Back to Top

Laguna Logo

The Unbelievable Backstory Behind Michael Minutoli,

Laguna’s gregarious greeter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

June 20, 2011 began like any other day for Michael Minutoli. He went to work at Marbella Farmers Market in San Juan Capistrano, where he called himself a delitician, slicing meats and making sandwiches. He entertained his customers with fantastic stories and free samples, because Michael tries to make every day fun. 

Once he got off work that afternoon, he met his two buddies – a street preacher from Connecticut and a homeless guitarist from Boston – at the Main Beach Starbucks, a bag of the day’s unsold paninis in hand. After finishing his coffee, Michael stood up and said, “I’m going to start saying hi to the city.” His pals looked confused. Michael walked out to the juncture of Forest and Park Avenues and PCH, in front of Chantilly Ice Cream, and began to wave as the cars whooshed past. That day marked the birth of Laguna’s fourth greeter. 

Michael Minutoli greeter

Click on photo for a larger image

Laguna’s fourth greeter, Michael Minutoli

Some folks around town doubted Michael’s resolve. “I’ll give you ‘til lunchtime,” a local postman told him. A policeman threatened to cite him several times. “I don’t like what you’re doing here,” he told Michael. A stranger assaulted him, coming up from behind and dealing a significant blow to the top of Michael’s head. Michael took it all in stride. His two friends followed him, supporting him from the sidelines every day, telling him, “Go for it, Michael!” So he kept waving at passing cars, shaking pedestrians’ hands, and dancing to his own beat.

There are many things most people don’t know about Michael. The dancing man on the corner, with his wild costumes and sometimes striking face paint, has a story you might not believe.

Growing up Minutoli

Michael was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, the tenth of 10 children – three sisters and six brothers – on December 2, 1959. With a family so large, there wasn’t an abundance of time or money, and Michael wasn’t burdened by a lot of supervision. As the last kid, he spent the most time with his dad. “I grew up in barrooms, laundromats, and racetracks,” he says. His dad liked to gamble – dogs or horses, it didn’t matter much. Michael describes his mother as a creative eccentric, a beauty and a natural entertainer. His father, Michael says, looked like Humphrey Bogart. “I probably got my social skills from my dad,” he says. “And my personality from my mother.”

But before Michael could come of age, tragedy struck. When he was only 11, Michael lost his brother, Anthony. What his family mistook for seizures were actually a series of small heart attacks. The doctor gave surgery 50/50 odds. His parents opted out. Anthony would suffer his final heart attack at age 12, while playing with his friends. “I should have been there,” Michael says. 

Michael Minutoli close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Michael’s difficult childhood may have informed the man he became

Anthony’s memory lives on in Michael’s own son, who’s named after Anthony, as well as Michael’s grandson – also Anthony. 

What losing a sibling does to a child, and his family, is impossible to calculate. Michael’s father spiraled in grief. His mother would live only another seven years. Whether those experiences taught Michael to embrace life, take risks, seize opportunities, and live big – who can say? But loss rarely comes without consequence.

The red carpet crasher

When Michael mentioned his hobby was crashing parties, I pictured local shindigs – beach barbeques or pool parties, swiping hotdogs and beer. I didn’t imagine Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, celebrity post-parties, and movie premieres. 

In 1989, Michael made his way backstage at a Madonna concert. He hobnobbed with the singer and got his picture with her. Since then, crashing celebrity parties became an obsession. He has photos of himself with over 1,200 stars (that count, taken over a decade ago, is surely stale). A quick Google search shows Michael posing with Barbra Streisand, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, Ben Stiller, Henry Kissinger, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Jackson, Bono…you get the point. 

Michael shared the stage with Grammy winner André 3000 of OutKast, holding the golden statue while André accepted the award. He jumped on top of Billy Joel’s piano as Joel performed with Elton John. Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor both kissed him.

Michael became notorious enough to earn himself profiles in The New York Times, L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and a spot on The Today Show.

Michael Minutoli hi sign

Click on photo for a larger image

Michael infuses everything he does with unstoppable energy

The 2008 documentary Crash Artist: Beyond the Red Carpet tells Michael’s tale. It’s a film in equal measure entertaining and tragic, portraying a fun-loving guy brimming with stories, star sightings, and celebrity photos, but who also lost a great deal in the process. 

Unlike Laguna’s previous greeters, Michael was once a family man. In ninth grade, he met his one life love, Debbie, at a church social in Attleboro. They moved together from Massachusetts to Orange County on Valentine’s Day, 1980. Here they had their two children. 

Anthony and Ashley grew up shadowing their dad. They posed with stars, and saw all the latest movies before their friends.

Now that Michael’s children are grown, they sometimes struggle to understand their dad’s choices, according to Minutoli. But their faces light up talking about all those fantastic childhood memories too, he says.

Michael’s unconventional lifestyle – his obsession with crashing parties, his difficulty holding steady employment, and his decision to live homeless – ultimately cost him his marriage and access to much of his family, he says. But Michael sees this as choice, instead of loss. For him, homelessness is a decision and one that he accepts. He’s neither panhandler nor substance abuser. But he’s happily traded conformity, security, and material possessions for life lived on his own terms and the impact he can make on the street. 

While that might mean losing touch with family, he’s in constant contact with the everyman. That’s a theme that unites Laguna’s greeters.

The making of a greeter

Are Laguna’s greeters born or made? The question, though never overtly addressed, nonetheless underlies the 2015 documentary The Greeter

The film traces the nearly 130-year history of greeters – four men united by their eccentricities and a passion for making people smile. Old Joe Lucas, Laguna’s first, was a Portuguese fisherman who greeted stagecoaches instead of cars. He began in 1880, the year after Orange County was incorporated, holding a trident instead of a staff. Eiler Larsen, the most iconic and celebrated of the bunch, didn’t arrive in Laguna until 1942. He came from Denmark to pursue his “mission of friendliness,” which lasted until his death in 1975. No. 1 Unnamed Archer got his name for being the firstborn twin (his brother, No. 2). He was known for telling people they were “perfect.” Michael assumed the mantle two years after No. 1’s passing, in 2011, and has held it since.

Michael Minutoli with statue

Click on photo for a larger image

Michael, posing with a statue of Eiler Larsen, has made the job his own

Uniting these unlikely men are a few commonalities. They’re all a little eccentric. They all desired connection, and wanted to shake people out of their monotonous routines to see each other in a different light. They all felt called to the position.

Changing lives – one smile and wave at a time

Michael says he’s learned a lot about humanity in the past eight years. “Humans love to love, and they love to be loved,” he says. “You have no idea what a smile and a wave can do for a stranger.” Three stories stand out among the many. 

