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Want to Relive Main Street U.S.A.? Head for Downtown San Clemente

June 03, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

In the little downtown that time forgot, San Clemente shoppers greet one another by name, American flags flap in the sea breeze and barbers stretch out in their leather chairs waiting for customers. Here is a slice of Main Street U.S.A. untouched by developers or retail magnates.

Refreshingly free of chic shops and tourist traps, San Clemente has little to attract day trippers and is more a sleepy diversion along the route to and from San Diego than a destination in itself. Trendy they are not, but the shops that line Avenida del Mar, the oldest and largest shopping district in the city and considered its downtown, offer a quaint blend of hometown charm and moderately priced merchandise. In case visitors get lulled into thinking that time has stood still, the Hotel San Clemente's hourly bell chimes serve as a gentle reminder of time passing.

The 60-year-old city at the southern edge of the county was founded by Ole Hanson, a real estate developer and former mayor of Seattle, on Dec. 6, 1925 (San Clemente was incorporated in 1928). Hanson envisioned a picturesque Spanish colonial hamlet by the sea filled with sun-washed stucco houses, patios with fountains and bougainvillea-covered fences. Many Spanish-style homes built by Hanson during the 1920s remain. And, despite the intrusion of various bikini shops and convenience stores, much of Hanson's colonial charm survives in attractive storefronts, patios and plazas. Red-tile roofs jut into the blue sky and from the top of Del Mar, near El Camino Real, the sea can be seen spilling against the shore.

Of the more than 100 shops and businesses that line both sides of Del Mar (shops are also scattered along El Camino Real, which is perpendicular to Del Mar, and alongside the San Clemente Pier), about half feature clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories. Also well represented are bookstores, stationers, flower shops, gift stores and medical offices. Del Mar, which leads to the pier, is the kind of shopping area where neighbors gossip on the street corners and the park benches are filled with elderly browsers. Parking, both angled and parallel, is plentiful and free. And restaurants, full-service and fast food, are also abundant, with many offering outdoor tables.

Some spots to hit are the Classic Closet, "a vintage vogue store" that sells used clothing at good prices. It may take a little hunting, but the intrepid shopper can dig up some good deals: a Lizwear flannel shirt for $12, a cotton Izod jacket for $22, Unisa leather shoes for $12 and lots of silk shirts for $8 and up. The store's stock is replenished every Tuesday and Friday, so those are the best days to visit.

Nearby, Granny's Treasures ("A potpourri of nostalgia and collectibles") is chock full of icons from days gone by: Elvis Presley's face smiles from a metal tray; peace necklaces and children's jewelry hang from racks, and movie stills and vintage accessories are stacked in bins. Owner Louise Parry says Granny's Treasures is her 15th store--the one she opened after moving to San Clemente from the San Fernando Valley to "retire."

Across the street, Cornet reigns at the corner of Del Mar and North Ola Vista as the street's largest store. In keeping with Del Mar's old-fashioned flavor, Cornet is one of the few dime stores left in Orange County--the kind of store that sells parakeet cages, gold fish (medium gold fantails, 99 cents) and yard goods, along with bandages, candy, and the usual dime store merchandise. Linoleum floors, utilitarian shelves and elderly salesclerks are cheerfully reminiscent of the five-and-dimes of yesteryear.

St. Guinevere's Gifts & Interiors is noteworthy because the store carries reasonably priced wedding gifts: a handmade tapestry-covered address book for $49.95, a Mikasa crystal tray for $17.95, a set of four shell napkin holders for $12.50 and an Italian ceramic fish for $17.60. One of the priciest items in the store is a giant Doberman statue for $700.

Probably the prettiest shop is Jensen Floral Imports & Design, owned by Jay E. Jensen. Jensen imports rare European flowers, mostly from Holland, and sells them by the stem in the store and as arrangements. The shop also sells planted baskets with bromeliads, painted lacquer picture frames, gourmet gift baskets and lots of decorative items. Huge sculpture-like floral displays are placed throughout the green, forest-like interior.

A good spot for lunch is the sunny Del Mar Plaza, which houses a gourmet food market, a flower shop and the Cafe Croissant. Pick up a freshly squeezed lemonade and a muffin at Cafe Croissant and head for the outdoor tables to watch the passers-by. Or if Thai food is your bag, drop into Monckut Thai Restaurant for Paht Thai .

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