Laguna Beach’s Pearl Street District made its debut as a branded shopping district with its first annual holiday celebration last week. A wide variety of merchants along the three-block section of S. Coast Highway roughly bordered by Pearl and Diamond Streets decked their halls with bright lights, threw their doors open Art Walk-style and served up tasty tidbits and wine to all comers. They even chipped in to pay for carolers to serenade customers who ventured out on a chilly Thursday.
“I love it,” said Cherie Phan, who with her small dog in tow soaked up the party vibe at Blast Consignment. Phan only moved to the area four months ago and was thrilled to find so much life in her own back yard.
Victoria Burnett of San Juan Capistrano, who received Blast’s email notice about the event, was intrigued by the moniker and came to see what it was all about. “When you name your area, it develops community,” she said.
And that’s exactly what the local businesses are counting on.
“It gives these three blocks an identity,” said Chris Olsen, co-founder of the Wine Gallery, who hopes the name will stick. Already the Wine Gallery hosts Pearl Street Sessions each month, with a featured musician playing music that Laguna’s FM radio station KX 93.5, located in the same building, broadcasts live.
“We need to get people down here because we’re off the beaten path,” said Kym Sawtelle, publicist for Spa Josephine and now for the Pearl Street District.
About two years ago, business owners in the neighborhood began to sense a common energy and desire to develop an identity for the district, but they fell short of a consolidated effort.
More recently Josephine Brooks, owner of Spa Josephine, took action. She brainstormed with Kristine Thalman, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, and went door to door, asking fellow merchants to get involved.
Last month at a meeting of 35 merchants Thalman offered pointers on how to create a common identity, modeled after the HIP District. There, a similar stretch of Coast Highway retailers between Thalia and Calliope Streets began joint marketing and branding, led by the Pottery Place’s developer Joe Hanauer.
Other commercial strips have asked for similar help, said Thalman, such as the businesses on Coast Highway near Sleepy Hollow Lane, who heard Hanauer describe how the HIP District emerged.
It took time to raise awareness, along with volunteerism and a shared vision, Hanauer said in an article published last year. After a slow start, merchants pooled their resources, advertised collectively, and came up with a map of the area and HIP District banners.
“If you do nothing, you get nothing,” said Laguna gallery owner Peter Blake, who is credited with one of the first neighborhood branding successes, that of Gallery Row in North Laguna, where he opened his gallery in 1993.
Economic pressures, which drive merchants off the main drag for lower rent areas, also forces them to band together and forge an identity, said Blake, who relocated to Ocean Avenue and has made some inroads in branding that area as a shopping experience.
“Ocean Avenue is a much healthier place than I found when I moved in back in 2008,” said Blake, who teamed up with gallerist Carl Smith and organized two events in the past year to put a spotlight on the street’s mixed-use vibe. Eleven merchants joined in the first last December and 20 came on board for a Spring Soiree in April.
And though Smith has since relocated his gallery to Los Angeles, the street maintains its integrity, said Blake.
In the meantime, Thalman told the Pearl Street shopkeepers that the holiday season provided a perfect opportunity to “create a sense of there, there.” And, “that’s exactly what they did with this event,” she said.
When they met last month, merchants decided the name by vote. Pearl Street District received the most. They also agreed to advertise collectively, individual shops reached out to loyal customers, and the radio station touted the event. A few weeks later, the Pearl Street District hosted its first cooperative event.
“We need it; it brings everybody out, said Denise Levesque, owner of the vintage clothing shop Sin Is Pretty. She and other nearby shopkeepers praised the increased traffic and visibility the event yielded.
Local Tom Valter came out to see the transformation of Laguna Auto Parts into the Pearl Street General Store. “It’s so cool to see Jerry’s building reborn for the Pearl Street event,” he said, referring to Jerry Piper, owner of the iconic store who passed away last year.
His wife closed up shop in April, and longtime residents Michele and Tom Reynolds took over the space, opening an emporium of select home goods and gourmet prepared food items just days before the event. With artisanal Italian dried pastas and specialty canned sauces and soups, soon to be joined by refrigerated and frozen items, along with gourmet cheeses, wine, craft beers, Ms. Reynolds said the aim is to give customers the tools to prepare a gourmet meal at home in 20 minutes.
The couple, longtime restaurateurs who operate Costanao resort in Pescadero, tapped industry contacts to procure high quality provisions at advantageous prices. They are having fun doing business in their own neighborhood, offering good food at affordable prices, said Ms. Reynolds, who hopes to obtain approval to serve food on the premises. Reynolds has high hopes for the Pearl Street District’s new identity.
“We’re really learning about how much we need each other as neighbors,” said Sawtelle. “We can help each other. That’s been a really cool thing.”