One Newport Beach woman had been on the receiving end of Michael’s waves for a long time. One day, she handed him an envelope and asked him not to open it until she’d gone. The woman confessed she’d been going through difficult times, and had considered taking her life, but it was her connection to Michael that stopped her. 

Another couple gave Michael a bird colonel coin of recognition (an honor usually reserved for military men).

Timothy Vorenkamp, an 18-year-old Laguna volleyball star who died of a rare bone cancer in 2016, put lunch with Michael on his short bucket list. He wanted to understand Michael’s unwavering positivity, and “what made him tick.” It wasn’t a wish Tim could fulfill, but Michael still does a fundraiser for Tim’s “Live for Others” foundation each year.

Michael Minutoli reflection

Click on photo for a larger image

Michael captured in a quiet moment of reflection

But then there are the cruel. “Some people like to humiliate me,” he says. “They throw things, sometimes they hit me. I don’t react.” Michael recently met with Father O’Gorman – who both baptized and married Michael and Debbie in 1984 – to help him through the hostility he experiences on the street. “You’ve taken on a very mystical, spiritual, symbolic thing in this town,” Father O’Gorman told Michael, offering a prayer of protection. “Don’t you worry. You were chosen to do this.” 

Michael grew up Catholic. He describes himself as mystical and spiritual, and says he’s accepted Jesus as his savior. He sees meaning in dates and numbers. He’s no believer in coincidence, and quick to draw cosmic connections. Father O’Gorman’s observations were what Michael needed. 

“That helped me with the opposition,” says Michael. “I read somewhere that the more opposition you have, it means you’re important and doing something very special. It doesn’t come without [consequences].”

The next morning, Michael felt like a new man. “I don’t do this for fame,” he says. “I give it all I’ve got. I don’t wear sunglasses because I want to look people in the eyes. I’ve got to be real on that corner. I deal with families, the elderly, and everything in between. I’m overwhelmed by it.” At least one encounter causes Michael to cry every day. He’s a sensitive guy, and the job takes an emotional toll.

Is that dancing or Russian roulette?

If you’ve lived in Laguna long enough, you might remember Michael as the man who danced with waves down on Main Beach. For years, he took long runs in the wet sand with his Walkman, jumping – fully clothed and frenetic – into the ocean. He favored full moons. His shadow, as one local described it, looked like it was dancing on the water. “On warm nights, the shore breaks are really big,” Michael says in the The Greeter. “I follow the high tides and play Russian roulette with the shore breaks.”

Did Michael dance with the waves or play Russian roulette with them? That tension seems present in everything he does. Did Michael party with Hollywood’s stars, or tempt the event staff to bust him? Did he lose his family or gain a whole town? Is he greeting or gambling as he draws cheers and occasional scorn? 

Michael Minutoli pointing

Click on photo for a larger image

Greeter or gambler, Michael has fun playing with his audience

Recently, someone threw a takeout container from a moving car at Michael – an untouched burger sealed inside a clear plastic carton. It hit the curb and exploded at his feet. But as Michael describes it, the scene was beautiful. The plastic caught the streetlight, illuminating the lettuce and tomato. “It would have made such a beautiful picture,” he says, “if someone was there to capture it.” 

That sums Michael up – a man who chooses to turn ugly moments into beautiful ones, and sees light in other people’s darkness. One person’s risk is another man’s reward. 

The greeters’ Rorschach test

Maybe Laguna’s greeters are Rorschach tests for our town. They reflect our joys and they mirror our fears. Laguna is either a small town of bohemians and eccentrics, or we’re a swanky city on California’s golden coast. We’re an artistic mecca or a quaint throwback. We’re hippies and entrepreneurs. We’re homeless. We’re billionaires. We’re idealists and we’re jaded. We’re beach bums. We’re celebrities. We’re accepting and we’re suspicious.

It’s hard to look at Michael and not be impacted – he’s that kind of guy. Most of us, once we’ve watched Michael a few times, are endeared by his charms, won over by his warmth, and uplifted by his energy. He’s quintessential Laguna – beautiful and baffling and complicated. 

Laguna Logo

Carol Carlson: Opening the doors at Laguna’s youth shelter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Waymakers Laguna Beach Youth Shelter (formerly Community Services Programs) will celebrate 40 years of service this year. The six-bed shelter for youths between the ages of 11 and 17 supports youths and their families who are in crisis. Carol Carlson is the shelter’s Program Director, Children’s Crisis Residential Program, a position she has held for the last 10 years. That she spends her days (and sometimes nights) working with youths in crisis is still somewhat surprising to this former banker whose involvement with the shelter began as a volunteer over 20 years ago. “If you had told me then that I’d be doing this now, I would not have believed it,” says Carlson energetically. And yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point,” she adds. 

A first ever open house for the youth shelter on March 14th

I was fortunate enough to visit Carlson at the Laguna Beach shelter. For obvious reasons, it isn’t a place that is generally open to the public to tour. However, to celebrate their 40 years and as a thank you to the community for their support, Carlson is hosting an open house at the shelter on March 14 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is the first time such an event will be held at the shelter. There will be a shuttle running from the Neighborhood Congregational Church all day as parking is tight. “We work really hard to be a good neighbor,” says Carlson.

Over the shelter’s 40 years, the mission has never changed

While being a good neighbor is important to Carlson and staff, their primary mission is to help youths in crisis. In its 40 years that mission has not changed. However, the crises the kids face have definitely evolved, according to Carlson. She handed me a sheet of paper documenting the changes over the last four decades. 

Carol Carlson close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Carol Carlson has been with the Waymakers Laguna Beach youth shelter for 20 years. She is currently the Program Director, Children’s Crisis and Residential Program.

Same mission, different issues

From 1979-89, the shelter’s clients were split 50/50 boys and girls. Most were runaways referred by law enforcement and cigarette smoking was the substance of choice. After two weeks, 91 percent of the kids were reunited with their parents.

From 1990-2000, the shelter served more kids coming from single-family households. There was still a 50/50 split between boys and girls, and it was middle schools and high schools that were making the majority of the referrals. Drug education became a bigger part of the group topics, yet still 90 percent of the children were reunited with their families after two weeks.

Dealing with a rise in mental illness

As Carlson writes, “The millennium brought about new challenges.” By 2006 most referrals were for children with mental illnesses. Another shelter was opened in Huntington Beach to help accommodate the growing wait list. A shift in the balance began to occur with 65 percent female and 35 percent male referrals. The length of stay grew to three weeks with a 94 percent success rate (defined as reunification with families).

By 2010 referrals grew even more, prompting the opening of a third shelter in Tustin. Most of the children, now a 75 percent/25 percent split in favor of girls, have been diagnosed with depression and have either attempted or threatened to attempt suicide. Carlson explains that the gender shift does not indicate that girls are faring worse than boys. “Girls are more likely to seek help,” she says. “And males use more lethal means.” 

