It's easy to tune out traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, but as Kent Kelley stands on the sidewalk before the address that once housed Mystic Arts World, the sound of passing wheels has a way of underlining the conversation.
Maybe that's because it signifies moving forward — briskly, unsentimentally — and Kelley's words have the same effect. The building at 670 S. Coast Hwy. played a major role in Laguna Beach hippie culture during the 1960s, a period that's inspired no small amount of mythology. Yet as Kelley scans the adjoining storefronts, he sounds more like an architect than a nostalgia peddler.
"These tiles were gone, so there was a ledge," he says, gesturing toward the area above the windows. "And we had Guanyin and Buddha up there, very large. And then our sign was in the middle, and all the windows were stained glass from 140-, 150-year-old Mormon temples. So it was all stained glass, and the doors were all redwood."
Forty-four years ago, Mystic Arts World, one of the countercultural havens of Orange County, burned down mysteriously. The spot where it stood is now home to a store selling handmade crafts.
Kelley doesn't voice any particularly wistful memories of Mystic Arts World, where he worked as a floor sweeper and manager. But the legacy of the old store has returned to the block in the form of Mystic Arts, a shop co-founded by Kelley that opened in October next to the old location.
He wants to emphasize one thing: The new shop is not Mystic Arts World. It's simply Mystic Arts. How it ended up with practically the same name as the old one is a long story (in a nutshell, one of the store's other founders, who hung out at Mystic Arts World as a teenager, later adopted Mystic Arts as the name of her handmade clothing label, and the founders opted to use that name for the store).
Any business that shares an approximate name with one of Timothy Leary's old haunts is bound to grab attention. Still, Kelley — who cites a much different 1960s figure, Nelson Mandela, to support his belief in favoring the future over the past — would rather create new icons in his business than honor ones from half a century ago.
"We're going forward here with this art," he says. "I know it's kind of an 'if it bleeds, it leads' theory about the past, but we're trying to reflect the future going forward with this art. We appreciate everybody's curiosity about the past, but this place reflects current-time artists who need a place in Laguna Beach to show their work."
Well, maybe he's a bit nostalgic. Later, Kelley adds, "It was nice to put that sign up there after all these years."
'It belongs to the community'
Sometimes, interviewing Kelley means sharing him. As he talks on the sidewalk this day, the conversation gets broken up twice — the first time by a young man who strides by and declares, "Morning, sir," the second by a woman who chimes a hello as she passes.
En route back to the store, Kelley explains that the man is a local artisan he has represented in Los Angeles, the woman a homeless guitarist to whom he has provided strings and a tuner. The Laguna resident, who runs the boutique Cherry Moon nearby on Pacific Coast Highway, believes strongly in win-wins, and he brought that sensibility to the table when he helped launch Mystic Arts last fall.
The business fell together almost on a whim. The spot at 664 S. Coast Hwy. became available after the last tenant moved out, and Kelley brainstormed with artist Diane Valentino, who owns the clothing line Mystic Arts, about starting a co-op gallery that would allow artists to reap the proceeds from sales.
Ten artists — Valentino, Helen McNamara, Rachel Goberman, David Nelson, Lance and Donna Jost, Terrell Washington Anansi, Nansea Williams, Michelle Holt and Ryan Gourley — ultimately came together. Kelley, who declines to give himself an official job title, serves as Gourley's representative and contributes T-shirts and other items for sale.
The shop has a tone of spiritual balance, beginning with the installation on the front door: the word "coexist" draped on a string in multicolored letters. The glass case in the corner stocks copies of the Bhagavad Gita. Around the shop are painted acoustic guitars and sculptures of women's torsos covered in grout and mirror glass; a small flight of stairs leads down to a section of clothing and purses.
The artists take turns minding the cash register, with a simple rule for proceeds: If one of them sells an artwork personally to a customer, he or she takes all the money. If an artist facilitates a sale of a colleague's work, 90% goes to the artist and 10% to the one who made the transaction.
Mystic Arts doesn't provide a main source of income for its founders, but it may not need to. The members exhibit at the Sawdust Art Festival and elsewhere, leaving their new endeavor to be a side passion.
"Kent doesn't feel like it belongs to him," Valentino says. "I don't feel like it belongs to me. We feel like it belongs to all of the artists. And it belongs to the community."
Into the mystic
When Kelley took a job at Mystic Arts World in the late 1960s, it offered a sense of community. But it also offered an alternative to pulling weeds for a living.
