Stroll down a stretch of Ventura’s Thompson Boulevard and here is what you will see: car lots, barren asphalt, fast-food places, lube shops, sad motels, a pawnshop, a storefront church, a few bars, a couple of strip malls and a bit of Wow!
The last is provided by Jodi Brandt, a single mother and part-time mermaid, who dived into the city bureaucracy 2 1/2 years ago and finally surfaced with permission to open a flower stand.
This amazed everyone involved. Brandt had made frequent pilgrimages up the steps of City Hall, only to be told that no, the city couldn’t possibly accommodate yet another--that is, a third--flower stand. To open a business, she would need a building with a foundation, plumbing, power lines, handicapped access--everything but a boardroom and a clinic for passersby suddenly stricken by the smell of begonias.
But the city relented. For the last three weeks, Brandt has peddled posies from a yellow gazebo with lace curtains in a bookstore parking lot at Thompson and San Clemente. Like a visitor to black-and-white Pleasantville, she has added a splash of color to a street that runs the entire spectrum from drab to forlorn.
Cynics might say that a flower stand on Thompson works the same cosmetic effect as rouge on a corpse, but I disagree. In fact, as the city is poised to raise millions of dollars for the redevelopment of what it has declared a blighted area, it might look up for a moment from its jargon-rich “visioning plans” and simply start with a pot on every corner and a flower in every pot.
But Brandt is no urban planner. At 33, she has the standard credentials of any other free spirit: aerobics instructor on Kauai; banana saleswoman for La Conchita’s defunct Seaside Gardens; costume designer for a film called “Trance”; guest shots in a couple of V-8 commercials; mermaid for special events at Ventura Harbor.
And most surprisingly--after 10 years of on-again, off-again vending at flower stands in Santa Barbara and Ventura--proprietor.
“I feel it’s a kind of collective of who I am and what I do,” Brandt told me.
I didn’t know what she meant, but the feeling was there and that’s what counted. A tall woman, Brandt perched on a bar stool next to the stand, her long blond hair cascading down in a way that made perfect sense for a mythical creature of the sea. A lush display of lilies and roses, irises and gladiolus swayed with the breeze.
Her 9-year-old daughter, Savannah, and a friend were playing in the parking lot on this afternoon off from school. A couple of Brandt’s friends--fellow moms from Pierpont Elementary School--came by with their kids, who also started playing. A few drivers gave Brandt the thumbs-up. Another friend --a Panamanian oil-rig worker en route to Big Sur for massage training--also stopped to smell the flowers.
Brandt recounted her first attempt to engage the powers-that-be in City Hall.
“I went in in my jeans and boots and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jodi and I want to open a flower stand.’ That got me nowhere.
“But six months later, I came in with a briefcase and a business plan, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jodi, and I want to open a flower stand.’ And that was totally useless.”
Brandt realized she would win no friends among the city’s florists. The competition for your bouquet buck is keen; once, selling Valentine’s Day flowers from a table approved by the city in a store parking lot, Brandt found her truck triple-padlocked--the work, she thinks, of a vengeful florist.
Still, she persisted. She made herself a familiar presence in city offices. She appeared before a neighborhood group. She lobbied, enlisting the support of Councilman Brian Brennan, whose native Dublin overflows with pubs and flower stands. Two other Pierpont friends--a lawyer named Kevin Fillo and his wife Heidi, a business consultant--volunteered their time.
“Frankly,I didn’t think it could be done, given the regulatory environment and her lack of capital and her lack of business training,” Fillo said. “But she wouldn’t let the idea die.”
As Fillo saw it, the city felt approving the stand would also mean approving every miserable T-shirt shack that came down the pike.
“But there has to be a niche for a reasonable business of this type,” he said. “We’re not talking about guys hanging carpets on the side of a building and being gone the next day. We’re talking about a permanent business with limited infrastructure. Why couldn’t you have a guy in a kiosk renting bicycles, for that matter? It’s a way of adding color to Ventura.”
Someone at City Hall--neither Brandt nor Fillo knows who--evidently agreed.
“It was a staff decision,” Brennan said. “Someone said let’s take a chance.”
So Brandt wound up with her flower stand and Thompson Boulevard wound up with a classy-looking corner. Brandt even cultivated the weedy dirt strip between the sidewalk and San Clemente Street, dotting it with jade plants and other greenery.
“I don’t know who owns it,” she said. “I just decided to do it.”