Even though any potential customers had already scurried home by 9:30 p.m., Gina Marie Harris went straight to her new Seaside Interiors design store and threw open the doors Tuesday after winning approval from the City Council to finally conduct business despite other downtown merchants opposing “unfair” competition.
Ensuring that the store opened for business the next day, the council supported the Planning Commission’s earlier thumbs-up for the Ocean and Beach Avenue design shop with one condition: Harris must display one-of-a-kind merchandise on 60 percent of her 900-square-foot display floor.
“We’re down for that,” said Mark Christy, co-owner of Tuvalu Home Furnishings who, along with four other downtown area home décor storeowners, filed the appeal protesting the store’s opening, “providing she (Harris) lives up to her email saying she would respect this very, very, very fine vendor list.”
Disclosing what they considered “trade secrets,” the group of shop owners known as the Beach Forest Association revealed their coveted product supplier lists in an attempt to show the council that too much of the same things results in unfair competition.
“If we’re not unique, we’re just going to shoot each other in the foot,” said Christy, who also owns Hobie Surf Shop. “I’ve looked in the window; it’s shocking,” added Christy’s sister and Tuvalu partner Laurie Alter. “It’s the same vendors on her floor and my floor. I beg to differ that it’s a different look.”
With doors locked on a completely stocked, decorated and customer-ready store for more than a month, Harris said 60 percent of her display products, particularly the furniture, are already custom-made by her and her daughter Natasha. “We’re beyond just one style,” said Harris. “What we create is unique for every individual client that comes in.”
Christy told the council that Harris sent an email to her downtown competitors on May 13 asking for a list of vendors they didn’t want her to carry and promising not to replicate the same products. Harris said she couldn’t recall the specifics of the numerous emails sent between the merchants.
“It wasn’t in the sense, ‘Tell me absolutely everything you don’t want me to carry in my store and I’ll never carry it,’” Harris explained to the council. “It was in the sense, ‘Let’s sit down and go over what we can do and work together.’” Paul Mosley from The Laguna Colony Company gift and home store at 384 Forest Ave. described the email exchanges as “hostile” in tone.
“We have taken this leap of faith,” added Christy. “We’re taking her at her word. When you run a retail store, your vendor list is sacred, it is your life blood, it is something you protect more than your social security number.”
Harris rebutted by saying that using completely different vendors is impossible. “I do understand that there are certain vendors we all pull from,” she said, “but each of these vendors has thousands of items. To tell me, ‘You can’t use any particular vendor,’ is absurd.” She said she has set up exclusive product agreements with overlapping vendors.
To emphasize the unique character of her store, Harris said some of her vintage pieces are made from iron gates and 50-year-old conveyor belts. “My interior design speaks for itself,” she said. “The amount of revenue and the people I can bring to that part of town speaks for itself.”
The Beach Forest Associates spearheaded by Christy protested the opening of Seaside Interiors based on “saturation of similar/identical uses” as established in the Downtown Specific Plan. Christy said the storeowners pared down their list of 1,200 vendors to the exclusive 65 suppliers considered “defining” vendors. Of the “defining” vendors, 15 were also on Harris’s list, according to an impromptu accounting between City Manager John Pietig and City Atty. Phil Kohn.
“The problem is that the other merchants can’t control their vendors,” commented local resident Ronald Kaufman. “We need to apologize for creating a tempest in a teapot, welcome the new merchant to Laguna and work everything out together.”
Another resident who has known Harris for 25 years said even the same product in both stores shouldn’t cause concern. “People think it’s a private club down here and it’s not,” said Scott Woodard. “It’s the service as opposed to just product lines. The free market will determine who and what will survive in town.”
The new store, said Harris’s landlord, Harjit Bagga, will bring needed foot traffic to Ocean Avenue. “Forest Avenue is alive already,” he said. “We need all the help we can get for Ocean Avenue. If there’s 100 people who walk on Forest Avenue, 10 people walk on Ocean Avenue. We need local business owners and she’s local. Just help Ocean Avenue to come alive and be prosperous.”
Basking in the light of esthetically placed upscale lamps and sitting on designer sofas in a shop where shelves of vitamin bottles and protein powders once stood, Harris, her daughter and friend Ann Singer were “just being girls, just talking, and greatly relieved to be able to open the next day.
“We weren’t able to open for over a month because of Mark Christy’s appeal,” Harris continued. “When you’re a mother-daughter team and you invest your life’s savings into opening up something so dear to your heart that’s been a lifelong dream, it’s a really special moment to be given the go-ahead unanimously by both the planning commission and the city