What a Drag

West Campus Loses a Piece of Historic Charm

"The day Les Amis closed, that's when reality hit," sighs Frank Hilbolt, co-owner of Technophilia, Austin's first store to sell used compact discs. Long before the era of the CD, though, before the epoch of the strip mall and the era of corporate conformity, there was the Bluebonnet Plaza -- a ramshackle but cozy clutch of shops and restaurants nestled at 24th and San Antonio Streets directly behind the Drag's Tower Records. Consistently heavy foot traffic at the edge of the West Campus neighborhood where thousands of University of Texas students stroll to class has allowed the properties owned by the Bradfield Cummings Group to enjoy a rare longevity. Home to such Austin legends as the Mad Dog and Beans hamburger stand, Inner Sanctum Records, the so-called Slacker house (the one with the pointing finger painted on it), the Pipes Plus tobacco shop, and the always laid-back Les Amis Sidewalk Cafe, the run-down little plaza has stood the test of time with UT students and local regulars alike. In fact, this summer marks several anniversaries on the block. Technophilia celebrates its seventh year in business, Pipes Plus its 20th, and Les Amis its 27th. Or they would be celebrating, anyway, if they weren't so busy packing.

The Bradfield Cummings family trust has owned the block of buildings since the 1940s, though the business owners have never met their landlords. Instead, the Les Amis corporation maintained the building and collected rent from the tenants. "It was a trade-off," says Technophilia's Hilbolt. "They were easygoing, but the place is pretty run-down." Indeed, the cramped and dank 100-year-old main building has no central heating and cooling and no bathroom. A certain crumminess, however, has always been a part of the charm of the block for loyalists who happily drank their wine at Les Amis' wire-spool tables and returned again and again to Mad Dog's throughout years of health inspection closures and tax woes. Robert Heiser, who manages the property for the Bradfield family, says that a younger generation of family owners decided to fix up the building, and when Les Amis said it could not afford to make the repairs, Harris & Associates took over the property management, and life on 24th Street quickly began to change.

"We call them `Harass Management'," quips Hilbolt, explaining that the company's tactics have been less than neighborly. "We received a phone call saying that they were just waiting on permits to gut the building, and at the busiest time of the year," says Hilbolt's partner, Marshall Morgan. Logically, the beginning of UT's fall semester normally kicks off the plaza's busiest season. Yet despite the seasonal economic boom for shop owners, Harris has asked the tenants to vacate for 60-90 days for reconstruction of the building's roof and foundation. Technophilia has decided to move into Dressed to Kill's old spot on Guadalupe, although Harris officials say they would happily invite any of the businesses to return once the work is completed. (Bradfield Cummings' Heiser does admit that they are less than enthusiastic about Pipes Plus. "They're selling the stuff that you smoke crack cocaine out of," he says.)

John Newnam, owner of Pipes Plus, says that initially, the grapevine was his only source of information on the planned changes and that even now, when he has signed a month-to-month lease with Harris, he doesn't know when he might have to vacate. "The owners requested rent be paid in certified cashier's checks and wanted me to sign a lease. Why? I've been paying rent for 19 years without a lease," he complains. Patrick Helton, owner of Inner Sanctum Records, says his store will try to stick around after the renovations. But since the store's rent has tripled, Central Texas's oldest record shop will probably be bumped from its old space upon returning. "If you weren't paying any rent at all, then your rent would go up," jokes Heiser, suggesting that Inner Sanctum was paying rent below market value.

Perhaps most heart-wrenching, though, is the demise of Les Amis, which brought vibrancy to the area with outdoor tables and late-night hours. Newman Stribling had managed the restaurant since October 1970. "I spent 27 years of my life working for peanuts, but under the conditions I had, I felt successful," says Stribling, who had managed the restaurant since October 1970, and lived in a small loft in the main building. Stribling says he had no plans to move, but that he could see the economic writing on the wall. "The discussion about repairs and improvements had begun in late spring. With the rents we were getting [from Bluebonnet Plaza tenants], we couldn't pay for that stuff," says Stribling in frustration.

Renee Schwartz, vice president of Harris Management, tells the story a little differently. "We begged Newman to stay, he was just ready to move on," she says. Though Stribling is resigned, his employees are furious. "That's ridiculous, that's so ridiculous. It almost killed him," exclaims Josh Lopez, former Les Amis cook. "It was beyond his livelihood. He loved Les Amis. This is a way of life put to an end," he says.

"The other side of the coin is that it's a good thing because this building deserves a facelift," concedes Technophilia's Morgan, echoing similar sentiments expressed by his colleagues. But will the changes involve more than just a facelift? Though Schwartz says Harris has not accepted any letters of intent from prospective new tenants, rumors of the block's takeover by chain stores abound. Heiser acknowledges that Starbucks has contacted Bradfield Cummings regarding Les Amis' space, while Smoothie King from California and the locally owned Austin Java Company have also expressed interest. Heiser says that the company has no intention of razing the buildings, but only wants to complete desperately needed maintenance. "In a lot of ways this corner has been the heart and soul of Austin for many years," says Heiser. "A lot of Austin's traditions and liberalism are generated from this corner. I know that we're walking on hallowed ground here."

Bluebonnet Plaza loyalists, however, say they are not worried about the eventual outcome of life on 24th Street. Pipes Plus manager John R. Jones is optimistic: "There are certain geographic locations that just attract interesting and unusual businesses. Maybe anything they try to put here will just get freaked by the location and the place will become cool again."

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