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Whimsical stores belie struggle

After spending Labor Day weekend on Catalina Island, Valinda Martin boarded a ferry for the short trip back to Newport Beach.

The vessel bounced on the choppy water. Martin, seated in the back, landed hard as the boat rose and fell. Suddenly, she lost all sensation in her legs.


It was Sept. 6, 1993, and Martin’s been in a wheelchair ever since.

Life changed overnight for the former women’s clothing sales representative, who was used to lugging 30- to 40-pound bags in and out of her car up to seven times a day — in four-inch platform shoes.


“I always say I was born with heels on,” quipped the Corona del Mar resident who now owns Art for the Soul, imaginatively decorated gift marts on Balboa Island and in Laguna Beach.

In the turbulent months after her injury, Martin, 52, realized that she, like people who could walk, needed inspiration, creativity and joy. The presence of whimsical objects in her home renewed her appreciation for life.

Running with this idea, she established shops that beckon to passersby with colorful walls, sparkling ornaments, and positive messages printed on stones, wooden boards and license plates. Inside, vintage letters and symbols light up alongside lazy Susans, stationery, dolls and other knickknacks.

“Just seeing her beaming smile as she whips her speedy, juiced-up ride to my booth gives my heart a burst of joy,” said Kathy Wolfe, 42, of Culver City, whose handmade jewelry is among Martin’s best sellers. “She is truly one of my favorite buyers of all time. Unlike many gallery owners, she knows what she likes and is confident in her choice — a key ingredient to having a great store.”


At walking distance from the ocean, both venues trigger a sensory overload as the smell of saltwater flirts with the tinkle of chimes and tick-tock of wall clocks. The space is shared by flattened coins reading, “tenderness” and “patience,” books that remind visitors to “fight on” and artwork declaring, “Always be yourself unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn.”

Although the inventory, ranging from $2.50 to a couple thousand dollars, is admired by residents and tourists. Martin recalls a time, 15 years ago, when locals placed bets on how long she would last on the largely conservative island.

“I was change, I was color, I was the unknown,” she said. “They didn’t think I’d fit in.”

But fit in she did.


Steven Bromberg, a former Newport Beach mayor, and his wife, Ronnie, met Martin soon after she opened her doors in 1998. Blown away by the unique fare on display, the couple, who bought a multi-hued coat rack, have returned every week since.

“It’s like a toy store for adults,” he said. “It’s been a huge success story for Valinda. She really hit a home run on Balboa Island.”

Steven believes that the “big story” is much more Martin than her business.

“When we think about Valinda, we never think of someone in a wheelchair,” he added. “We think of someone who is extremely dynamic and doesn’t know how to say, ‘No.’


A new life

Martin was strangely calm in the moments following her accident but knew in her gut that she’d broken her back. Her intuition was right. A spinal cord injury rendered her paralyzed from the waist down.

After a month at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and rehabilitation in Yorba Linda, Martin realized that she would need to relearn everything from brushing her teeth to putting on shoes — activities that she, like many, had taken for granted.

It was her strong core of family and friends that helped her plow through dark moments and stopped her from fixating on things she could no longer do, like reaching up to high shelves or telling someone she’d “see them upstairs.”

For a change of pace, Martin relocated to her sister’s home in Sacramento, where she began collecting items during weekend trips. A few finds, including a pocket angel, daily messages and a Sticks mirror, became the treasure trove that launched what is now a popular haunt.

MaryKay Ebersberger, a close friend of Martin’s who thinks back to exercising and roller blading with her, recounted working at both sites a few times.

“It’s a feel-good store,” said the Palm Desert resident whose neighbors and out-of-town guests make a beeline for Art for the Soul whenever possible. “If you go in there in a bad mood, I guarantee you’ll leave in a happy mood.”

Many return with loved ones whose presents were customized and purchased there, and others show Martin trinkets they had bought several years ago.

“I’m a constant reminder for people not to let the little things get them down,” Martin said.


Staying upbeat

Having distanced herself from the ugliness of her trauma, Martin admits that it hasn’t always been easy.

She has accidentally propelled herself out of her chair, been caught by slamming doors, seen people pulling away as if she were contagious and gotten trapped in her car by inconsiderate drivers who parked too close to her door.

And then there’s the endless pain in her back — a result of sitting all the time and the metal rods that hold her upright.

Unlike other paraplegics she’s encountered, though, Martin isn’t aiming to walk again.

“I say I’m short and wide and it’s hard to get through places,” said Martin, who considers herself a problem solver constantly eyeing cracks, sand, corners and pets 10 feet ahead of her. “But my life is good. I’m blessed in so many ways that being disabled is low compared to everything else.”

A spiky-haired Martin greets customers with bright eyes and deep dimples. When asked about the importance of celebrating a 15th and 10th anniversary — the opening of her shops, respectively — in the same year she recognizes a more sober 20th one, her exuberance is replaced by tears and her voice softens, without losing its strength.

“It means I am who I am against people’s judgment,” she said. “I’m not one to dole out praise for myself, but I will give credit where it’s due — it means I kicked butt.”