Just before Valentine’s Day each year, a small army of immigrant entrepreneurs stakes out street corners, freeway off-ramps, tables outside established businesses or just busy stretches of sidewalk, spreading out small loads of romance-themed gifts for sale.
You’ve seen these guys – they’re the ones waiting for you to drive up and claim that pink teddy bear holding the red embroidered heart that reads “I (Heart) U,” wrapped in crisp cellophane.Who are they, and how do they get hold of so many pink bears to sell anyway? Yesterday, I met up with Gustavo Angel, 28, one of Los Angeles’ diligent curbside Valentine vendors, who was working the intersection of Sunset and Echo Park boulevards.
“My regular work is washing loncheras,” said Angel, a Salvadoran immigrant who has sold gifts on the street for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day since soon after he arrived eight years ago. “I saw people selling these and I thought hey, I can try this.”
Between yesterday and the end of today, if all goes well, he'll clear a month’s rent off the teddy bears and flower arrangements he spent the weekend assembling. Angel and his wife and two friends stayed up most of Saturday and Sunday nights whipping up curbside Valentine magic from fresh flowers, baskets, teddy bears, mugs, mini-balloons and cellophane, all bought in bulk in the downtown flower district.
Each gift package was assembled by hand from the raw ingredients, spread out on the floor of Angel's small downtown apartment.
Yesterday afternoon as traffic crawled along Sunset, a trio of 20-something hipsters wandered by, eyeing the bears. After a little haggling, they scored a cellophane-wrapped teddy bear for $25. The big teddy bears sell for up to $30, Angel said, the smaller ones – like those tucked into a heart-emblazoned mug – for less. There are flower arrangements, stuffed frogs, candy.
Farther west along Sunset in Echo Park, vendor Maria Anaya sat beside table outside a hair salon. Like Angel, she has a day job - she works there as a hairdresser - but her employer allows her to set up a temporary flower and gift display outside twice a year for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Before each holiday, Anaya also heads downtown to bulk warehouses for inexpensive flowers, stuffed animals and cellophane, then returns to her East Los Angeles home to assemble them into packaged gifts. Her arrangements are large and professional-looking, perhaps what happens when someone who works with hair is set loose on flowers and stuffed animals.
“I buy everything I need to make these,” said Anaya, who picks up a little costume jewelry while she's at it and displays that, too.
The curbside Valentine vendors capitalize on people in a rush, and Angel said that today will be his biggest day by far.
“I get the people who wait until the last minute,” he said. “From 6 a.m. on, they’ll be buying things.”
Tonight, perhaps even past midnight, as the last of the weeknight date rush is on its way home, Angel will be there, ready to provide that last-minute impulse buy.
What gift will he be giving his wife?
“Flowers,” he said. “I still need to go home and make her a special bouquet.”