If you shop at Target, you can get perfectly good wine glass charms in assorted colors. And at your summer party, people may politely say, "Aww, cute. I'll take pink."
But if you shop at Buy Hand in Laguna Beach, you can mark your wine glass with your favorite local beach: Brooks Street, Rockpile or Crescent.
That's the difference between Laguna and everywhere else.
Shopping local is not just a slogan, it's a lifestyle. Now critics may argue that the reason we shop local is we are trapped in Laguna and unwilling to fight traffic to get out. But we won't go there.
With the Sawdust Festival starting its summer run, shop owners are not shy about promoting local wares. Everything from wine accessories to expensive art has the "made in Laguna" label.
Shops all along Coast Highway carry eclectic, original products. Nearly all of the stores in the Sleepy Hollow area just south of downtown showcase local artists. Plans are afoot to fill the old abandoned Mosun site with a Chinese restaurant, which would improve the area's foot traffic and visibility.
"There is a local art resurgence going on in Sleepy Hollow," said Kavita Reddy, Buy Hand owner and Laguna Beach resident. "My shop carries handmade crafts — many made by local artists. Including my store, there are four shops in the two blocks of Sleepy Hollow that feature local artists. This area is fast becoming the go-to area for locally created art."
Reddy estimates about 50% of her products are made by Laguna artists. The remainder come from Southern California, with only a few outside the state.
When she first opened her store, Reddy went to the Sawdust and other shows to source potential artists. Now, they come to her.
"I have artists come in and ask to be in the store," she said. "It depends on whether it fits with the store, and price points are important. And it also depends if we have something similar. I try not to have competition among the artists."
Other nearby shops feature Laguna artists as well. Newly opened Laguna Treasures has goods by recent graduates of Laguna College of Art + Design. The AIR Gallery is known for its work with artists in recovery, and the legendary Mystic Arts co-op continues its creative mix of alternative art, clothing and sculpture.
Proud of her stretch of shops, Reddy said it's not business as usual — which is the point.
"Sleepy Hollow is channeling the best of old Laguna and modernizing herself," she said.
Further down the road, across from the Surf and Sand, is a store that opened June 21 and leverages the made-in-Laguna approach.
The Soul Project, 1516 S. Coast Hwy., not only offers local products but then gives $1 of each item sold to local groups such as the Boys and Girls Club.
Founded by husband and wife team Summer and Don Meek, the store sells specialized apparel, accessories and a distinctive assortment of Laguna lifestyle products.
The "soul" part of its name is analogous to the difference between generic big-box retailers and the local experience.
"There are unique places in the world that seem to captivate people and resonate in a way that other places don't," said Summer Meek. "These are our 'soul places,' and one of the most ironic things is that even the most beautiful places in the world face significant challenges every single day. Our idea in launching The Soul Project is to protect the future of each of these places by supporting groups that work on the future — kids and the environment — in a grass-roots way."
These are just some of the recent businesses that have arrived in Laguna with little fanfare, hoping for the right mix of foot traffic, visibility and revenue.
It's tough work.
City rules are often strict when it comes to signage. For example, the Sleepy Hollow businesses are working through the Chamber of Commerce to get the city to erect new signs. When Reddy first opened her Buy Hand store, she thought since she was only one block from downtown, people would walk over.
"No, they don't," she said. "They fall off at the top of Legion [Street] where the two gas stations are. They think it's the end. I think something as simple as signage at the top of that hill saying 'more shops and restaurants this way' would help."
Sometimes the little things can help businesses and tourists as well. Better signage, not just to parking lots, but to the business districts outside of downtown.
Because there's a whole world of Laguna waiting to be seen, one small, inventive store at a time.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.