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."