Carol Carlson bike

Click on photo for a larger image

The Laguna Beach shelter will be opening its doors to the public for the first time in 40 years

The importance of asking for help

Carlson states this harrowing piece of information in the matter of fact manner of someone who deals with these tragedies on a daily basis. The good news is that when help is asked for, the end result is 90 percent positive at all three shelters run by Waymakers. This means that over 300 kids and 800 of their family members are positively impacted by this intervention. And that’s what keeps Carlson going. “It gives me a lot of personal growth,” she says of her work at the shelter. “As long as the kids are out there, I want to keep doing this.”

Helping families feel stronger

So, why this alarming trend to depression and suicide? It’s a nation-wide problem and much has been written and debated on the subject. Carlson refers to Dr. Bruce Perry, “one of my rock stars,” as she describes him, to help explain the alarming trend. “He talks about how lonely people are these days,” she explains. “We came from tribes. It used to be that one child was surrounded by four adults. Now it’s the other way around. People move away from family for different reasons. When you’re alone with a teenager who’s struggling, it’s really tough. I have a lot of empathy. We have to help them feel strong.”

And that’s what the shelter does. The children are there on a voluntary basis and they must abide by very strict rules. Carlson says that most of the kids thrive under the rules. However, sometimes they prove too onerous and those kids leave before their three-week time is up. There is a mandatory family component as well with family session twice a week. “Sometimes the parents see their kids more when they’re here than they did when they were at home,” says Carlson.

These kids crave structure

Simple things, like group dinners around the shelter’s sturdy wooden table, can be transformative, explains Carlson. For a lot of different reasons a lot of the kids aren’t getting that kind of interaction at home and they crave it. “I’m amazed by how many kids want a copy of our schedule and rules when they leave. They thrive with that kind of structure.”

Carlson helps the kids and, in turn, they have helped her

Such lessons have helped Carlson in her own parenting life. “Everything I learned, I learned from these kids,” she says. In addition to teaching her a lot, working at the shelter also helped her own children learn compassion. “They learned that no one would choose this. My children developed a compassion for people who are struggling.”

Carol Carlson crafts

Click on photo for a larger image

With all electronics banned, except computers for schoolwork, things like crafts are an important activity at the shelter

Ultimately, Carlson says, whether it’s her kids or the kids who arrive at the shelter, they all want the same thing. “They just want to feel loved. A lot of kids tell me they feel very lonely. When they’re teens, they push you away, but they don’t really want you to go. It’s a push/pull.” And that’s why the shelter doesn’t allow any electronics – at all – and there are a lot of group activities, in addition to helping families learn how to reconnect with one another.

Avoiding burnout after 20 years

The programs in place have proven effective, but it’s the people behind the programs that make Waymakers the success it is. Front and center to that success is Carlson. She talks fast and with passion. She is matter of fact but compassionate. And she has managed to avoid burnout after 20 years. Her approach is telling.

Celebrating the challenges

“I celebrate when I see a challenging kid,” says Carlson. “We’ve served thousands of kids,” she explains. “Some are tough. Some are sweet. Most are in between. They are all in crisis. Our job is to get them to breathe.” The rules, the break from things like social media, the counseling, and just being out of what has become a tense home environment works 90 percent of the time. For the other 10 percent Carlson says that, for the most part, the kids just aren’t ready yet. She will be there when they are.

Carol Carlson games

Click on photo for a larger image

The kids at the shelter have access to a lot of games, musical instruments, and crafts to help them learn to “breathe”

Waymakers is funded through grants, public funding, donations, and fundraising. As for creating public awareness, it’s a tricky balancing act for Carlson. She is torn between wanting people to know about the shelters and the important work they do while also maintaining the strict confidentiality such facilities require.

“I don’t want people showing up on our doorstep,” she says. “However, I want people to know about us. I always say we’re the best kept secret in Laguna.” 

Well, that secret is opening its doors on March 14. To read about the shelters’ good work is one thing. To come see the place that kids in crisis call home for a few precious weeks is definitely something else.

Laguna Logo

All in the Family: Mother/Daughter duo purchases 

Laguna Coffee Company 


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Tomi Miller moved to Laguna Beach four years ago to be closer to her mother, Rene, little did she know just how close they would soon become. Tomi had no intention of working alongside her mom. She certainly couldn’t foresee someday co-owning Laguna Coffee Company with her. But life – like a strong cup of coffee – has a way of waking us up to new ideas.

Laguna Coffee in front

Click on photo for a larger image

Rene and Tomi Miller in front of Laguna Coffee Company, now officially their own

Tomi sold real estate in Phoenix, and planned to continue her business here. She was a single mother of two. Coffee had been her mother’s passion, not hers. “I specifically told my mom I would not be working in the coffee shop,” Tomi says. “Within three months, she was in a tight spot and put me on the schedule. I told her again I wasn’t going to work here. She said, ‘I need you.’” That was all it took. “I ended up loving the coffee shop and the people,” Tomi says. “That’s the magical power of this special place.”

Rene, on the other hand, had long fantasized about owning a coffeehouse. By the time Tomi arrived, Rene had managed Laguna Coffee Company for several years, and quickly became its heart and soul. Local clients felt like family, and tourists like fast friends.

Rene, too, had come from Phoenix, where she raised her three daughters. For 12 years, she worked at a coffee shop in Gilbert, Arizona. There, her love of the business grew, and when she came to Laguna Coffee Company, she knew she’d found a home.

A perfect partnership

Last October, Rene’s distant dream was realized. Now she and Tomi are not only mother and daughter, but best friends and business partners. “We’re in control of a healthy menu we both believe in. We’ve created the atmosphere we want. The vibes we put out are 100 percent from our hearts,” says Tomi. “I never thought I’d be a part of that.” 

Laguna Coffee mother and daughter

Click on photo for a larger image
Mother and daughter owners Rene and Tomi Miller

Like any strong partnership, Rene and Tomi balance each other out. “We both have different strengths,” says Tomi. “My mom is the anchor. “She’s the heart and soul of this place. People love her.” Here, Tomi laughs: “I do payroll and the books. She would not be able to do that without me.” 

But their one strong commonality is their love for this community, and their customers. They’re both passionate about making, and keeping, those close connections. 

It’s not just them, but everyone on staff at Laguna Coffee. It’s what they look for when hiring. “It’s important to look customers in the eye and ask how they are,” says Tomi. “We want that connection to show in everything we do here.” 

“One barista is a singer, another a world traveler,” Rene says. “They each bring their own passions, which makes the place really fun.” 

