vacated businesses. You may be overwhelmed and fascinated all at once, wondering how in the world this place came to be and who could be responsible. This is Los Angeles, after all, and behind every oddball landmark you encounter is an equally charismatic mastermind…
“That’s the amazing thing about this corner. It’s not just me, me, me. When I leased this place 22 years ago, I had an empty lot to put furniture on. I had no idea what was going to start coming to me in the form of stories. I’m in a Fellini movie every day of my life… I describe it as a sort of circus, a carnival. Very, very unique. And the range of people who shop us, equally unique and out there. We have more than 10,000 items that are wacky and crazy. I come to work and it becomes a playground to me…” – Business owner Nick Metropolis
To remark that eclectic prop-shop owner Nick Metropolis has led an interesting life is truly an understatement. Born in Rochester, New York to Greek Orthodox parents, Nick followed the music to sunny California in 1964 where he pursued work as a George Harrison lookalike, appearing on local Los Angeles television, hanging out backstage with pop stars at tapings of the hit TV show Shindig and at times receiving hundreds of fan letters daily. A decade later, while performing in a small play, actress Shelley Winters happened to be in the audience and noticing Nick’s charisma, insisted that he MUST attend the Lee Strasberg school for acting classes. Although Nick made it clear he wasn’t pursuing acting, she pushed and maneuvered Lee Strasberg, creator of the much revered Method style, to give him a full 4-year scholarship. From there he did bit acting parts, doing background work on Dallas, General Hospital and more. To hear Nick animatedly tell stories of his adventures draws you in. He has personality to spare; a natural born salesman.
“You know, I always had an eye for finding cool stuff and helping my friends furnish their apartments. I used to sell on street corners for about 3 years. I would lease my mechanic’s parking lot and every weekend we would bring truckloads. In fact, the Hollywood Tour Bus used to go by and say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, you are now looking at the world’s largest garage sale’… And then this corner became available 22 years ago, so we leased it and it became my full-time work.”
Nick opened his business in November 1992, at first finding everything he offered for sale himself. Now he relies on “pickers” who keep an eye out at flea markets and yard sales for the kind of props he likes to sell. He is visited throughout the day by these salespeople and seems to be in a steady stream of negotiation. He also takes pride in helping the local homeless, many of who are Vietnam veterans pushing shopping carts. “We house two homeless people. In our alley we know who we can let in and out. We let homeless people come in to use our microwave or our bathroom. We really do our best to help them. They’ll find things in the alley that we really don’t want, but $15 or $20 bucks won’t make or break us. We’ve been helping the people in our alley for years and years…”
Although virtually everything is for sale in the shop, Nick relies on renting many of the pieces out as props to TV shows, movies, commercials and photography sessions. He estimates that 1/3 of his business income is from these rentals. Even with selling and leasing high ticket items, his own rent and business taxes are outrageously expensive on this corner. He artfully juggles landlord calls inquiring about his back rent while negotiating with a major reality show producer. Nick has dreams of a reality show that will contrast the eccentricity of his business with the stories of the homeless people who look for hope on his corner. “I would love to have the show go out. It will come across as comic and zany, but there will be an undercurrent of love, having faith and helping people. In the meantime we are so hand to mouth. There’s a great light at the end of the tunnel.”
“I’m so excited about it, because as much as we’ve needed money and publicity, we have turned away reality producers who want to misrepresent what goes on here. They want family fighting and drama. We’re about to sign with Suzanne de Passe. She was formerly partners with Berry Gordy, Motown Records. Very instrumental in Michael Jackson’s early career with the Jackson 5. She’s a major player. I go to her office and she has pictures hugging Oprah and the president… The beauty of it is she’s willing to show the real life of the corner.”
Nick, a true child of the ’60s, still holds firm to the Beatles’ adage “love is all there is”. His business cards and website proclaim this message and he openly talks about his spiritually. He empties his pockets showing a wide assortment of good luck charms, spanning many religious teachings. “Kindness, generosity and love is what it’s all about. I think we come to this planet to develop this as much as we can before we leave… It’s my dream for this show to happen because we can help the homeless and do the things we do much bigger. Kindness, generosity, having faith. To really, really hold on and get through those challenges so that you can be who you were meant to be…”
Nick Metropolis: 100 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036; (323) 934-3700.