Upscale in Ojai : Some Locals Say Influx of Chic Shops Has Obliterated Small-Town Charm
Before the specialty shops and the expensive jewelry and the designer clothes, there was the dime store and the chiropractor’s office and the local water company.
And before the tourists and the traffic jams on weekends, there was time enough for local residents and merchants to spend their days “just chewing the fat.”
Colleen McDougal remembers the old days in Ojai, when the downtown Arcade shopping area still projected a sleepy and rustic ambience. Before downtown Ojai took on a tone of trendy polish.
In the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual for a merchant in the Arcade to look out a store window on a Saturday or Sunday and see empty sidewalks, few, if any, cars coming down Ojai Avenue, and plenty of empty parking spaces.
People downtown were likely to be familiar faces just visiting with merchants and friends, said McDougal, a longtime Ojai resident and president-elect of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce.
“It was a cracker barrel-style town,” she said.
Nowadays, however, the sidewalks are crowded in downtown Ojai on weekends with out-of-town shoppers strolling three and four abreast past display windows.
Empty parking spaces are snapped up as quickly as stray dollar bills, and Ojai Avenue is often bumper-to-bumper with traffic. Locals say they have a hard time finding anyone they know amid the activity.
Equally noticeable is the change in the kind of businesses that have attracted the milling crowds to the Arcade.
Gone are the Christian Science Reading Room and many of the small businesses that served the daily and sundry needs of locals. In their place, since 1989, have emerged the specialty stores that make Ojai an attractive weekend getaway for out-of-town shoppers.
The new tourist-oriented atmosphere has put many longtime Ojai residents on edge. Some feel that downtown merchants don’t care about residents anymore.
“There’s an underlying grumbling among an awful lot of people, especially among people with local services that don’t necessarily serve tourists,” McDougal said. “Local people pretty much avoid downtown.”
Betsy Hauenstein, who grew up in Ojai and works as a clerk at the Indian Shop, an Arcade store that sells Western souvenirs, said that while the tourist trade has been good for business, she misses the days when she and her friends had reason to shop downtown.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “I’d like to be able to find a few things to buy downtown, but on the other hand it’s more fun to bring visitors and company here now.”
Not all Arcade merchants are willing or able to change with the times.
Pete Pederson, owner of Jovonne’s Deli, a no-frills eatery that has been in the Arcade since 1982, said he has been considering closing or moonlighting in another business since learning that his landlord plans to double his rent when his lease expires in July.
“Here we are with our feet in a recession and he’s doubling my rent,” Pederson said. “There just isn’t enough foot traffic Monday through Friday. I may just ask for half the space and make it more into a fast-food takeout business.”
When he complained to his landlord, Stan Lazarus, about the proposed rent increase, he was angered that Lazarus suggested Pederson change his plain-and-simple style of doing business.
“You know what he said? ‘I guess you should put in a tearoom,’ ” Pederson recalled. “Well, look, I ain’t a tearoom person.”
Pederson took the tearoom talk to be a reference to Tottenham Court, an Arcade business that some say epitomizes Ojai’s transformation from rustic to refined.
Tottenham Court, conspicuous within the Mexican-style Arcade architecture, is a 3-year-old English-style tearoom where customers nibble on dainty sandwiches and sip from porcelain cups.
“When Tottenham Court came in and remodeled their storefront and put in their tearoom, everyone stood up and took notice,” recalls Arcade businessman Sal Lucido, owner of Blue Sky Music. Other Arcade shops also were given face lifts about the same time.
“It’s called keeping up with the Joneses,” Lucido said.
Rent increases are part of the evolution. Lucido said rent for his shop has “nearly tripled” in the last 11 years.
His tape and compact disc business remains healthy, but other businesses have not been as fortunate.
Lucido estimated that in the last 10 years he has seen “easily 20 to 30" businesses fail underneath the Arcade’s picturesque earth-toned arches.
Lazarus, a landlord for six Arcade shops and owner of Ojai Village Pharmacy, welcomes the new atmosphere and is unapologetic about increasing his rents.
“Ojai is going upscale,” Lazarus said. “We’re going uptown. Businesses have to change with the times.
“Rents in the Arcade are a bargain,” Lazarus said. “These tenants have been spoiled all these years. It’s cheap rent, less than Beverly Hills, less than La Jolla. I definitely see a comparison. Ojai has a lot of atmosphere, a lot of class.”
Lazarus said he will be raising Pederson’s rent from about 75 cents a square foot to about $1.50 a square foot.
In comparison, tenants in the Mervyn’s and Kmart shopping centers in Ventura pay between $1 and $1.60 a square foot, according to commercial real estate agent Jim Carr. Rents along Main Street in Ventura range from about 45 cents to $1.25 a square foot, Carr said.
Khaled Al-Awar, a former president of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce and landlord for four Arcade shops, said he charges his tenants between $1 and $1.25 a square foot. He said his rents are “reasonable” but admitted that running a business in downtown Ojai isn’t an easy road to riches.
“Anyone who moves to Ojai to become a millionaire doesn’t understand Ojai,” Al-Awar said. “People pay a price to live here. They sacrifice. It’s a charming community. The lifestyle is worth the price.”
McDougal said many residents frown on the idea of Ojai becoming a Beverly Hills and the Arcade a version of Rodeo Drive.
“I don’t know if that’s what Ojai wants,” she said. “Longtime locals cringe when they’re told that’s what’s happening.
“Ojai still has an awful lot of blue-collar people who want to be treated nicely. They don’t want to be looked down upon if they go into a store and aren’t wearing the right kind of clothes,” she said.
“But becoming more upscale isn’t necessarily bad,” she added. “An upscale attitude doesn’t have to reflect snobbery. There are some upscale businesses in Ojai that do reflect snobbery, but there are other upscale stores that don’t treat people with snobbery and are still friendly and small town.”