Letter: Laguna in the Time of COVID-19 – Reimagining Retail


I am positive visioning that Laguna will return to reduced but reasonable tourist levels this summer—mostly Southern Californians who will vacation close to home.

But what will our merchant base look like?

We’ve already lost Watermarc and Grove, and it’s hard to imagine many others coming out of this intact. How do you just turn the switch back on—with all the attendant expenses of running a business—when your income went to zero and your debt continued to mount for months? And will there be new rules for social distancing that require reduced seating that will make it impossible for restaurants and other merchants to thrive? It’s hard enough to make it in Laguna when things are good.

The upside to all this is that landlords will now have to think creatively about how to fill their spaces. And that means not only lowering rents, but also soliciting a new breed of merchants who can survive year-round despite interruptions to the tourist industry. Not a “Gucci-fied” town of overpriced, needless ephemera, but an array of artisans and makers of quality, utilitarian goods that support our community and create an infrastructure of resilience. Imagine boutiques proudly selling cookware, plates, cutlery, linens, bedding, tools, furniture, tapestries and rugs that are “Made in California,” “Made in Santa Ana,” or maybe even “Made in Laguna Beach.” It’s something both sides of the aisle can support because it’s a return to what once really did make America great: craftsmanship.

Imagine how it might look for small businesses to have a shot at opening in Laguna. How about converting the movie theater into a makers’ mart, since the business model for a movie theater will never work? How about converting Laguna Drug into an artisan food court? How about a shared commercial kitchen in the canyon for local food production, several community gardens in our area parks, and a pedestrian-only Forest Avenue lined with specialty merchants, like a cheese shop, produce (from our farms, orchards, and community gardens), seafood from our waters, and a bread maker (mmm, I can smell the baking). A completely transformative return to localism. And a quality of life that will bring us downtown again – on electric bikes of course.

Billy Fried, Laguna Beach

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  1. Let’s start with “seafood from our waters,” shall we?
    We’re in a “no take zone,” due to self-described protectionists who heavily lobbied (then) Cal Fish & Game, now Cal Dept. of Fish & Wildlife to declare our shores and a great distance seaward as such YEARS ago.
    No surf fishing, no boat fishing, no tide pool scavenging, nothing taken, where has this man been?
    Only exception might be the lobster………..I’m uncertain if they left the seasonal lobster trap licensees with their grandfathered rights intact, but regardless I think they dock and sell in Dana Point Harbor or Newport, where chefs and restaurant owners buy fresh daily catches, where fish markets are set up for icy refrigeration for quickly perishable species.
    Be pretty hard to tell a locally caught lobster or any other form of seafood from somewhere else, imported, anyway, wouldn’t it? How would a merchant of “Laguna” seafood procure or produce proof, authenticity, a chain of evidence or custody certificate?
    Cheese? It’s made from goats or cows, right? We have no such animal husbandry consortiums.
    In fact, this pipe dream proposal doesn’t meet even minimal cost/risk benefit analytic standards. Apply a binary metric (Yes/No) and if it fails, it won’t cost him anything but could just be a commerce dead end cul-de-sac, kill any hope of recovery.
    Self-sufficiency SOUNDS great but putting all of our chips on it is a form community wide buy-in, gambling….Reminds me of the POTUS when he blithely says “Hey, whatcha got to lose?”
    Simply go online: Successful business models reflect arcs. If you’re on the upswing, you still might not be in the black but breaking even after 3 years. By 5 years you’re either going to make it (in the black) or not. Seriously in the red at that 3 year mark (on the down swing), and you can start winding down, close your doors…ain’t gonna happen. A lot of our businesses have cratered due to Covid-19 but many were on that downward trend, just not competitive.
    Any coincidence that the author has a business with “Laguna” in its name, being promotionally manipulative and self-serving? Yes, his business is named “La Vida Laguna.”
    And guess what else? Whodathunkit, HE rents electric bikes.
    Perhaps HIS business (here I believe for nearly 15 years) isn’t thriving, duped the editor, and is using this space for a thinly veiled ad, that’s a legitimate question to ask, isn’t it?
    This man wrote a guest column awhile back in the INDY, if memory serves admitted that he now resides in Dana Point. So I’m wondering what exactly does he mean by “WE?”
    Much of the communal, progressive hippy-dippy mentality failed decades ago. The reality is that in a capitalist society, only the strong (and yes, well funded with seed money backing) survive.
    One could extend that concept as basic Darwinian survival.
    Why the phrase “both sides of the aisle” is introduced, as if our commerce is a partisan or bi-partisan issue seems a tad fuzzy to me.
    All of these inspirational phrases (positive visioning, localism, etc.) have the superficial appearance of altruistic clarion calls. My takeaway is that being pragmatic and realistic trumps jingoism.
    John Lennon wrote that beautiful anthem IMAGINE what, 45 years ago? We’re no closer to his vision than back then.
    Maybe (like The Beatles) the dream IS over, best to wake up and smell the Columbian PC-grown coffee.

  2. Thank you for controlling your glee when so many Laguna businesses are going under. Clearly you have never been someone that has signed the front of a paycheck.

    If you want a town full of goods grown in “community gardens”, why don’t you and other like-minded people just buy some properties for that purpose? You will very quickly realize that your ideas are completely unrealistic. Believe it or not, retailers are in the business of providing the goods are services that people want. If they don’t, they are punished in the market. It’s very easy to decide what risks other people should be taking to make you happy–why don’t you try taking some of those risks yourself?

  3. Billy Fried’s article shows a path that is filled with hope and challenges. We have the opportunity to begin anew and make Laguna Beach even more unique and one that serves our local community, and that will also appeal to the tourist. Hopefully, without all the loud noises and a friendly pedestrian village.

  4. Thank you, Steve. Tony, I’m not gleeful. Businesses have been going under at an alarming rate pre-dating Covid. Have you noticed? I’m offering some ideas on other kinds of retail that may thrive and better serve locals as well as tourists. But it seems all you can do is attack. And no, I’m not suggesting we buy expensive land for gardens. I’m imagining that some public space be allocated, like so many other towns do. We have lots of it And for the record, I am a local merchant who has been signing checks for 20 years. I also live here. What about you?

  5. I live here and I am confident I have signed the front of many more paychecks than you. As a result, I have respect for property rights and giving businesses the freedom to serve customers based on their sense of demand. Once again, if this is the utopian Laguna Beach you desire, I encourage you to invest your own capital.

  6. Thanks Mr. Fried. I enjoyed your input, perspective and electric bike pitch! I agree with your statement wholeheartedly: “And that means not only lowering rents, but also soliciting a new breed of merchants who can survive year-round despite interruptions to the tourist industry. Not a “Gucci-fied” town of overpriced, needless ephemera, but an array of artisans and makers of quality, utilitarian goods that support our community and create an infrastructure of resilience.” If this recent economic shut down crisis hasn’t shown us what we must address regarding our town business mix and sustainability, I don’t know what will. And yes, like every other city, our businesses have changed over and over throughout our history. As long as they stay well-balanced between local and tourists needs, I’m supportive. If they only come here to do business to support the tourists…well we can see how that can go.


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