At a time when Simon and Garfunkel sang about countless cars on the freeway "all come to look for America," the 18-year-old Kelley and a friend took an odyssey of their own from Chicago to Laguna. The two scraped together enough money to buy a custom Mini Cooper and headed to the coastal city, where the friend's mother lived. To Kelley, California seemed like a distant utopia: one shimmering beach from north to south.
For a while, he pulled weeds for a friend for less than $20 a day, but when he got word one Monday that a floor sweeper hadn't shown up for a shift at Mystic Arts World — a shop founded by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love that sold beads, spiritual books, vegan food and other countercultural staples — he offered to take it. The same thing happened on the next shift, and Kelley soon became a regular member of the Mystic Arts World scene.
He's careful to stress that he never actually belonged to the Brotherhood, a bohemian group that followed the "turn on, tune in and drop out" teachings of former Harvard professor and LSD advocate Leary. The Brotherhood opened Mystic Arts World in 1967 and, as Kelley recalls, largely left the 20-some employees to run the store. Leary dropped in on occasion to check out the metaphysical books.
Kelley, who visited Leary shortly before his death in 1996, has mixed feelings about the Brotherhood's role model.
"I think he was a little too willy-nilly on, you know, everyone taking LSD and stuff like that," he says. "I wasn't a proponent or an advocate of that. Nor did I join any brotherhood, nor did we have meetings, nor did I pay dues. It was actually: I got a job, literally."
Kelley also doesn't recall seeing much of what netted Mystic Arts World its more infamous reputation. While he remembers pot-smoking in the meditation room, he glimpsed little of the more extreme side of the store — which, according to Nicholas Schou in his book "Orange Sunshine," helped "transform Laguna Beach into the epicenter of Orange County's acid scene, where teenagers from as far away as San Diego and Glendale knew they could find the most powerful LSD anyone had to offer."
The tale of the Brotherhood would play out in court for years — the Orange County Grand Jury indicted 46 alleged members in 1972, with multiple convictions to follow — but the saga of Mystic Arts World ended June 4, 1970, when the shop burned down overnight. Sawdust veteran Dion Wright, whose "Taxonomic Mandala" painting hung in the meditation room, believes members of the right-wing John Birch Society lit up the building and even says the "ringleader" of the act once bragged about it to him, unaware of whom he was addressing.
A resurrected scene
Mystic Arts may not be Mystic Arts World, but will a shop with such a similar name, situated next door to 670 S. Coast Hwy., cause the public to draw connections? Schou, who has covered the Brotherhood era for OC Weekly, suspects that it will.
"Along with Sound Spectrum, those are really the only two places you can point at that connect the Laguna of today to the Laguna of the 1960s," he says, referring to the record store that has been in business since 1967. "It could be something that spreads pretty fast. I already have people emailing me from as far as Montana asking about this shop."
It's unclear whether any resentments linger, but those who have pleasant memories of the old shop may find kindred spirits in the new one. Gourley once provided tie-dye artwork for Mystic Arts World, while Valentino used to ditch school to spend the day there with friends. Donna Jost, who moved to Laguna Beach as a teenager in 1966, would browse through the store with her sisters when she grew fed up with her job as a maid.
When she heard, five decades later, that her fellow artists were considering Mystic Arts for their boutique's name, she felt giddy.
"It was a fun time," she says, laughing. "The '60s was fun."
Now, the owners are looking to spread that vibe. Mystic Arts features a guest artist every month and has a slew of events — film screenings, book signings, poetry readings, children's art displays — on its docket. On March 15, the owners plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the surfing documentary "The Endless Summer" with a signing by co-star Mike Hynson and a fashion show of bikinis created by Holt.
Of course, in the true spirit of the counterculture, not everything has to be structured. One of Jost's favorite moments occurred when the store's small seating area, which offers a pair of mismatched chairs by the front door, led to an impromptu friendship.
"One of the things that I remember Kent and Diane talking about when we were all here, before anything was in here, was about creating a gathering place and putting chairs around," she says from behind the counter midway through her shift. "We talked one time about putting a little love seat in here so people just come and sit and visit.
"And Sunday — you weren't here then, but we had that. We had these two women come in separately. One lady had her granddaughter. They didn't know each other, and they started talking, you know, with the little girl and stuff. And they sat in these two chairs for about 45 minutes, and we all chatted and everything. It was really neat."
Address: 664 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
Specialty: Artwork, spirituality and clothing (guest artist Karen Petty will have works on display through Feb. 30)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Information: (949) 491-4563