“Where everybody knows your name”

Imagine if Sam Malone – the famed fictional bartender from Cheers – were instead a barista. Picture Laguna’s cast of characters sitting in for Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and Frasier Crane. At separate times, both Rene and Tomi describe Laguna Coffee Company as our town’s caffeinated Cheers. No one walks in unwelcomed. Nearly every customer approaches Tomi or Rene, wanting to share stories or photos, and – almost all of them – a fist bump.

Not only do Rene and Tomi know everyone’s name, they know everyone’s taste in coffee – by heart. Rene has memorized over 500 drink orders. “That’s not just the drink,” she says. “There’s also the temperature, how much sugar, what kind of milk.” Rene can go two years without seeing a customer and still recall, with perfect precision, what they order. I ask if she has that kind of memory for anything else. “Nothing,” she answers. “I just love coffee.”

Laguna Coffee serving

Click on photo for a larger image

Tomi Miller serves up the perfect cup

More important, though, is the community atmosphere created by this kind of hub, which is palpably different from a corporate Starbucks or even a new and trendy spot. People not only know each other by name, but they know each other’s stories. They celebrate engagements, marriages, and births. They mourn illnesses and tragedies. “If someone doesn’t come in for a day or two, we worry,” says Tomi. “We’re all looking out for each other. And we adore each other.”

Examples of this abound. When the October fires ravaged our state last year, folks gathered at the coffee shop to donate money, goods, and clothes. In 2017, when Tomi – passionate about helping children in African orphanages – decided to journey to Nigeria, Laguna Coffee’s customers financially supported her trip. “This community took me by the hand and made my dream happen,” Tomi says. “Laguna Beach is the very definition of good people.”

The customers also contribute to Rene’s Centurion bike rides that benefit Multiple Sclerosis. (Yes, that means Rene rides 100 miles in one stretch. Not bad for a mother of three and grandma to eight.) “The community has been so generous,” says Rene. “As much as we try giving to them, they give right back to us.”

But maybe this is one of the strongest testaments to Laguna Coffee’s friendly atmosphere – several couples have met, and even gotten engaged, inside the shop. I ask Rene how many. The answer: “Oh my god. A lot!” The coffeehouse represents one of those touch points in town that binds its neighbors together. People may come for the superb coffee, but they probably keep returning for the friendships – even marriages – and deep ties. The town’s tourists, too, return year after year.

So what about that superb coffee?

If you’re a client who takes your coffee seriously, this is certainly the spot for you. Laguna Coffee Company micro roasts their beans a few times each week in a roaster that’s on site. Batches are small and carefully chosen from the best organic farms around the world  Rwanda, Brazil, Honduras. “Our roaster works with the importers to select batches from the freshest crops,” says Tomi. “He’s passionate about coffee and does a lot of research.” 

Laguna Coffee roasting

Click on photo for a larger image

Randy Warner roasts coffee beans onsite in 2016. Randy was the roaster until two years ago when he moved to Colorado. Canaan Bellinghausen has been the roaster ever since.

Rene, with her extensive knowledge of coffee recipes, says her current favorite is the “bullet proof” – an Americano with organic ghee butter and coconut oil, perfect for the lactose intolerant. “We have a lot of originality on our menu,” Tomi says. “We even serve collagen in some of the drinks.” 

Health is the goal. The tuna salad is sweetened with apples, the chicken pesto crunches with walnuts. “Because we get to choose everything, we try to be as healthy and fresh as we can.”

Rene seconds that, adding how important it is to support other business and local farms. “I go to the farmers markets to collect produce, or I bring bone broth out of San Diego. It gives other small businesses an opportunity to present their products. People helping each other. That’s what it’s about,” Rene says.

Supporting the arts and local artists

The mother/daughter team is committed to helping local artists, as well. From jazz concerts to poetry readings, the coffeehouse is a hub where people tend to gather. “People share the mic,” Rene says. “One night this guy said, ‘I have a violin back in my room, can I play with you guys?’ He ran to get it and they played another hour.”

Rene and Tomi also change out the art on the walls every six weeks, giving struggling artists a place to showcase their work. 

They’re in the process of getting their liquor and music licenses transferred over (due to the change in ownership). But soon, beer and wine will again be served in the evenings, along with more music. So stay tuned…

Mothering secrets for success

What accounts for this strong mother/daughter bond? “I’m a big believer in being present in my children’s lives. Through the good and the bad,” says Rene. “I have a lot of empathy for people. You never know what shoes they’ve walked in. Most of us would be surprised if they knew what people go through.”

That philosophy must have rubbed off on Tomi, because she reflects her mother’s life lessons in her own parenting. Her two children are her first priority, and she’ll sacrifice anything to spend time with them. “I know our time together is short,” she says. “I’m trying to take advantage of all of it.”

The high point of Rene’s year is her October birthday, when she goes away with her three daughters (and no one else) to a place they’ve never been – Tulum and San Miguel (Mexico), Austin, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and even Catalina. “By January, we already have our next trip planned,” she says. “It just gives me a deep sense of joy.”

Empathy and joy may lie at the foundation of Laguna Coffee Company’s success, as well. It’s a safe and friendly place, full of positivity and compassion. That genuine sense of caring for each other might feel even better than the coffee tastes.

The power of transformation

On Rene’s right wrist is a tattoo of a butterfly, wide-winged and color rich, inspired by an art installation of real butterflies that once hung in the store. It’s meant to represent transformation, and an evolution of becoming – the perfect symbol for Rene’s new phase of life. If buying and owning a new business isn’t enough, Rene also recently announced her engagement. Where did she meet her fiancé? I’ll give you one guess.

Rene’s life advice is simple, though not always easy to implement. “We all go through things,” she says. “But it’s the diligence of not giving up that makes the difference. Press forward with your dreams.”

Laguna Logo

Troy Lee: Still striving to do it better


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

In case there was any doubt as to whether or not Troy Lee is still fully immersed in his products, the answer is unequivocally that he is. I can say that with complete surety because the morning we met the skies over Laguna were dumping rain. As I was peeling off my rain gear inside his self-named shop on Glenneyre, Lee rode up on his bike – that he rode from his home – in the pouring rain to test out a new pair of his cold weather gloves. While wet, Lee was a little disappointed that the morning was not sufficiently cold enough to test the gloves’ efficacy. I have no doubt he’ll keep trying until he’s satisfied.

Troy Lee Designs is a store and so much more

Troy Lee is the founder of Troy Lee Designs. The company makes mountain bike and dirt bike gear, helmets for almost any sport that uses one and many other things that don’t necessarily fall into any of those categories. The company’s flagship store is in Laguna and, as Lee’s assistant and Laguna Beach Chamber Board of Directors member Carmelit Greene explains, “It’s part store part museum.” 

