Gingerly sliding a Chanel suit down the rack, Vera Kennedy scoots past a Roberto Cavalli jersey dress to search for a Louis Vuitton animal print cashmere and silk stole a customer wants after seeing it on Instagram. Kennedy’s family business, Recycled Rags, turns 50 this month, and it is very old and very new at once. The founding family, which still runs the Corona del Mar shop, is turning to social media to help boost sales in the high-end consignment clothing store. But there is still plenty of foot traffic in an era when so many stores are being drowned by e-commerce.
Kennedy is a trim 84-year-old with blonde hair tapered at the nape in a chic undercut pixie. “We’ve been here so long we have great-granddaughters of our original customers shopping here,” she notes.
I lived in Corona del Mar more than 30 years ago, and I’ve always thought of its downtown as a twinkle-light fairyland. When I went back to wish happy birthday to the group at Recycled Rags (where I used to shop), I was stunned and a bit giddy to see so many of the old places still around. A little ways south of Recycled Rags, The Port Theater turns 70 with a Halloween masquerade party Oct. 31.
Longtime establishments abound here: Rothschild’s restaurant celebrates 43 years; Sherman Library and Gardens is 53 years old; Five Crowns restaurant, Quiet Woman, and Rogers Gardens are each 54; and even something as casual as the sports bar The Place has been around 33 years.
Most of us find comfort in the familiar, and it’s a joy to discover these spots still in place, especially when the normal trend at the beach is for our favorite hangouts to disappear and be reinvented as quickly as sandcastles.
I asked a few Corona del Mar old-timers why so many businesses have endured.
They say the same thing: It’s the way the town is set up for walking. Residents here are such walkers that about 6,000 locals turn out every December for the annual Christmas walk.
“Everything is so accessible here that it makes for a nice community,” says Paul Wormser, 53, historian and library director at Sherman Library and Gardens, which annually hosts a Flower Street party so neighbors who can walk to the gardens can meet each other.
Bernie Svalstad has served as chairman of the Corona del Mar business improvement district for 16 years and has served on the Chamber of Commerce for 15 years. He says it’s the geography of the place that promotes longevity.
“People are able to walk to the businesses in a lot of cases, so that helps the area,” he says. “There’s maybe a little more civility than in beach towns like Newport and Laguna, maybe because the businesses are not right on the beach. When you’re right on the beachfront, it may be a little tougher in the long run to get a feeling about people because they change so much.”
I wasn’t around when the Port opened in 1949, when the audience brought its own food from home, and the air was choked with cigarette smoke. But I did love seeing independent films there in the 1980s and ’90s. Just as often as not, the projector would have an issue right at the climax of the story. I recall watching a movie with a rainy scene, and there was an actual downpour funneling through the ceiling. Another time, I was rushing for the restroom, my eyes still not adjusted to the light from the theater, and I planted my Doc Marten squarely in a freshly laid patch of concrete.
In 1998, after a struggle for survival against the cineplexes, our beloved Port closed, the sad marquee announcing, simply, “Rosebud.” As the bulldozers were rolling in, a very private local philanthropist swooped in and saved it. In 2012 the theater reopened, the modern version as much a wedding and corporate event setting as it is a movie theater. Like many of its kind now, the theater has been refashioned like a leather-upholstered living room, with about 160 seats in the form of recliners and couches.
The Port will celebrate its birthday this month with a masquerade party, while Recycled Rags will mark its anniversary by upgrading its monthly parking lot sale with special refreshments and raffles.
When their store opened in 1969, Kennedy recalls her sister Audrey Patterson sitting in the middle of the floor going through piles of clothes consigned by a handful of friends. “When she made a hundred dollars, they celebrated,” she says.
Kennedy walks through the men’s department, a rarity in consignment: “We have men come in here and pick out an entire wardrobe in one day,” she says.
While she’s looking for items, I peek at other merchandise. There’s an Alexander McQueen original from when he was alive—a red, white, and blue pattern dress for $340—and a slinky jersey print Roberto Cavalli dress for $180. The clerks tell me Orange County has a lot of themed parties, and those bring in a lot of customers scrambling for a specific look: Old Hollywood; Derby; Western; East Meets West. Former customers who have long since moved away come back for a stroll down Memory Lane—“I got my prom dress here,” says one.
Despite the great variety of mid- and high-label designers at the store, the classic O.C. look, the clerks say, is a great pair of jeans, a white blouse, and an expensive belt.
“Orange County is very big but still very small at the same time,” says Laura Boomer, 33, who has been with the store for about six years.
I know exactly what she means. If you’ve lived here a few decades, it’s one big ol’ small town. “There’s a lot of overlap here. Everybody ends up looking cookie-cutter. Here, you’re going to find something that’s not cookie-cutter. This is a curated collection that’ll stand out. You’ll work with an in-house stylist for a whole head-to-toe look.”
The store, born decades before Poshmark or Ebay, has 4,000 consigners.
A bell chimes, and in walks Regina Neira of the neighborhood, in search of a hat for Opening Day at Del Mar. Recycled Rags is famous throughout Southern California as a great place to find beautiful handmade hats. Neira traces her family, the Bandels (17 children) to the second house on Jasmine in the 1930s.
I ask her why Corona del Mar businesses have such great longevity.
“The business owners live in the community, and they invest in the community,” she says. “This is a quaint town where everyone is still walking.”
But what will happen in this age when everyone buys everything on the internet? Svalstad acknowledges the losses downtown. “The businesses that survive are the ones that do a better job at keying into the local population’s interests,” he says.
I leave Recycled Rags and decide to walk the downtown. It feels a little bygone. But it’s also so full of soul and story, a place for slowing down and talking to actual people. It makes me want to stroll more, and in the weeks since I researched this column, I’ve done just that. So far, I’ve meandered downtown San Clemente, the Dana Point Harbor, and Laguna Beach. I am like many of you; I do almost all my shopping online now. But going back on foot to all our wonderful beach towns has made me more aware of what has been lost in transaction. I’m going to keep on strolling.