Since the late lamented Bullock's department store closed in 1993 (its Art Deco masterpiece salons were rescued to house the Southwestern Law School's library), Downtown has become less of a shopping destination than ever. Although many of the once-splendid streets are lined with cut-rate luggage and electronics stores, shopping here can be a rewarding -- albeit gritty -- experience for the adventuresome.
Savvy Angelenos still go for bargains in the garment and fabric districts; florists and bargain hunters arrive at the vast Los Angeles Flower District, 766 Wall St. (btw. E. 8th and E. 7th sts.; tel. 213/622-1966; www.laflowerdistrict.com), before dawn for the city's best selection of fresh blooms; and families of all ethnicities stroll the Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway (btw. 3rd and 4th sts.; tel. 213/624-2378; www.grandcentralsquare.com). Opened in 1917, this bustling market has watched the face of Downtown L.A. change while changing little. Today its sawdust-covered aisles serve Latino families, enterprising restaurateurs, and cooks in search of unusual ingredients -- stuffed goat heads, mole, plantains, deep-fried smelt, Mexican cane alcohol -- and bargain-priced produce. On weekends you'll be greeted by a mariachi band at the Hill Street entrance, near my favorite market feature, the fruit-juice counter, which dispenses 20 fresh varieties from wall spigots and blends the tastiest, healthiest "shakes" in town. Farther into the market you'll find produce and prepared foods, spice vendors who seem straight out of a Turkish bazaar, and a grain-and-bean seller who'll scoop out dozens of exotic rices and dried legumes. It's open 9am to 6pm daily.
Another of my favorite Downtown shopping zones is Olvera Street (tel. 213/680-2525; www.olvera-street.com), a lively brick pedestrian lane near Union Station that's been lined with stalls selling Mexican wares since the 1930s. Everything that's sold south of the border is available here, including custom leather accessories, huarache sandals, maracas, and -- but of course -- freshly baked churros. On weekends, you're bound to see strolling bolero musicians, mariachis, folk dancers, and performances by Aztec Indians. It's open daily from 10am to about 8pm.
If you're looking to find the best shopping deals in handbags, luggage, shoes, costume jewelry, and trendy fashions, then find a parking meter or park in one of the parking structures from Olympic Boulevard to 12th Street and explore Santee Alley, located in the alley between Santee Street and Maple Avenue. Often referred to as the heart of the fashion district, this is where you'll find everything you've ever wanted at bargain prices. Go early on Saturday mornings if you want to blend in with the locals.
Okay, so you have to wake up a little early to experience the Southern California Flower Market, 742 Maple Ave. between 7th and 8th streets (tel. 213/627-2482; www.laflowerdistrict.com), but if you do it right -- wear comfortable shoes, bring cash, and pick up a cup o' joe -- you'll find walking through the myriad of flower stalls a very tranquil experience. Besides the usual buds and stems that you see in Sunset Magazine, you'll be surprised to find tropicals such as torch ginger, protea, and bird of paradise. You can purchase flowers by the bundles at amazingly low prices.
Downtown Deals -- At the base of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising's Downtown campus, you'll find the FIDM Scholarship Store, where donated new merchandise is sold at bargain prices. All sales go toward scholarships for FIDM students, so you can shop with the karmic awareness that you're helping the fashion industry's next generation of designers with their tuition. It's located at 919 S. Grand Ave., at W. 9th St. (tel. 213/624-1200; www.fidm.edu).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.