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A cyclist rides by the corner store on 14th Street and Monitana Avenue on Tuesday afternoon. Up to 20 stores will be closing on Montana Avenue by the end of the month. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MONTANA AVENUE — The empty storefronts and the for lease signs that have been popping up along this once bustling shopping district are blatant reminders for Sheila Nazarian of the harsh economic conditions.

“It just makes you not want to shop at all,” said Nazarian, who came to Montana Avenue on Tuesday to dine and buy.

Home to high-end boutiques and small mom and pop stores, shops on the street have fallen victim to a combination of high rent and low patronage, spelling doom for a substantial portion of the businesses. It’s a depressing trend experienced by other popular shopping districts because of the sagging economy.

From June 2008 to the end of March, more than 30 businesses — representing roughly 15 percent of the total merchants on Montana — will have left the shopping district, leaving empty storefronts up and down the street, the majority of which are between Seventh and 17th streets.

“It doesn’t look good because you see all the lease signs and it’s painfully obvious,” said Sabine Lehmann, the owner of fashion boutique Platino and the past chairman of the Montana Avenue Merchants Association. “Morale is not that great for the merchants and it’s probably not the end of it either.”

But Lehmann said that foot traffic has remained stable on the street over the past few months, thanks to the support of residents in the surrounding neighborhood who continue to grab a morning coffee or take part in a yoga session.

She called the recession a “Darwinistic experience.”

“It’s really going to be survival of the fittest and if you’re winging it, you’re not going to survive it,” she said. “If you don’t have a marketing plan, if you don’t have great customer service and if you don’t have business skills — and that means not just retail skills — then you’re not going to make it.”

Chuck Dembo, a partner with real estate firm Dembo & Associates, said that demand for commercial spaces on Montana Avenue is currently down and that landlords are reducing the price per square footage to $5-$6 in order to stimulate leasing.

Rent on Montana historically went for $7 to $8 a square foot, he said.

“It’s to facilitate the lending because let’s face it, people don’t want to pay out when they’re not anticipating something coming in,” Dembo, who represents about five properties on Montana, said.

The Montana Avenue Merchants Association is currently working with business owners and landlords to see if it can negotiate a lower rent for the tenants on the street. It has reported success with several landlords.

The organization is also facilitating partnerships between member merchants in which they will refer customers to one another’s business.

“It is independent merchants working collectively to benefit the street,” Dan Fagan, a resident board member, said.

The businesses on Montana Avenue are not unique in their experience, pointing out that other districts in the area, including Main Street, have also been hit by the recession.

Gary Gordon, the executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, estimates that approximately 28 businesses have left the shopping district over the past 22 months.

“When I talk to retailers, everything is extremely soft,” Gordon said. “Some people are talking about trying to hang on for the rest of the month.”

But unlike Montana where there are approximately 30 vacancies, there are only about four or five on Main Street.

The level of business that merchants on Montana experience are sporadic, experiencing days when stores record several thousands of dollars in sales, but bringing in close to nothing on other days.

“People who never had zero days before have zero days now,” said Jane Walker, a manager at Three Bags Full. “That’s nationwide.”

The setting can be discouraging for shoppers.

Jessica Gunderson, a Santa Monica resident, said that the empty storefronts make her think that she should not be shopping at all.

“It’s depressing and awful,” Gunderson said on Tuesday as she exited Starbucks. “All the stores are leaving because the rents are too high.

“And the other things it’s all chain stores now — all the little boutiques are getting run out.”

melodyh@smdp.com. Rachel Dardashti contributed to this report

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