Customers juggling intended purchases and wine-filled glasses stood eight-deep at the Laguna Nursery cash register last week.
Such a sight apparently proved as rare at the nursery in recent years as a Dudleya stolonifera, a threatened succulent species native only to Laguna Beach.
Now, the nursery initially opened in 1948 is itself on the endangered list. Current owner Ruben Flores intends to close when his lease expires by month’s end and offered a close-out preview sale to past patrons last Wednesday.
“People were using it like a museum,” said Flores, a local resident, whose command of horticulture and eye for design stuffed the nursery with unusual botanical specimens and often-pricey decorative items. Zinc urns kept company with scavenged architectural remnants and exotic orchid specimens.
Flores ran the nursery for seven years alongside his existing landscape contracting company. Since 2000, Visionscape Inc.’s work remaking the grounds of custom homes has yielded Flores more than a wheelbarrow full of industry awards.
Now, with retail sales less than robust and his landscaping business drawing him to three out-of-state jobs, “I can’t babysit the nursery anymore,” said Flores, as he reached to grab a pair of terra cotta pots coveted by a customer.
The Coast Highway nursery opened 67 years ago by Takashi Kawaratani has changed ownership several times over the years, including a stint by the founder’s son, Steve. It will end with Flores.
An outdoor gear maker that aims to make inroads in the crowded turf of action sports with its own distinctive hipster vibe will supplant the eclectic environment Flores cultivated at Laguna Nursery.
“I’m extremely disappointed residents of Laguna Beach did not support Ruben,” said property owner Charlie Kinstler, of Emerald Bay, who city records show bought 1370 S. Coast Highway for $2.8 million in May 2000. Flores worked diligently to build a clientele, but decided in May not to renew the lease when it was offered, said Kinstler, who also struggled for two years trying to run the nursery himself. “You couldn’t compete against Home Depot on dirt or six-packs.”
The use on the property was recently changed to retail and a business license approved for clothing and active wear company Poler, city planner Scott Drapkin confirmed this week.
Based in Portland, Ore., Poler Outdoor Stuff designs road tripping and camping gear true to the needs of surf, skate, and snow enthusiasts. Founders Benji Wagner and Kharma Vella opened their first bricks-and-mortar store in downtown Portland in February 2013.
Its president, Chris Noyes, is from Laguna Beach and intends by November to relocate the company’s design studio and offices to the property, which will include a small retail outlet, Kinstler said.
Company executives declined to comment, according to spokesman Dustin A. Beatty. A query to Noyes went unreturned.
Poler started selling its line of beanies, shirts, hoodies, caps, tents, duffel bags and backpacks at select boutiques and online in 2012, Berry estimated. The Portland store also included a few non-Poler designed items, including surfboards by Dan Murdey, says a 2013 Oregonian post. Pricing is mid-range with many items running from $20 to $75.
For his part, Flores says “I’m glad I brought the next generation of creativity to the nursery. I think I did my run and I leave happily.”
Friends and customers had a different opinion. “He’s a treasure. I’ll be so sad when this place closes,” said longtime resident G. Ray Kerciu, whose wife, Mihae Park, celebrated her 50th birthday with a party at the nursery. Kerciu says he will miss the occasional cabaret-style songfests Flores staged afterhours in the garden alongside a baby grand piano. He described the space as “an enchanted garden.”
Despite the nursery’s closure, Garden Club member Diane Kloke is confident the community will not lose Flores as a resource, offering expert advice in public hearings, supporting community garden initiatives and hosting monthly garden walks. “He’s got a real connection to the community,” Kloke said.
Client Ed Kaufman, though, understands Flores’ motivation to become more focused with his time. Landscaping “allows him to express his creativity,” said Kaufman, who with his wife Karen Redding, hired Flores to design hardscape and landscape around their hillside Poplar Street home in Laguna Beach. “Even when the house was being framed, he had ideas,” Kaufman said.
Coincidentally, the town will also lose its only other nursery a few months after Flores closes shop. Kevin Naughton confirmed he intends to shutter Laguna Gardens Nursery in Laguna Canyon by year’s end.
“The nursery business could use a little reinventing,” said Naughton, pointing out that drought fears along with big-box stores have dried up business. “The whole industry is suffering,” he said.
Unlike Flores, though, Naughton and his wife, Jocelyn, want to turn over a new leaf. Despite rebuilding after two floods, Naughton intends to refocus his attention on writing, though he will continue selective landscaping jobs. His second book, “Search for the Perfect Wave,” is due in December.
“We’ve been here 30 years. We’re ready for a change.”
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