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Effort to Close Secondhand Shack Roils Ojai Residents, Church Officials

The city deems the St. Thomas Aquinas Thrift Shop annex a dangerous eyesore, but some say it's a key part of the funky local ambience.

September 01, 2003|Karin Grennan | Special to the Times

A few yards from the chichi art galleries and upscale boutiques of Ojai's tiny downtown sits an old tin shed, surrounded by weathered wood and bamboo.

The floor is uneven, and honeysuckle vines cover the roof and hang down the sides. There is no electricity, ventilation or water.

The St. Thomas Aquinas Thrift Shop has sold used clothes, books and kitchenware from this annex, which sits across a small walkway from its main building, for more than 30 years. But now, Ojai city officials have begun efforts to shut down the 470-square-foot shed, which they deem unsightly and unsafe.

The move has outraged some residents and upset thrift-store operators worried about losing revenue, but officials are adamant.

"It's an eyesore," City Manager Dan Singer said. "It's not the quality of construction that you would want to have in your downtown retail area."

Code enforcement officer Brian Meadows said the original owners never obtained permits for the structure, and it doesn't meet current codes. It's a hazard, he said, because its walls aren't attached to a foundation, and there is no remedy short of tearing it down and replacing it with a new building.

"There is nothing holding it up," Meadows said. "If there was an earthquake or high wind, it would blow right over."

Supporters argue that it has survived at least three decades without a problem. It looks funky, some say, but that's a good thing.

"It's part of the ambience of Ojai," said 16-year resident Victoria Clause, who regularly checks the annex for used books. "If they have to prop up the side of the building, that's OK, but to turn it into something else is kind of sad."

Owners Richard and Marilyn Malloy, who belonged to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish for 30 years before moving to Ventura, have refused to tear down the annex out of loyalty to the church, said their son, Bill Malloy. Church business manager Joan Ronchetti estimated that closing the annex, which provides nearly half of the thrift shop's retail space, would cut the store's monthly profit of $2,600 by a third.

The owners, city officials and church staff don't know when the structure was built or how long it has been used for a secondhand store. Richard Malloy said the church store was there before his parents bought the property in 1972. Originally, parents volunteered at the shop to raise money for St. Thomas Aquinas School. Since the school closed, the profits have provided much-needed income for the church, Ronchetti said.

Singer said city officials became concerned about the annex's appearance as work began last year on a $1.7-million plaza renovation project in the Ojai Arcade, a group of about 85 stores adjacent to the shed and on the street behind it.

"The city started talking about the shed ... being incompatible with the architecture and the looks of the city," said Bill Malloy of Redding.

A nearby shop owner, who declined to give her name, said she supports the city's efforts to remove the shed and would like to see a park replace it, but other owners and residents disagreed with the city's stance.

"It's just so annoying, the idea that everything has to be the same," Clause said. "We don't need everything to be so pristine and clean."

Kim Bailey, who has lived in Ojai for four years and shops at the thrift store several times a week, likens the situation to the controversial removal of an old fountain during the renovation.

"The city is so out of touch with what people want," Bailey said. "There is such a rigid look to this town. If something is out of place, it doesn't fit."

When the Malloys refused to demolish the shed, the city began condemnation proceedings based on the safety issues, Singer said.

After the city attorney finishes reviewing the case, Meadows said, officials will notify the owner and operators by mail that they must tear down the building or appeal the decision by a certain date. If the Malloys don't take action, officials will post an order to vacate the shed, then demolish it and charge the owners for the cost, he said. Singer said he then hopes to work with the owners to see that the property doesn't remain simply a dirt lot.

Meanwhile, store manager Dorothy Rice and clerk Becky Enlow worry each day that the notice will come. Enlow, who has worked at the shop for most of the last 17 years, said she thinks of the store more as a service to the community than a money-maker for the church or a paycheck for herself. It's one of only two thrift stores in Ojai where homeless and low-income residents can find affordable goods.

The annex holds the store's lower-priced items, and some people, known as "the shed shoppers," only go in there.

Rice starts to cry whenever she talks about losing the annex. She has worked at the shop for 18 years and spends 50 hours a week there.

"It's almost like my home," Rice said.

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