Troy Lee close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Troy Lee, founder of Troy Lee Designs, at his shop in Laguna Beach

And it’s an apt description because amongst the jerseys and helmets (in addition to Levi’s and other stylish casual wear), there is a winners’ autographed Indianapolis 500 helmet, a beautiful Triumph motorcycle, and a painting by Steve McQueen to name only a few items that fill the store. “I don’t put something in here if I don’t love it,” says Lee when asked which item is his favorite. “The coolest thing is I’m just so proud to have a store here in Laguna Beach. When I was a kid I would have never thought that was something…” he says.

Same basic business, much larger quantities

Before he had his beautiful store, Lee made his name painting (and making) bike helmets. He raced and painted his own helmets, as well as making his own leathers, and his designs caught on with his fellow racers. The business continued to grow and now Troy Lee Designs are sold in at least 31 countries. “The only thing that’s really changed is the quantity,” says Lee of how the growth has affected his business.

As committed to safety as to design

While his design work is, perhaps, the sexier part of his business, Lee says he is very committed to safety and making products that keep riders riding their bikes. “I’m really proud of that,” he says. 

Lee’s commitment to safety is undoubtedly part of why riders love his gear. However, it may have taken on greater significance since his son started racing (Lee says all of his kids ride, but his oldest son Max is riding competitively). “I’m telling him not to jump stuff, but we have to let him chase his dreams. My wife lets me chase mine, she’s a good sport,” says Lee with appreciation. 

Still racing, but on a limited basis

Safety also may have taken on a new meaning when Lee himself ended up in a wheelchair after a horrible motorcycle accident several years ago. “It was by far the worst one I’ve had,” he says. He promised his wife he would stop racing. However, he says watching his son race was tough. “Sitting on the tailgate is hard,” he says. He has since recovered and returned to racing, but it is limited to once a month. “At my age, motorcycle racing is a little bit dangerous,” he says with his pattern of understatement.

Troy Lee shop

Click on photo for a larger image

At Troy Lee Designs, hanging out is strongly encouraged

But racing is in Lee’s blood. If he has lost any passion over the years for the sport he is immersed in, it is imperceptible. “I really live for racing,” he says. “You bring together this little group. I love seeing everyone doing their thing. It pushes everybody.” He’s speaking of the racing team, of course, but he could just a easily be talking about his business.

Still painting helmets every week

“I still do 15 custom helmets a week,” he says. “We have an amazing group. I’m so fortunate to have an amazing group of employees that follow me down this crazy path. They are so good at what they do. We have 81 employees and every single one of them contributes something fantastic.”

Committed to creating a retail experience

And while his employees allow Lee to focus on the part he likes the most – the creative part – he is still totally engaged in growing and protecting his business. He is very worried about the state of brick and mortar retail. He praises Amazon but worries that its reach will make stores like his, and the other bike stores that sell his gear, obsolete. “You have to make it an experience,” he says. Hence the artifacts, the big screen TV, the hanging out…all part of the plan to keep the community together. “We try to plan a party once a month,” he says.

Troy Lee helmet

Click on photo for a larger image

One of Lee’s special projects: helmets for the Notre Dame football team

Notre Dame football gets new helmets

While Lee’s primary business is in the biking worlds, he has a broad reach beyond. For someone who says, “I like the hardest projects,” he supposedly found that when he was approached to redesign Notre Dame’s football helmets for their Shamrock Series in 2012, he’d found one. Lee says he was told they were going to be an extremely challenging client, so steeped were they in their tradition. However, when Lee presented them with his 24-karat gold leaf creation they were “super excited.” Apparently, not so tough, after all.

Always something new to work on

“There are always unusual projects,” he says. Like the helmet and rocket Lee did for Eddie Braun when he jumped Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. A movie about the jump, Stuntman, is coming out soon. When the subject came up, Lee and Carmelit start riffing on how it would be great to rent out the movie theater downtown and screen the film. “We do this a lot,” he says of their banter. “We just start talking…”

A true fan of sport

With a business that has so many moving parts, the thing that seems to be the grounding center, besides his family who Lee consistently praises throughout our talk, is the athletes he works with. 

“That’s what’s most gratifying,” says Lee. “I tried to become a pro racer but never made it to that level. I idolize them. It’s a privilege to sit down with someone who’s a god in their world.” I’m sure there are a lot of people in Lee’s world who would say the same thing about sitting down with him and yet he seems completely oblivious to that fact. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just a fan. 

A constant desire to do things better

He’s a fan who has built a worldwide reputation that has expanded beyond the world in which he started. And yet, his heart is here in Laguna. “I love riding mountain bikes in Laguna,” he says. “I do a lot of traveling so I say my vacation home is in Laguna. I don’t like to leave it. I feel super fortunate to have a store here. It’s our little lab. It’s nice to fit everyone with equipment and look into figuring out what I can do better.” 

So if you see a guy riding his bike in Laguna and it’s raining, snowing, or any other manner of inhospitable weather, chances are it’s Troy Lee simply doing some product testing, all in the name of doing it better.

Laguna Logo

An Abstract Life: Artist Paul Ecke pens a memoir that will hearten you, inspire you & maybe shock you


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Every painting unravels a story,” says local artist and Black Iris co-founder Paul Ecke, whose works, mostly abstract paintings, are displayed in high-end galleries all over the world. Several are slated to be part of an endowment of contemporary paintings and graphic art to the Tate Museum of Contemporary Art in London.

“I start with 20 - 30 layers of paint and media and then carefully strip them away with brush, hand, and sometimes trowel, to create texture and depth,” Ecke explains. “In good abstract art, each element, or fractal, of a piece should convey meaning.” And, smartly, Ecke has used the same approach in fashioning his newly released, evocative memoir, Boy Dreamer: An artist’s memoir of identity, awakening, and beating the odds. 

A mélange of moments shot through with triumph

Just as Ecke’s paintings contain repeating patterns and interconnections, so his memoir picks out the common threads within some of the most formative and traumatic – as well as happy – events of his life, creating an integrated whole, a mélange of dark moments shot through with blazing triumph.

LLP Paul Ecke smile

Click on photo for a larger image

Paul Ecke, artist and author

Boy Dreamer took me four years to write,” he says. “I had a script of sorts in mind, about how I had beaten the odds in so many ways, and the importance of imagination and dreams, but I knew I needed to pare down the layers, so I carved out certain vignettes that I felt truly revealed the color and texture of my life.”

Among other things, the book tells of his time in foster care as a young boy, his identity crisis as a gay man during a less tolerant time, and explains his positive approach to his Stage 4 prostate cancer, diagnosed 12 years ago.

Yes, there have been many challenges in Ecke’s life, and some shocking choices made, but much brightness and love, too, as the book explores. 

