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Thrift Chain ‘Out of the Closet’ Helped Launch the Fight Against HIV in L.A. ~ Its Echo Park Store Has Closed Due to Rising Rents

12:19 PM PDT on July 20, 2018

    [dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s just after 10 a.m. on a Wednesday and Echo Park’s Out of the Closet thrift store is already bustling with customers buying everything from books to candles to clothing.

    The shop, painted in an unmistakable bright magenta, has anchored this block of Sunset Boulevard, between Lemoyne and Logan streets for more than a decade, serving as a neighborhood hub for all walks in the rapidly changing community that surrounds it.

    Now, after years of weathering change and watching adjacent shops turn over into upscale coffee shops and pilates studios, Out of the Closet — the vintage thrift store chain that was an early provider of free rapid HIV testing in L.A. — will shut its doors for good tomorrow, Saturday, July 21.

    The chain's other stores will remain open, but the closing of the Echo Park shop is a sign of the times in an area that's been gentrifying for years.

    All photos by Hayley Fox.

    The first store opened in Atwater Village in 1990. It was intended to “benefit AIDS patients at the Chris Brownlie Hospice in Elysian Park and help pay for AIDS education,” reported the L.A. Times upon its opening. Out of the Closet as a retail idea became a “safe space” before the concept existed in mainstream life.

    [dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n Wednesday — the Echo Park location’s last day of on-site HIV testing — employees rang in the occasion with characteristic exuberance, decorating their check-in folding table with all the trimmings of a luau, and dressing themselves in grass skirts.

    Within the first few minutes of set-up, they had a taker: a customer that was confident he was negative but would take the test nonetheless. The only other signs of the store’s looming closure was the parsed down selection of merchandise and an intangible sense of melancholy (real or imagined) haunting the typically dynamic window displays that have long bedazzled this particular block of the neighborhood.

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    PJ Arounnothay has worked full-time at Out of the Closet for two years.

    Out of the Closet’s closing was first reported in May by The Eastsider LA, when the shop received a 60-day notice to vacate the premises. A non-profit arm of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the retail shop offered baskets of condoms at check-out, and a variety of other health services throughout the year.

    Ged Kenslea, senior director of communications of AHF, told The Eastsider that they were unable to reach a rental agreement with the landlord. In an email to L.A. Taco, Kenslea added that the store is closing due to “a substantial increase in rent, which made it impractical for us to remain.”

    AHF has become hugely controversial in recent years due to a variety of factors,  including president Weinstein's opposition to the HIV prevention pill PrEp, and a continual list of lawsuits and criticisms over the company's financial practices. Specifically relevant to Angelenos, Weinstein has also been pummeled for his financial backing of Measure S, which was ultimately defeated but would have put a moratorium on new developments in the city.

    ‘Something bigger and fancier — and something I’ll use less.’

    But at the store level, Out of the Closet remains a bastion of diversity and acceptance. Its employee base is largely LGBT. Its shoppers have for the chain’s lifetime consisted of a rotating trail of neighborhood transplants, local families, teenagers, homeless individuals, and others. The store’s staff have always been quick to offer a smile, directions to the shoe section, or suggestions on how to improve the Halloween costume you’ve come to assemble.

    “The store is a common stopping area for a lot of people in the neighborhood,” said PJ Arounnothay, who’s worked at the store full-time for two years. “It’s definitely a mix of old and new.”

    Out of the Closet’s location on Sunset Boulevard has been surrounded by fast commercial turnover amid ever-growing rents in Echo Park. Mavis Figuls, a shop regular who grew up in Echo Park, said that while she’s now used to the demise of her old haunts, she’s not looking forward to what will take over the massive, corner property.

    “Something bigger and fancier — and something I’ll use less,” Figuls said.

    [dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ver the course of its years in operation, the Echo Park site performed more than 7,200 rapid HIV tests, which return results in less than 20 minutes, according to AHF. Like all Out of the Closet locations, 96 cents of every dollar spent at the Echo Park shop also went to funding HIV/AIDS programs.

    Kenslea said that while AHF also has mobile testing vans, the beauty of fixed location sites — like the Out of the Closet in Echo Park — is that they make it easy for people to seek walk-in testing any time during open hours. Those who are concerned about the “stigma” attached with HIV testing can avoid a clinic and get the test performed under the cloak of going shopping.

    Saturday marks the end of an era for the Echo Park community, which is significant for Weinstein, president of AHF. He told L.A. Taco in an interview that he used to live in Echo Park, and that he found it sad to see fixtures of the neighborhood — such as once-vibrant cantina Barragan’s up the street — change over.

    However, the numbers just no longer worked for the Echo Park store. “We were struggling financially at that location before they proposed to almost double the rent," Weinstein said.

    The property was listed on Loopnet in November as including 5,750 square feet of retail space, 5,500 square feet of basement and a few hundred square feet of mezzanine. Rent for the building at that time was listed at $30,000 a month.

    The corner will be brightened up from its pink wash to something more artistic.

    Jesse Paster, vice president of NAI Capital, represents the new tenant but declined to say the exact name of the business that will take the place of Out of the Closet. But he described it in an email as an, “apparel company with a social component that will connect with the neighborhood past and future.”

    “The corner will be brightened up from its pink wash to something more artistic and likely have work from local artists,” he added. “The clothes sold will appeal to longtime residents and the upcomers that [are] just learning about the uniqueness of Echo Park.”

    Many Out of the Closet employees work there full time, said Arounnothay; this consistency and familiarity contributed in part to the shop’s sense of consistency in the neighborhood. While Arounnothay said he’ll miss his extremely convenient commute to work from his Chinatown home, he’s not out of a job; he’ll simply transfer to other LA-area locations, such as the thrift outposts in Hollywood and Atwater Village.

    “It’s bittersweet,” said. “One door closes and another door opens.”

    * Updated.

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