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Recession's a Bore for Exotic Store : Retailing: Newport Beach's Living Creations is looking pretty dead these days. There are browsers, but few buyers.


NEWPORT BEACH — Pamela Plotkin sits in her fledgling store, Living Creations, surrounded by a $3,200 aquarium coffee table, a $2,000 aviary and a stubborn recession. Except for an occasional squawk from one of the cockatiels or ring-necked turtle doves, it is so quiet that you can hear the fish tanks gurgling.

With financing from her father and brother, Plotkin, 40, opened the store in September--smack dab in the middle of a sluggish economy that is testing the nerves and stamina of even the most established retailers.

Living Creations sells elegant homes for fish and fowl, or "living environments," as Plotkin calls them. Pacific Bell, whose television commercials promoting its Yellow Pages often feature quirky businesses, found Plotkin's business oddball enough to be featured in a future TV ad.

On a recent morning, the door chimes tinkled, and the day's first customers entered. A young, well-dressed couple gazed in awe at the 10-foot-long, 6-foot-high aquarium/aviary combo--the store's $7,000 showpiece.

"Oh, look at him--he looks like a punk rocker!" the woman said, pointing at the orange, spiky-tufted Staffordshire canary.

"He's blind," Plotkin said, protectively. Her animals, after all, are no trivial matter. As a volunteer for the San Diego-based rescue organization Project Wildlife, she periodically takes under her wing injured birds found by hikers and--as in the case of the canary--breeders' outcasts.

"Don't tell her that he's blind," the customer's husband joked. "She wants to buy him."

"We don't sell animals--just environments," Plotkin said.

Plotkin rehashes similar exchanges throughout the day, but not as many times as she would like. People happen past the little store, tucked between other small stores along a side street on the Balboa Peninsula, and notice exotic birds and fish through the window. Some might assume that Living Creations is a pet shop.

During its first month, the store attracted lots of looky-loos--but not a single sale.

"We got the after-school crowd," Plotkin says. "Mothers would bring their kids. There'd be 12 kids packed in here at one time. Finally, I had to tell them that while I appreciated their interest, this isn't a public zoo." One of her first paying sightseers was Lee West, owner of Newport Imports car dealership. After a few visits, he and his wife Rhonda took home a 10-foot-tall aviary for $2,000.

No ordinary bird cage, the aviary has plexiglass sides set between wood panels. Its cellophane-covered floor can be whisked clean by cranking the roll of plastic.

"A cage didn't appeal to me--they're too messy," West says. But the enclosed aviary, now shelter for two love birds, "is very easy to maintain," adds the Newport Beach resident.

"It's an attractive piece of furniture as well," West says. "Its white oak blends in with our living room furniture."

Dale Lewis, a manager at Hughes Aircraft Co., bought two aquariums for his Canyon Lake home in December. One is a 150-gallon, double-sided bubble, framed inside a 10-foot-high hutch, which he uses as a room divider. The other is a 40-gallon, one-sided bubble that he displays in the upstairs den.

"They cost about $6,000 total," says Lewis, who learned of the store through a friend. "It's expensive, and not for everyone. But I've invested a fair amount of money in paintings and sculptures. And I consider (the aquariums) pieces of art."

In addition to the aesthetic value of the aquariums, they offer tranquility, Lewis says: "Looking at them helps me to relax after work."

Though disarmingly candid on many fronts, Plotkin shies away from revealing her store's sales. "Not enough," she complains.

Her father, Peter Plotkin, shrugs off the slow start, which he had expected.

"You come in with a luxury item in the midst of a recession, and things are going to take awhile," said the retired Los Angeles apartment builder. "But since our overhead is very small, we can ride it out."

Most of the living environments, built by various Southern California manufacturers, are sold on consignment--so the cost of inventory is low. Also, the Plotkins don't have to worry about rent payments.

Peter Plotkin owns the small building that houses Living Creations.

"A computer store used to lease the space, and when they left I couldn't find the right kind of tenant," he says. "So I thought, why not put together something of our own?"

The whole quirky idea was his. Peter Plotkin discovered the bubble aquariums at a Carson skylight factory. The manufacturer, battling the construction industry's slump, was trying to broaden its product line.

"I thought they (the aquariums) were so beautiful that I bought one for my house," he says. "I figured that a lot of other people would love to have one too."

So he summoned his daughter, the animal lover.

"He said, 'You don't have to be that involved--the store will run itself after awhile,' " recalls Pamela Plotkin, who at the time owned an image consulting business in San Diego.

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