Chances are, you’re familiar with Berger’s Specialty Company, the downtown clothing and accessory materials store, whether you realize it or not. That’s because Berger’s is where costumer Bill Whitten sent his assistant designer, Keith Holman, to go in search of some rhinestone banding for a last-minute addition to the outfit Whitten had created for Michael Jackson to wear on Motown’s 25th anniversary TV special. Whitten used it on top of a single leather golf glove. I think you know the one.
The Garment District, where Berger’s is located, is the Apparel Industry’s West Coast hub. Insider wisdom dictates if you’re looking for fabric, you start at Michael Levine’s. Need craft supplies? Head up the block to Moskatels instead. If it’s beads and trim you’re after, go straight to Berger’s.
Well, you’d better get there soon. After 32 years, the store’s owners will be closing the doors for good.
The Berger Specialty Company was founded in 1938 by Sol and Fannie Berger, who sold product out of their garage because they couldn’t afford to rent an office. They opened a small store on 8th Street a few years later. Business was good, so in 1972 they moved down the street to the location they’ve be in since. Sol handed the keys to the company to his daughter, Pearl, and her husband, Ken, who in turn passed them on to their son, Barry, and his wife, Vickie. Today daily operations are handled by their sons, Torey and Cody. Theirs is a family legacy written along the walls, where thousands of small cardboard boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling. Each clearly labeled box contains a different type of bead. Torey and Cody can point out each family member’s handwriting, going all the way back to great grandfather Sol’s neatly-printed script, which appears on the oldest boxes.
Despite the modern materials they sell, it’s always 1972 in Berger’s, and not just because of the linoleum floor and the faux wood paneling, the kitschy pink countertops, the old worn wooden ladders that are used to reach the top shelves, or the yellowed scotch tape holding handwritten price signs in place. It’s the light. The way the late afternoon sun comes in through the glass doors and mixes with the overhead fluorescents gives the place the look of a Gene Hackman movie from the ‘70s. That so many costume designers who worked with celebrities like Cher and Elvis have stopped in and that it’s still frequented by local legends like Western wear king Nudie Cohn and marionette puppeteer Bob Baker add to its mystique.
But Berger’s hasn’t been exclusively for Industry vets or famous faces. The store is also favored by local families creating dresses for a wedding or a quinceañera on a budget and retirees who’ve taken up crafting to stay busy. Halloween brought in new customers this year. So did the Burning Man festival. That’s because Berger’s offers something for everyone; there are beads made of glass, clay, bone, plastic, and wood. There are also fabric appliques, decorative mirror tiles, patches, and sequins of all colors, shapes, and sizes.
In the four decades that Berger’s has been on 8th Street, the family has seen downtown go through multiple transformations. Today, the neighborhood is attracting more affluent residents, which means rents are higher. Although Berger’s was the first—and for a long time, the only—store in the Garment District to sell beads, they now have competition on every many corners in the area, where prices and products are cheap. Considering that half of the company’s sales are made online, the owners say it no longer make sense to lease such a big store.
Torey and Cody don’t have an exact plan for Berger’s’ future yet. Most likely there will be a new, smaller store. It may be downtown, but there’s also talk of opening in Silver Lake or some other neighborhood. Either way, it won’t be the same. It won’t be 1972 and chances are Gene Hackman won’t be stopping by with his costumer. So pay your respects before November 30 and pick up a few things. After all, crafting next year’s Halloween costume—or the next iconic piece of music history—takes time.