DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The Downtown Los Angeles of 2012 has very little in common with the Downtown of 1962. On Bunker Hill, skyscrapers replaced regal Victorian homes. In the Historic Core, dead office buildings now hold youthful residents.
Only a few things remain the same. They include Allen and Richard Wattenberg, who this month are marking a half century of selling and sharpening knives, scissors and clippers on Broadway.
“Time goes by quick. It’s just one day after the other,” said Allen, 73, last week as he sat in Ross Cutlery. His brother Richard, a year older, added, “It doesn’t feel like it’s been 50 years.”
Saying that the easygoing brothers have seen a lot is an understatement. They’ve survived changes in the economy as they hawked high-end wares from manufacturers such as Henckels, Wusthoff, Global, Ka-Bar and Kai. They have served some customers for decades, while a shopper who made a single purchase gave the store a touch of infamy.
In March, the brothers, needing more room, moved from an 1,800-square-foot location in the Bradbury Building, where they had been since purchasing the store in December 1962, to a sprawling 6,000-square-foot space at 324 S. Broadway. Ross originally opened at the Bradbury Building around 1930 or maybe earlier, Allen estimates.
The Wattenbergs maintain a firm hold on the past. The antique scale that Allen rolled to the sidewalk in front of the old store every morning is still placed in front of the new location each day. A barber’s pole is still displayed in a large glass window along with a pair of giant scissors and a selection of knives and other cutting tools.
“There are so many stores that just sell junk imported from China or who knows where,” Allen said. “We try to specialize in things that are going to last and we built up a good business because when people come here, they know they’ll get good quality.”
The customer base still includes a number of hair-cutting and cooking professionals, among them Michelle Lainez, the executive chef at Pete’s Café in the Historic Core. She has been going to Ross Cutlery since she was 9, when she would tag along with her mom, a hairstylist who took her scissors and clippers there for sharpening.
“They take care of me and they always give me a deal,” Lainez said.
Learning the Ropes
Originally from New York, the brothers moved as young boys with their family to Lynwood. Their father was a restaurant owner and later a driver for a bread company.
In the late 1950s the brothers opened Deb’s Drive-In at the border of South Gate and Lynwood. When Allen was drafted into the Army they sold the business.
While Allen was away, Richard became interested in the knife business and began to look for a shop of his own. He heard about a man named Mr. Ross (the brothers don’t remember his first name) who was looking to sell his Downtown business. Richard purchased it, although he can’t recall for how much. He kept the name since it already had a steady customer base.
Ross stayed on for 30 days, showing Richard the ropes. Allen joined him after his discharge from the Army.
Very few people lived Downtown at the time, but the brothers say there were many more shoppers and workers in the neighborhood than now. Even then, their main customers were barbers, chefs and hairstylists.
They include John Deleon, a barber at the California Club. He began patronizing Ross in 1967. He stopped by on a recent Monday morning to have a pair of clippers adjusted and some shears sharpened.
“In the old days we used to have guys come to the shop and sharpen our shears, but they don’t do the same quality work they do here,” said Deleon, who was clad in a white barber’s coat. The only downside to Ross, he said, is that for people in his business it’s like a candy shop.
“It’s hard to walk out of here without buying something,” he said.
Touch of Infamy
While Ross Cutlery has a loyal customer base, others only know the store because of its tangential tie to a movie and a murder.
In May 1994, a production crew was shooting a film called Frogmen outside the store when one of the actors came in to look at some knives.
The man was O.J. Simpson. The former football great would later return to purchase a 15-inch Stiletto knife for about $80. He then asked a store employee to sharpen the blade, according to media reports from the time.
A few weeks later, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death at her Brentwood home. Simpson was immediately a suspect.
“We heard on the radio that [Brown Simpson] had been killed and a knife was used, and about 10 minutes later the police were at out door,” Richard recalled.
The cops wanted to see the type of knife Simpson had purchased. Allen and a store employee would testify at a preliminary hearing about selling Simpson a knife.
That set off a firestorm of tourists and curious locals who wanted to come to the store where Simpson bought the “murder weapon,” although the knife Simpson purchased at Ross was never officially linked to the killings. Simpson, of course, was acquitted in criminal court (though he later lost a civil trial).
The brothers recall that tour buses would stop at the store. People would come in and take pictures. Even police officers would stop by and ask to see the knife O.J. bought, the brothers said.
Allen said they stocked up on the same type of Stiletto knife and ended up selling them to many of the people who came to the store.
Staying on the Edge
In 1962, 14-hour days were common for the brothers, who would sharpen shears and knives for about 50 cents apiece. Today a sharpening runs about $14.
The move down the block has been good for business, the brothers say, increasing sales by about 20%. They expect to do about $1 million worth of business this year.
The company employs six people, including Richard’s 33-year-old daughter, Jennifer Velazquez. Also in the blade business is Allen’s son David, a designer who makes high-end items for his own company, Pro-Tech Knives. They’re for law enforcement and military personnel and can cost as much as $5,000. Some of the models are sold at Ross.
But the future of the store likely rests with Velazquez.
While her father and uncle are laid-back and casual when discussing the family business, Velazquez’s enthusiasm for knives is infectious.
“Everyone should carry a pocketknife,” she enthuses after answering a few questions from a customer about clippers.
She practices what she preaches. She made sure that her husband, a chef, always carries a pocketknife. She’s almost giddy when talking about a pair of rare Randall knives that a collector sold to the store.
“There’s usually a two to three year waiting period when you order these,” she says after pulling them out of a display case. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
The brothers say they have no plans to retire. But when they do, they know that Velazquez will take over. Allen and Richard have no doubt that Ross Cutlery’s thousands of blades will be in good hands.
“We want to be here for the next hundred years,” Allen said.
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.