Oh, and there are wonderful touches of humor, too.

Imagination provides an escape from early adversity

First let’s look at early adversity: 

Imagine this – you are four years old, about to turn five. You’re in a foster home with your two sisters, having been wrenched from your mother’s arms a few months earlier. 

(Later you will find out that she suffered a nervous breakdown after your father abandoned the family after multiple infidelities. But at this young age, you don’t understand why you can’t be with your mom.)

Your foster parents make a point of giving their own daughter delicious food while you are provided the most basic of meals. 

On Christmas Day, when you wake up expecting to see presents under the tree, they laugh and tell you that “Santa doesn’t bring gifts for kids like you.”

So it is a special thrill to find out that your foster mother is actually making a chocolate cake for your birthday.

Until, that is, unable to bear the suspense, you sneak into the kitchen and swipe a tasty fingerful of icing from the cake.

And you are caught.

You are confined to your room for three days and only given slabs of cake to eat, nothing else, until you feel sick. You are not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom for any reason. You are told to use the trash can instead.

The mortification will stay with you for the rest of your life.

LLP Paul Ecke swing

Click on photo for a larger image

To this day, Paul Ecke finds joy in swinging high and free

To escape such cruelty, little Paul Ecke uses his imagination to create and live virtually in happier worlds. He loves to swing high, to feel the breeze across his face, to feel free. 

(This is something, swinging in a playground, that he will continue to enjoy throughout his life, even at the age of 65.) 

He makes friends with the frogs in the garden.

Little Paul will return to live with his mother, but future challenges will test his happiness. 

Those myriad challenges are at the heart of this appealing, brutally honest, fascinating memoir. 

Now, humor: The teenage Paul Ecke tries his very best to enjoy sexual contact with a girl, but as he so eloquently puts it: As the inhibitions fell away, we started to kiss …She squirmed with pleasure, but something felt off. Even high, I could sense that I was trying to make a floral jacket go with plaid pants. They just didn’t go together in anyone’s definition…

Beautifully, Ecke’s love for his mother shines throughout the book. “She was incredibly loving,” he says.

Love for his mother leads to a shocking decision

In Ecke’s early twenties, when his mother was dying of terminal breast cancer, the young man made the shocking decision to become a male prostitute while working, of all places, at Disneyland Hotel as a bellboy. (Oh, and he was a kindergarten teacher at the time also. For ten years, he would thrive as an educator and administrator.)

“I wanted to be able to give her the finer things in life that she’d never enjoyed – dining out in restaurants, lovely clothes…” Ecke’s voice trembles. “I adored her.”

I ask Paul if it is okay to include some of his more controversial life choices in this article. 

He shrugs. “Of course. I don’t regret a moment in my life, because they are part of who I am now. I kept these things close to the vest for many years, but now it’s all out there in the book.” 

Boy Dreamer is also a love story about Ecke and his partner of 40 years, Bill Merrill, describing their relationship, and explaining how serendipity and hard work built the success of their Black Iris florist business.

“Each flower had to dance. Every arrangement had to tell a story,” Ecke says, clearly born to play with petals as well as paint.

LLP Paul Ecke book

Click on photo for a larger image

Boy Dreamer is an inspiring and brutally honest memoir

His memoir certainly doesn’t shy away from hard truths, even as it inspires.

“Lots of people don’t know about my Stage 4 cancer, but they will now,” he says. “I’m fine with it, I’m ready for the questions.

“One of my goals with the book is to encourage people to stay positive about their cancer, to inspire them to believe it can be overcome. I’m the poster boy at USC for resisting the disease. Each day is a new day, a beautiful day. I hope people can find comfort in that.”

If our lives can be compared to abstract paintings, then Paul Ecke’s is an intriguing, inspiring one to behold. Tested by adversity in so many ways, but always ready to take on new challenges with heart, imagination, and gratitude, his life is one for, well, the books.

Boy Dreamer is available at Laguna Beach Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble online. Some of the proceeds will go to a fund to research prostate cancer.

Ecke has also authored a children’s book about impatient “rootlings” longing to burst through the soil. Appropriately, it is due out in the spring, He’s also working on another children’s book at this time, called Swing High, Little Boy.

Laguna Logo

Lojo Simon: One of Laguna’s Literary Laureates


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lojo Simon is one of Laguna Beach’s two Literary Laureates. It’s an impressive title with an even more impressive list of responsibilities. Since receiving the honor earlier this year (the city’s website says the term runs May 2018-April 2019), Simon has taught a series of classes at the Boys and Girls Club, as well as the Susi Q. She is tasked with writing a play that is “Laguna-centric,” and she has created a multi-disciplinary project with the Laguna Art Museum set to open in 2020. In short, it is a full plate of responsibilities.

“It is a lot more work than I thought,” she says smiling. Her comment is decidedly more observation than complaint. As someone who discovered her passion for playwriting later in life, Simon doesn’t take her work for granted.

A journalist finds a hobby

A lifelong writer, Simon is nevertheless relatively new to playwriting. “I had been a journalist for years,” she explains. She was introduced to a theater’s inner-workings when her eldest daughter became an active participant in their local San Diego theater. Simon volunteered to paint sets and sew costumes, the usual ways parents lend a hand. But the overall process intrigued her. “So I started writing plays for fun.” 

A hobby turns into a passion

She took classes, went to workshops and during one of these classes, a play she wrote was produced. “It did really well at a community college,” says Simon. That success, combined with her youngest child heading off to college and her life partner working on his PhD, motivated Simon to pursue her Masters degree in playwriting – at 50.

Lojo Simon close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Lojo Simon, a playwright and one of Laguna’s two Literary Laureates

 “It seemed like that was what everyone was doing – following their passion,” she recalls. Three years after she began, in 2012, Simon had her degree. And it is a degree she values. “I have to attribute my success to grad school,” she says. “It gave me the opportunity to learn the craft as well as to network with people. But you have to write. (School) was about devoting the time to doing that.”

Finding an artistic home away from home

Her years working as a journalist also helped. “Journalism trained me well,” she explains. “I understand dialogue. I understand character. It was not difficult in that sense.” While she may underplay the difficulty of mastering the art of playwriting, she does not minimize the good fortune she has had in finding work. 

Acknowledging that playwriting can be “erratic,” Simon is, in addition to her Laguna Literary Laureate duties, also in her third year as a commissioned playwright for the Creede Repertory Theatre Young Audience Outreach Tour. This year’s production is called “Best Foot Forward.”

While Simon spends the bulk of her time in Laguna, Creede has become her “artistic home” away from home, both literally (she spends her summers in Creede, CO) and figuratively. Simon is commissioned to write a children’s musical that tours around the country to underserved populations. “We see 35,000 plus kids, and it’s an original musical every year. It is one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever done.” 

