Shoppers walk by The Rubber Tree, one of the older business closing on Second Street in Belmont Shore in Long Beach on July 27, 2018. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

When Joy Starr, owner of The Rubber Tree, opened her shop selling condoms and erotic gifts on Second Street in 1992, she was met with protests and snubs from residents and neighboring businesses.

But Starr didn’t take it personally, she viewed it as a challenge.

“I just started volunteering everything, because everyone likes a volunteer,” she said.

Starr joined the local business association and went on to become one of the most beloved business owners in Belmont Shore.

On Tuesday, The Rubber Tree will close its doors after nearly 26 years in business at 5018 E. Second Street.

And Starr isn’t the only one. Ask any local business owner and they’ll tell you—Second Street is changing.

Over the past year, a string of longtime staples have shuttered between Quincy and Bayshore avenues as the popular shopping stretch gives way to new faces, and in some cases, empty storefronts.

The closures include Jack in the Box after 57 years, Herman’s Shoe Fashions after 52 years, dive bar Acapulco Inn, which opened in 1955, and Jones Bicycles, which served the community for 108 years.

Jones Bicycles is leaving Second Street after 108 years of doing business in Belmont Shore. File photo.
Jones Bicycles is leaving Second Street after 108 years of doing business in Belmont Shore. File photo.

On Monday, struggling smoothie chain Jamba Juice closed its Second Street store after more than a decade.

“We are seeing a change with some of our older businesses leaving and newer generations coming in,” said Dede Rossi, executive director of the Belmont Shore Business Association. “It’s a sign of the times.”

Business owners have given various reasons for closing their doors, from retirements to the rising costs of rents and the struggle to compete with online shopping.

In the case of Jack in the Box, the restaurant chose not to renew its lease, said Rossi.

The exodus has left the area dotted with empty storefronts. But Rossi said plans are underway for many of the spaces.

“I’m excited for Second Street because we’ve got a lot going on,” she said.

The Children’s Place, which also recently closed, will be divided into three spaces taking up half a block between Park and St. Joseph avenues, she said. The businesses, slated to open later this year, will include a trendy coffee shop, a sandwich shop and a salon specializing in eyelash extensions, she said.

David Khedr, who owns the building that housed Children’s Place, said the store had been around for two decades and was in dire need of a revamp. The decision for the business to leave was mutual, he said.

“People like new places,” he said. “They like fresh things.”

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Khedr, who also owns the block with Starbucks, Lucky Brand Jeans and Simmzy’s restaurant, said businesses need to change with the times. Simmzy’s, for example, is doing well and recently renewed its lease, he said.

Yogurtland, which closed last year, is set to reopen this month under new ownership, Rossi said, while local sneaker store Proper LBC will take over the former Romance Etc. space.

But for now, many spaces remain empty as retailers struggle to keep up with consumer demands.

And the buildings can’t be filled with any business. Because of the area’s parking demands, certain spaces are zoned for restaurants while others are designated for retail.

Some business owners say the requirements make it more difficult to fill the empty spaces.

“I just wish they were filled,” said Lisa Ramelow, longtime Belmont Shore resident and owner of La Strada restaurant. “I don’t care what they’re  filled with.”

Business owners say they’re also concerned about losing customers to the looming 2nd & PCH development project, set to open next year.

Others, however, say they’re hopeful the 220,000-square-foot shopping center will lure more customers from outside cities, who will in turn migrate down to Belmont Shore.

As for The Rubber Tree, Starr said she finally decided to pack up shop after years of declining sales.

“I’m just tired,” said Starr, 74. “Retail is not what it used to be. You have to work harder for less.”

A native of Idaho, Starr moved to Los Angeles and got her start in the industry working as an assistant for an adult bookstore owner.

After seeing the boom of condom shops on Melrose Avenue at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Starr and her husband, Larry, decided to start their own business, billed as a “gift store for lovers,” and found the perfect location in Belmont Shore.

Starr said her greatest joy is helping people through difficult times in their life.

“I had a woman come in who lost her husband of 20 years and had never bought condoms before,” she said. “They’re happy to see a woman here who can help them.”

While she’s not quite ready to retire, Starr said she plans to spend time visiting her daughter, who recently moved to Oregon, and caring for her husband, who is battling leukemia.

She said she’s proud of her longtime legacy on Second Street.

“I feel relieved,” she said. “And I feel happy.”