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On the Beach : Retailing: Entrepreneurs along the shore enjoy the lifestyle, but their operations are at the mercy of recessions and the elements.

DOING BUSINESS: The distinctive character of commerce in Southern California. One in an occasional series

August 18, 1991|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come from South Korea, Philadelphia, Hawaii and Van Nuys. Former engineers, manufacturers and personnel directors, they are 60-ish and 20-something. They battle Mother Nature, escalating rents, oil spills, resort developers and tough economic times. Yet they endure and, often, thrive.

And many of them do what they do so that they can skipout on sunny afternoons to catch a wave.

Life is truly a beach for the entrepreneurs who make their livings along the strands of Southern California's storied coastline, from Santa Barbara's palm-studded sands, through the long, skinny ribbon of Malibu, to the rough-and-tumble shores of Ocean Beach in San Diego.

Not for these business owners the ball and chain of a 9-to-5 desk job, even if laboring near the sea means having at best a flimsy financial safety net.

"I would not give up this industry, this lifestyle, for all the security in the world," says blonde, tanned Terry Merrick, who with her husband, Al, operates Channel Islands Surfboards on State Street in Santa Barbara. Her attitude, firmly in place the last 20 years, is typical.

How many millions of dollars or thousands of jobs sift through the Southland's myriad coastal restaurants, inns, art galleries, bookstores, arcades, souvenir emporiums, sunglass and T-shirt stalls, skate rental booths, bikini places and surf shops?

Jack A. Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, estimates that something just under $1 billion a year is spent by beach-goers in the Los Angeles area alone. He also notes that a good portion of waterfront commerce is conducted "underground" and therefore goes uncounted.

Clearly, many Californians benefit mightily from this seaside commerce when economic and atmospheric conditions are good--and suffer proportionately when the climate is not so hot, as in the case of this unseasonably cool, gloomy, recessionary season.

Indeed, cloudy weather of all sorts seems to be keeping the sun from breaking through for beachfront entrepreneurs.

Merchants in Huntington Beach, for example, endured weeks of down time last year after the American Trader oil spill closed beaches. Businesses in Santa Monica and Malibu are hurt by frequent closures for sewage leaks and other pollution.

In Santa Barbara, State Street stores and restaurants hung by a thread during three years of Caltrans construction as the city's main shopping street was routed under a new U.S. 101 underpass to eliminate a string of anachronistic stoplights. That was on top of the devastating 1990 fire, the drought, the recession and war.

At Los Angeles County beaches, attendance peaked in 1983, when 79 million people took to the sands. By last year, the number had shrunk to 56 million, as people turned to other diversions, worried about water pollution, grew wary of too much sun or balked at higher parking fees, said Jinx Wible, secretary to the chief lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors Department.

Yet, she added, "there are just as many shops as always."

Between Point Conception and the Mexican border stretch 300 miles of coastline, 35 state beaches, 65 county and city beaches and 22 public piers (many of them under repair because of storm damage and poor maintenance). Along the way, a traveler encounters more than 30 seaside communities, a number of them--Summerland, Silver Strand and Dulah, for instance--no more than motes on the map.

To get a picture of what keeps the beach economy sailing along, a reporter spent a week cruising California 1, Interstate 5 and various coastal byways. What follows are the stories of business people who share the spunky spirit of Southern California's coast.

Santa Barbara

Like swimmers caught in an undertow, some Santa Barbara merchants near the beach have had to battle to keep their heads above water.

Sales at the Channel Islands Surfboards shop are down about 24% from last year, despite a move closer to the beach on State Street to get out of Caltrans' construction path.

"It all started with the fire," co-owner Terry Merrick says of the June, 1990, blaze that destroyed nearly 600 houses and caused $500 million in damage. "The whole city was in mourning.

"Then the city came along and closed the street from both ends. They tore up the street two weeks before Christmas and left us with dirt clods for eight months. The sidewalk was jackhammered clear up to the doors."

The construction and general economic downturn also pounded the Merricks' retail business, which until last year had been steadily climbing.

What helped keep Channel Islands' retail business going, she said, was the reputation of her husband Al's surfboards, used by such hot shots as Kelly Slater and three-time world champ Tom Curren. Sales of the boards, made a block away from the shop, continue to grow apace.

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