Lojo Simon typing

Click on photo for a larger image

In her position as Literary Laureate, Simon is tasked to create Laguna-centric works, among other responsibilities

In addition to finding the actual project meaningful, Simon’s work in Creede offers her a community that she is deeply appreciative of. “Writing is solitary work,” she explains. “It’s really nice to be with people who appreciate your work and contribute to the creative process. It helps to have interactions with people. I’m fortunate to have this commission,” she says. “That’s been the biggest blessing.”

An ambitious project as Literary Laureate

Creating community, or at least tapping into it, is something Simon hopes to achieve in one of her ambitious Literary Laureate projects for Laguna Beach. The project is titled “Word and Image in Dialogue.” It is a collaboration between Laguna Art Museum and Simon and “seeks to explore and enhance the intersection of literary arts with visual and fine arts by recruiting artists and writers to use both the visual arts and literature as inspiration for the creation of a new work.”

Showcasing collaboration and the creative process

Ten artists will be chosen to create new works based on curated works of literature. On the flip side, qualified writers will be selected to create new works based on curated artworks in the Laguna Art Museum collection. Additionally, there will be at least two public lectures/workshops to educate the public about artistic collaboration and the creative process. The project will be completed in 2020. “I’m very interested in the creative process and cross pollination in the arts,” explains Simon. “I’m hoping to showcase the creative process with this project.”

Can we say it all started in Laguna?

The city’s website for the Literary Laureate position states that the person selected is to “serve as an official ambassador for Laguna Beach’s vibrant creative scene.” Clearly, Simon has taken her responsibilities seriously. And it’s fitting that she was selected. After living and raising her children in San Diego, it was a job at the Laguna Playhouse that ultimately brought her to Laguna. 

Lojo Simon walking

Click on photo for a larger image

Simon says one of the things she really enjoys is walking in Laguna

An informal meeting with Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann Wareham eventually led to Wareham offering Simon a job as Artistic Associate, a position she held for three years. “It was really fortuitous,” says Simon of her meeting with Wareham. 

And while good fortune is always helpful, Simon’s success falls more in the category of hard work plus talent. Her list of produced plays is formidable. She is also a three-time winner of the Laguna Beach Poetry Contest and curator of the Bare Bones Theatre’s new play reading series. 

All of this, in addition to her other achievements, makes Simon a perfect person to offer advice to any aspiring writers out there. “Be persistent. Success is fleeting. Education is great, but listen to your voice, don’t let it be compromised too much by the system,” says Simon. “You have to be courageous and you have to be willing to fail.”

Clearly, Simon practices what she preaches; her success is testament to that. It is also an inspiration. 

Laguna Logo

The Story of a Store: Laguna Beach Books &
the vibrant community it serves


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Once upon a time – before Amazon and Kindle, before Barnes & Noble or dot-com anything – independent bookstores thrived across America. They were the one place where toddlers, college students, the middle-aged, and elderly could all find something they loved. Many had creaky wooden floors and labyrinthine rooms packed tight with shelves. There might be a dog napping behind the counter. 

Whatever the décor, bibliophiles arrived. They loved losing themselves in the stacks. They loved the look and feel – the smell – of books. Strangers became familiars, letting each other in on their intimate reading lives. They shared favorite titles. They talked about authors like old friends. In short, people gathered together to swoon over literature and bond over books. For much of the 20th century, independent bookstores were the only game in town.

The Story LBB sign

Click on photo for a larger image

Laguna Beach’s very own independent bookstore, the only bookstore in town

The fall and rise of independent bookstores

But all that began to change. In 1994, Amazon opened their virtual doors. They sold only books for their first four years. Now, they’ve captured almost half the bookseller’s market (today, books account for less than 10 percent of Amazon’s total sales). Then they introduced the Kindle in 2007. Soon after, competitors began producing their own e-books. E-readers represent 55 percent of online book purchases. Audio books are a small but growing faction. 

Customers became consumers. Algorithms began replacing personal recommendations. And the big box stores – Barnes & Noble and Borders – started to drive what was left of independent bookstores out of business. Between 1995 and 2000, American Booksellers Association (ABA) reported that the number of independent bookstores in the United States plummeted 43 percent.

Then another funny thing began to happen. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, within the past 10 years, independent bookstores began to flourish. According to the ABA, the number of independent U.S. bookstores increased 35 percent from 2009 to 2015. Today the figures look even better. In 2018, there were 1,835 independent bookselling companies running 2,470 stores. 

The Story shelf talkers

Click on photo for a larger image

The LBB staff provides “shelf-talkers” to highlight their favorite picks

They became a natural gathering place for locals and tourists alike – book clubs and author events, book signings and readings, children’s story hours and political roundtables. Turns out, people craved the personal interactions and customized recommendations they were missing online and they turned to books, booksellers, and other book lovers to find it again.

In the beginning: Jane Hanauer’s novel idea

But let’s go back. Back to 2004, in the midst of all this retail chaos and e-reader frenzy. Back to when attention spans started to flounder and the appetite for literature began to wane. Laguna Beach’s Fahrenheit 451 had been closed for a decade. Latitude 33 bifurcated its business with a photography store. The old Pottery Shack came up for sale. Jane Hanauer and her husband, Joe, saw opportunity. 

The Story Jane

Click on photo for a larger image

Jane Hanauer

Laguna Beach Books didn’t open until 2006. Construction took an extra nine months beyond original expectations. “While the store was under construction,” says Lisa Childers, store manager and one of the original employees, “books kept arriving, but no one was there to receive them. I ran around town looking for our UPS man. He agreed to start bringing all the books up to my garage.” How many books were delivered to Childers’ garage? “Tons of them,” she says. “The whole store.” 

As Childers’ garage began to fill, Hanauer hired Robyn Caperton to help with receiving and, more importantly, buying. “We organized the books and started doing inventory on my dining room table,” Childers says. “Those were the formative years.”

When the recession hit a year later – along with the Kindle and Amazon’s discounted competition – Laguna Beach Books struggled, but they still weathered the financial storm. So what accounts for its continued success through difficult times and in a difficult marketplace?

Curating a customized experience for customers

As author John Green observes, “You cannot invent an algorithm that is as good at recommending books as a good bookseller.” This sets stores like Laguna Beach Books apart. An artful seller not only knows their products, they listen to their clients.

The Story Chris

Click on photo for a larger image

Chris Weaver curates the perfect reading experience for clients

“There’s a niche for the curated experience,” says Chris Weaver, a sales associate who has been with the store since nearly the beginning. “Books require a serendipity quotient. When you rely on algorithms, predictability creeps in. Algorithms build up a profile and you’re locked into a box. You miss the experience of not the book you came looking for, but the book next to it that you didn’t anticipate. There’s this whole other aspect of your personality or interest that starts to develop as a consequence of that. It can’t be captured by the algorithms.”

