Shane Smith never thought the Ocean Beach resident-activist bomb would blow up in his face. He and his wife Heidi have been running Blondstone Jewelry Studio in O.B. for 10 years, with Heidi making the jewelry and Shane running some of the business end. Other business owners warned him to not to criticize the local farmers market. People will go nuts, they said.
“I was like, ‘C'mon, no they won't,'” Shane told CityBeat.
On Wednesdays, Blondstone's block on Newport Avenue between Bacon and Cable streets is transformed into the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, a conglomeration of produce sellers, crafts vendors and prepared-food sellers. The market has been a part of O.B. for 17 years and has grown to the point where, on a good night, it attracts 3,000 people. It pulls in people from other parts of the city and residents who swing by to shop for vegetables, grab a tamale and let their kids go for a llama ride.
But as it expanded, the market also acquired a fringe of unlicensed vendors, some who'd set up tables on the sidewalk to sell handcraft goods, but others who'd sell imported wares from factories in China. In 2004, the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association (OBMA), the business-improvement district that runs the market, added a side parking lot as an artisans area, and it was this addition that troubled the Smiths.
“Wednesday night went from being my best night to my worst,” Shane said, sitting alongside Heidi in a back room of their shop.
Shane sent a letter to the OBMA, asking them to reduce the market back to its pre-2004 size. The OBMA declined. He and the association went back and forth for years, until last summer, when Shane called in the government. He contacted the police, the mayor and anyone else he could think of who might look at the permits for the market and other craft fairs that happen in O.B. throughout the year.
The wheels of bureaucracy began to turn: Inspectors from the city and county scrutinized the permits and began to walk the fair, talking to people and checking for violations. The OBMA made some changes: Many of the vendors who sold factory-made goods were tossed out, and the unlicensed table-top vendors were cleared from the sidewalk. The OBMA formed an artisans committee to screen crafts vendors and invited Heidi Smith to sit on it.
Vendors who work the market today told CityBeat they're actually pretty happy with some of the changes, since it's easier for people to move around the market and there's a greater focus on handmade goods. But O.B. residents are fiercely protective of what some call California's last real beach village. This is the neighborhood that held rallies to stop Starbucks from opening and stared down an international oil conglomerate that wanted to build a new gas station. Blondstone's complaints to government officials were considered the wrong way of going about things because they invited unwanted outside attention, but the community remained mostly quiet.
But then came the llama removal. As part of their inspection, county health officials found that the market's three riding llamas were kept too close to food sellers. For a brief period, the llamas were gone. Word spread through the community that it stemmed from Blondstone's complaints, and the O.B. resident-activist bomb exploded: Groups of people started coming into Blondstone to complain and harass the clerks; Blondstone's e-mail box filled up with messages telling them to get out of Ocean Beach; stickers were distributed through the market that read “No BS in OB.”
“Parents brought their children in here so the kid could ask, ‘Why did you take the llamas away?'” Shane said. “My wife was just devastated.”
The llama-permitting problem was soon fixed, but the neighborhood was on the alert. Shane's attempt to shrink the market was processed by the rumor mill as an attempt to get rid of it entirely, along with the Holiday Parade and other local events. At the end of January, the O.B. Town Council, a citizens group, circulated a flyer inviting people to a meeting to rally support for the market and against Blondstone. Shane attended the meeting, and he said it was awful, with speakers attacking them and their store.
“It's been the stress that's been so bad,” Shane said. As he described these events, Heidi pulled her legs up on the chair and looked at her knees. Shane's face was flushed, and he clasped his hands so tightly that his fingers turned white. “My wife has ended some days curled up on the floor, crying,” he said.
OBMA executive director Denny Knox says the community's reaction is not her fault, but she feels the OBMA has bent over backward to accommodate the Smiths, yet they refuse to be satisfied. She said the Smiths have gone out to other craft events and harassed vendors and volunteers, and now they're doing the same to vendors at the market.
She considers the Smiths bad apples in an event that's good for the community and good for business.
“Shane Smith is the only one to ever complain about the farmers market,” she said.
But Shane says it's because other store owners were too scared to speak up. CityBeat walked parts of Newport Avenue that are near the farmers market and found that while some stores described huge sales boosts on Wednesdays, others dreaded the night. Most nay-sayers refused to speak on the record for fear of local backlash, but Marcaine Sowards-Oelke, co-owner of Girls From the Park, is closing shop. She doesn't blame the market for killing her business, but it didn't help, she said.
“We got no business those nights, and we had to keep an extra look-out for shoplifters.”
Knox said the OBMA would reach out to those businesses, but she added that it had already explored many proposed solutions and rejected them. By now, the OBMA has resolved its permit issues with the city and seems content. The market is still thriving, and the llamas are back. It seems the only open question is whether Blondstone will remain at its O.B. location (there is a La Jolla branch). Heidi and Shane admit business is down, but they're not going anywhere.“I'll never leave O.B.,” Heidi said. “Never.”