Older strip malls adopted by variety of cultures

Angela Cara Pancrazio -- The Arizona Republic -- Dec. 2, 2004

You name it and you can probably buy it at one of the Valley's older strip malls: pork feet, pagers, an airplane ticket to Vietnam, or Mexico's favorite brand of soccer ball.

Once forsaken, older strip malls that blanket the Valley have been adopted by a variety of cultures, from immigrants to fresh-starts who have left the corporate world. The storefronts can be found along any major street, emblems of our diversity and a global economy that is always within reach.

On a recent day, Annie Giap, 24, loaded up her basket with pork feet and neck bones for noodle soup at Loi Nam oriental food market on 19th Avenue in Phoenix. Next door to the market, there were school uniforms for sale, a tax preparation business and a Mexican herb store.

Jay Butler, director of Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University East, has made it his job to track strip centers for nearly two decades. He classifies them as strip malls if they don't have a major retail anchor. There are about 248 strip malls in Maricopa County, compared with 160 in 1986.

Real estate leasing broker Mark Bramlett said he's seeing a reversing trend of landlords looking for mom-and-pop shops to fill their space, vs. big chain retail.

"I'm seeing trends where everybody is staying in their own little area and getting away from the larger malls," Bramlett said.

Bramlett said he believes Valley residents like to shop within a 2- to 3-mile radius of home, creating what he calls "nodal" societies."

Edgar Garcia cashed in his 401(k) to open Yerberia La Estrella, which sells medicinal herbs and teas from Mexico, remedies for everything from diabetes to impotency.

"This is the kind of store," Garcia said, "where you can find something for your luck, something for your health."

For example, an aerosol can decorated with the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe is a house spray that will help with luck - if you believe, he said.

"I used to work for others, but that is not my dream," he said. "This is one of my dreams."

Garcia is representative of people who run strip mall shops. He dreams now of opening a bigger store. January will mark his first anniversary as an entrepreneur.

For all the maligning of the abundance of strip malls, lower rents in these places help make dreams like Garcia's reachable.

"The smaller strip centers . . . those are breeding grounds for those that can't go into a brand-new, grocery-anchored center, we're seeing a real diversity of tenants," said Michael A. Pollack, a real estate developer who owns more than 70 strip malls, nearly one-third of the Valley's supply.

A few blocks to the north of Garcia's Yerberia, Vinnie Phan's hair salon is sandwiched between Da Vang restaurant and TN Travel.

"Most of my clients are Vietnamese," Phan said. "If you want to do business with Vietnamese, you have to find a place where the Vietnamese are."

That's why Vu Le runs his travel, income tax, notary public and phone card business out of this same strip center.

"A lot of Vietnamese live in this area, they support each other - someone goes to the restaurant, then they'll stop by my office," Le said. "If I move to some American mall, they wouldn't come, it would be inconvenient for them."

This is the type of "nodes" that Bramlett believes exist across the Valley.

Rene Barraza calls it going where the people are with his sporting goods store, Deportes America.

"Sixteenth Street is recognized by Hispanic people for the Hispanic businesses," Barraza said. "In Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, etc., the market is in the central city in the streets. Families who come to the United States, their custom is to buy on a street like this."

Visit 19th Avenue just south of Northern Avenue and you'll find a Russian "node."

Next to a Russian-owned barber shop, across from the Russian Market and the European Gifts shop, Mira Malayeva rolled out the dough for Toky, which she has learned to explain as "a Russian tortilla."

"One hundred years ago, my great-grandparents made this exactly like this," she said.

Now, she and her brother hope to carry on the tradition in this older strip mall, the red letters of Restaurant Samarkand aglow above the door.

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