Ely-Smartt Shops mural celebrates 75 years in Manhattan Beach
by Mark McDermott
Three-quarters of a century ago, a woman named Exa Ely took notice of a patch of scrubby land along Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. It’s hard to figure what exactly about it struck her imagination. The land was on the downward slope of a hill, just below the sand dunes that criss-crossed the town. Maybe it reminded her of the scrubland from her childhood in Texas.
Ely was, at any rate, an unusually willful woman. She’d come to California alone and put herself through law school at a time few women did such a thing. She married Bill Ely, a young engineer at Douglas Aircraft who was from Manhattan Beach — in fact, just around the corner from the plot of land that piqued Exa’s interest — and they started a family in nearby Inglewood.
Exa didn’t drive so she took a bus to downtown LA, found the property records, contacted the two different owners for the land, and organized its purchase in 1946. A co-worker of her husband, and close family friend, Chuck Smartt, along with his wife, Claire, partnered with the Elys.Thus was born the Ely-Smartt Convenience Center, on Sepulveda between 9th and 10th Streets.
“It was spearheaded by my grandma,” said Heather Miller, who began to work in management of the shopping center 20 years ago after being mentored by Exa, who herself managed the complex until her passing at the age of 85. “She was the power from the beginning,” Miller said.
“She was an amazing mentor and friend, and we [current Ely and Smartt generations] are all indebted to her and the Smartts for cultivating this great long-lasting family business relationship,” Miller said.
Today, the shopping center is known as the Ely & Smartt Shops and has become one of the few constants on the ever-changing Sepulveda Boulevard. The original building is still home to its first tenant, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, which opened in 1956.
Miller has commissioned a mural on the north-facing wall of Baskin-Robbins to celebrate the shopping center’s endurance as part of the fabric of Manhattan Beach.
Artist Kevin Anderson, perhaps best known for his epic 72-foot mural celebrating San Diego County inside a pedestrian tunnel in Mission Valley, admitted that he was skeptical when Miller first contacted him.
“When Heather first called on the phone and said a little strip shopping center, I was thinking, ‘Ah…I’ve seen plenty of those,’” Anderson said. “I mean, I like them and everything, but I wasn’t thinking it was going to be cool like this.”
Anderson, who is based in Encinitas, hadn’t spent much time in Manhattan Beach, so he drove up and soaked in the place.
“I started looking around, walking around, talking to people, walking through neighborhoods,” he said. “I went swimming down by the pier, walked up the trails, went over to the parks, and just hung out, three to four times, just talking to people to get the feel of the place. And then I started painting, and had a really good time doing it. I’m really impressed with the place.”
Anderson hoped to complete the mural this week. He’s spent 15 days working on it. People have regularly interrupted his work with offers of ice cream, and he’s interrupted himself with repeated excursions to El Gringo, running the full gamut of its burritos.
“You should see the people I meet when I’m working here, it’s just amazing, all day long,” Anderson said. “And then in the evenings…I was here on a Friday night, there was a line out this Baskin-Robbins store. El Gringo was full. The wine place [Barsha] was full…It was like the New York Stock Exchange here. I couldn’t even squeeze into the ‘31 Flavors.’ It was amazing…This little shopping center, in my opinion, is a jewel.”
Bill Graw, who opened the second of his four El Gringo restaurants in the center 15 years ago, has been coming to Ely & Smartt since he was a child. His mother, Annette, worked a half block away at Pat Sullivan Realty and would bring him to work with her.
“In the mid-70s my mom was a Realtor and she worked here, a single mom raising two boys,” Graw recalled. “She would literally give us money, a ‘Hey, get out of here’ kind of thing. We would come to the center, and Baskin-Robbins was here, and then El Gringo was actually Piece O’ Pizza and it was legendary. You could buy a slice of pizza out of the little to-go window, and that’s the same to-go window that is still there at El Gringo. And there was Marv’s Liquor, which was everything from liquor to cigarettes to chocolate milk…So with literally a dollar, imagine your choices — you had Baskin-Robbins, a piece of pizza, or go the liquor store.”
After Graw established his first restaurant in Hermosa Beach, he dreamed of opening up a second El Gringo at his old stomping grounds. No sooner had he hoped for it and his favorite spot opened up. He said that while most people might think of the Beach Cities’ waterfront business districts as city centers, the Sepulveda corridor is actually its economic hub — and places like Ely & Smartt and the Goat Hill shopping center, a few blocks south, are particularly family-oriented.
“I’ve seen people pull in, put their names on the list at El Gringo, the kids are sitting outside and the parents go into the wine store, buy a bottle of wine, come back, eat, then the same family gets ice cream,” Graw said. “Three stop shopping.”
“I was actually raised in the Tree Section,” Graw said. “The thing about it is that if you drive by it, whether you drove by in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, or today, it hasn’t changed. But it’s not worn down — all the awnings are new, it’s tight, but the building itself hasn’t changed.”
The tenants are also like family. Montage owner Dianne de la Garrigue, also a Manhattan Beach native, has operated her spa since the 1990s. Baskin-Robbins was owned by two generations of the Berry/Brown family until 2011 (Richard Berry famously kept making cakes at the location into his 50s), when Dave Carroll bought it. But manager Justin Rankin has been at the shop for decades. Barsha Wines and Spirits is a relative newcomer, arriving only six years ago, but is the latest in a long line of liquor and wine stores. Owner Adnen Marouani carries a boutique selection of spirits as an homage to the building’s history.
Marouani echoed Graw’s observation that many of his customers come to the center for multiple reasons — a glass of wine after visiting the spa, or a beer before having Mexican food.
“I mean, we are thankful for El Gringo, and I think they are thankful for us, because people from El Gringo come to Barsha when they are waiting for their food — they come to shop, or they drink beer,” he said. “People come in because they are looking for a bottle of wine. Same thing with Baskin-Robbins, same thing with Montage…It’s really a good relationship. I never considered it like a shopping center; it’s more cohesive, four small business owners, with four different identities, all family-owned, hands-on, and we all care.”
The shopping center also includes the long building just above it, home to another seven small businesses, including O-Sho Japanese restaurant (which has been there 35 years), Door-to-Door Valet Cleaners (whose owners, the Veera family, got their start in the business as teenagers at a dry cleaners at Ely-Smartt and now own nine stores), and two more tenants who’ve been there for a quarter century, Body by Design and Magic Nail Spa.
The common thread is the families who started it all. Richard Ely and Tim Smartt, the only sons of their respective families, are still the managing partners. Graw said that while the stores are Mom and Pops operations, this is made possible because the ownership has the same ethos.
“They know everybody’s name, they know about my family, they treat every single one of us like we are family,” he said. “And then all the neighbors here, we all treat each other like family.”
Heather Miller said the mural is intended to honor this long and mostly unsung history that started when her grandmother saw possibility in a vacant lot.
“We want to think of ourselves as part of the history of Manhattan Beach, but also being timeless, keeping something the way it has always been when so many other places have been swept away and replaced by some giant thing,” Miller said. “Because we’d lose these tenants if we did that…And I think Sepulveda needs a rebirth of sorts, businesses that stay quaint and local and don’t sell out to all the developers who want office and medical buildings.”
Or as the mural artist Kevin Anderson put it, the hope is to keep “a lot of cool stuff” between 9th and 10th Street along Sepulveda.
“I hope this place stays for a long time,” Anderson said, as he applied a final brush stroke to his mural.
A ribbon cutting for the new mural, featuring a champagne toast, ice cream and mini-burritos will take place Dec. 19 at about 4 p.m.