It's at about this time each year that those who have little tolerance for Christmas shopping vow to stay out of the malls until sometime in 1992. For those with the holiday jitters, the quaint shops of Laguna Beach provide a tranquil alternative to the sometimes-surly shopping center crowds.
Although those who flock to Laguna Beach during the Christmas season can get as pushy as those at any mall, there is plenty of elbow room along the stretch of Coast Highway where hundreds of shops are huddled between the canyons and the sea.
This oceanfront enclave of 75 art galleries and 425 stores, hotels and restaurants is Southern California's oldest art colony. Laguna's artistic reputation dates back to 1903, when artist Norman St. Claire began capturing the beauty of the coastline on canvas during his trips here.
His fellow artists in San Francisco were so enchanted by his work that they came south to settle the area. During the years, Laguna's shops and restaurants have repeatedly startled conservative Orange County with offbeat food and merchandise. The area is an oasis of individuality in the heart of homogenous Southern California.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 18, 1987 Orange County Edition Orange County Life Part 9 Page 7 Column 1 Life Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
In last Friday's Shopping column on Laguna Beach, The Toy Store was inadvertently omitted in references to toy stores in the area. The Toy Store, 335 S. Coast Highway, has been in business for 42 years in the heart of Laguna Beach.
All routes into Laguna Beach are scenic. Whether you choose pastoral Laguna Canyon Road (California 133) through canyons and cow pastures or Coast Highway along the ocean depends on where you live.
Once you get there, park the car in the public metered lot (or at metered spaces nearby) across from the Chamber of Commerce on Glenneyre Street (below the library). Pick up a business directory and map and stroll down Glenneyre, perhaps mulling lunch possibilities or lingering at the Hobbit Center of shops at the corner of Calliope Street and Glenneyre. At Diamond Street and Glenneyre, take a right and another right onto Coast Highway. Head north, browsing through the shops along the way.
Good places to stop include Laguna Village, where an oceanfront bistro and several stores could waylay you for some time. From there, cross the street and walk down to Paper Dolls, which sells unusual jewelry, cards and "wish wands" of crystal and silver for $500. Nearby is the Sherwood Gallery, a showcase for Western artists, where you may find yourself muttering "excuse me" to Patty Minter's realistic soft sculpture people as you wander through the room.
Mr. Tilly's, a few steps away, has good cheap stuff: A $19.99 black box called the Revenger is equipped with various sirens that can be activated when bothered by pesky motorists (better used on the streets of Idaho than the freeways of Southern California).
Around the corner on Forest Avenue, you can look in one direction and see the sea, then turn around and see the mountains. Here are dozens of one-of-a-kind shops: A Touch of Latin features Mexican and South American merchandise; Khyber Pass sells exotic wares from the Far East and Ivory Moon has great women's sportswear. A block south of Forest Avenue is Paradise Boutique, with knockout knits and accessories for women.
But the art galleries are the lifeblood of Laguna. Like a plate of canapes, each one begs to be sampled. Among the most interesting are Anzania African Art, Haggenmaker Galleries, the Laguna Beach Art Museum and the Sherwood Gallery.
The area also has a large variety of restaurants. Visitors can choose anything from Bennie the Bum's Diner, with its Philadelphia scrapple and '40s tunes on the jukebox, to tamales wrapped in banana leaves at Casa Olamendi's. Several of the restaurants have gorgeous views of the ocean, and many feature outdoor tables.
For those who mix their shopping with errands, Laguna Beach also has plenty of services: two locksmiths, a luggage repair shop, several hair salons, a shoe repair shop and two travel agencies. There are several used clothing stores, a balloon store, a camera shop, many bookstores and an eyeglass boutique.
A few shops sell children's clothing, but there is just one toy store. Also scarce are shoe stores (one) and large variety stores (Sprouse-Reitz is the only department store).
A word of warning: Buyers beware the erratic hours of shopkeepers and the variety of store policies. Call ahead if heading for a specific shop, and always ask a store's refund policy.
LAGUNA BEACH AT A GLANCE Location: The hub of Laguna Beach is on Coast Highway between Newport Beach and Dana Point. Take Laguna Canyon Road off the San Diego Freeway or the Santa Ana Freeway until it hits Coast Highway. Or take Coast Highway from the north or south until you see the shops, roughly between Diamond and Myrtle streets.
Number of stores: about 425 retail stores, restaurants and hotels; about 75 art galleries.
Department stores: Sprouse-Reitz.
Best place to browse (aside from the galleries): Peppertree Lane is an inviting brick alley crammed with cute stores. Le Chocolatier sells delectable-looking truffles the size of a fist and foil-wrapped chocolate fish for $4. Joan Upton Antiques sells treatures from yesteryear, including estate jewelry and fine china.
Best place to take the kids: At the end of Laguna Avenue on the water is a sandy playground next to the beach. Here also is the area's one toy store, Fantasy Toys & Games, and the public restrooms.
Good quick bites: The Brownie Baker at The Collection sells gooey chocolate truffle brownies for $1.30 and scrumptious opera tortes for $2.
Services: The town provides public phones and restrooms at the end of Laguna Avenue on the water side. Parking is permitted at meters and in the several public parking lots. The Laguna Beach Municipal Transit System offers routes through the city, up and down the hillsides and up and down the coastline. The fare is 40 cents. The Chamber of Commerce has guidebooks, maps and directories at 357 Glenneyre St.