For readers interested in this phenomenon, Weaver (unsurprisingly) has a few book recommendations for you – Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and The Efficiency Paradox by Edward Tenner. 

What calls on their “curated experience expertise” is the customer who knows what they like, but they don’t have a particular title in mind. The task is to intervene, find the book they want, and use it as a springboard to introduce them to books they haven’t considered. “It takes many years of expertise and instinct for things off the radar that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise,” says Weaver. “Fortunately for us, it’s hard to replicate that any other way. That’s the factor we bring in.”

Weaver’s secret is simple, though hardly easy. “I try to assimilate a sense of that person and what may interest them. There’s two ways to do that. One is to ask, ‘Who do you like? What have you read?’ The second is to ask, ‘What are you interested in?’ People’s general interests – their hobbies and passions – can be used to help point them in a new direction. Both of these strategies might produce very different outcomes.”

A synergistic staff

Bookselling is an art. Some say it’s a little like playing psychologist. Childers likens it to being a bartender. “People come in who’ve had really bad things happen – someone died, they’re going through a divorce – and they want a book,” Childers says. “They’re very open with us. We’re good at chatting and we have to understand what they need. Maybe they need something on point. But maybe they just need a light read to take their mind off things.” 

A good staff reflects the tastes and interests of their readers, and contains just enough diversity to serve a wide range. “The reading public tends to skew heavily female and a little older, though not exclusively so,” says Weaver. “To the extent our clientele is dominated by women, the market skews sharply toward mainstream fiction.”

The Story Danielle

Click on photo for a larger image

Danielle Bauer recommends one of the store’s bestselling titles, off the radar of most online stores

Men, Weaver says, lean towards nonfiction. If they read fiction, they tend to favor mystery, thriller, sci-fi and fantasy, and sometimes historical fiction. “I fall into that profile as well,” Weaver says. As the only man on the team and a part-time college professor, Weaver provides a critical resource to clients. “Not surprisingly, my reading interests diverge sharply from the rest of the staff. I read classics as a professor. Current events, history, philosophy, religion, and humanities in general.”

Two years ago, local high school student Haley Rovner joined part time. “Haley and I are the only ones who read young adult (YA), science fiction, and fantasy,” says Weaver. “Having Haley on staff helps immensely because she’s widely read in YA. That’s the niche we’re trying to nurture – our upcoming readers.” The death of the reader continues to be one of the biggest issues bookstores face. 

Creating community within a strong community

While tourists are important to business, Laguna Beach Books lives for local clientele. It also supports local authors. Some of Laguna’s notables include James Utt (Laguna Tales & Boomer Wails: A Memoir), Kaira Rouda (Best Day Ever, the forthcoming The Favorite Daughter, and several others), and Suzanne Redfearn (Hush Little Baby, No Ordinary Life, and the forthcoming In An Instant). “If books reflect the area in which the books are being sold, they sell better,” says Hanauer. 

The store also hosts monthly book clubs. They foster political discussions (recently holding an event for local and newly elected congressman Harley Rouda). And they organize frequent author events and books signings, both by local writers and nationally recognized bestsellers. Recent guests include Lisa See, T. Jefferson Parker, Elizabeth George, John Hart, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Hall Kelly, to name just a very few. Upcoming events will feature Megan Griswold and Dani Shapiro. 

And, because books are the great equalizer in any society, Laguna Beach Books is also the perfect place for some star sightings. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former FBI Director James Comey, actors Pierce Brosnan, Rob Lowe, Robert Englund, Rita Rudner, Melanie Griffith, Alan Rickman, and Benicio del Toro have all visited the store. Author Mitch Albom is also a regular. Comey even got a little choked up after reading the blurb Sheila Morshead wrote about his book A Higher Loyalty.

Learning by osmosis

It also helps that everyone on staff is passionate about their job. No one’s in it for the money, though they like to joke about it. Caperton says one of her favorite things is the endless learning. “I’ve worked in bookstores for 35 years,” says Caperton, “and I still learn something every day. It’s the most humbling job you can have. Every day I go to work and discover something new.”

Her recommendation for new booksellers? “I always tell new employees to dust the store. Dust everything,” she says. “It’s like osmosis. If you’re around the books, in proximity to them, you don’t know you know them, but you do.”

The Story other genres

Click on photo for a larger image

Browsing books beyond your usual genre opens you up to new possibilities

The three Cs of successful bookstores

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, made a long study of the independent bookstore phenomena in 2017 as part of his “technology reemergence” research. He concluded that three factors (coined the “3 Cs”) accounted for the resurgence of the independent bookstore: community, curation, and convening.

Spending time in the store, and talking to the staff, it’s easy to understand its success. Together, the many tales of Laguna Beach Books tell one of the most enduring love stories ever written – people’s love of books.

For more information, staff picks, LBB bestsellers, author events, and more, visit or call (949) 497-4779. 

LBB is located at 1200 S Coast Hwy.

Laguna Logo

A Sense of History: Former Mayor Jane Egly looks back on a storied career & extraordinary marriage


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Imagine a time before Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Imagine a world that didn’t yet know the words “Watergate” or “Vietnam War.” Picture an era when John F. Kennedy still sat in the U.S. Senate. Now imagine a young girl, 14, who skipped enough school that her principal called her in to talk about her “sore throat problem.” Then imagine this: unlike other truant teens, Jane Egly was missing school to board a bus bound for D.C., sneak into the U.S. Capitol, stuff her belongings in the ladies’ room located beneath the rotunda, and spend long days attending Senate and committee hearings. 

Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Washington was Egly’s playground. Politicians were the east coast’s Hollywood stars. History was being made in Egly’s backyard. But, beyond that, she simply took an early and natural interest in politics, government, and civil rights. “I didn’t see it as politics. I saw it as history,” Egly says of her time spent in the U.S. Capitol. “These men were famous, and I was a groupie.”

That history laid the foundation for the rest of Egly’s life as lawyer, mayor, city councilwoman, law professor, and activist. She came of age at a time when women and minorities were scarcely seen in law schools. 

Jane Egly close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Former Mayor and City Councilwoman Jane Egly

This all set the stage for a storied career, advocating for women, children, and seniors; and being a good steward for Laguna’s open spaces and sparse water resources. And now, this coming year, advocating for Orange County’s homeless.

The early years: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Hoffa & the U.S. Senate

The teen years are a formative period under any circumstance. But for Egly, time spent in the presence of the United States’ most influential politicians became pivotal. “We were the only kids running around,” says Egly. “We’d go into the hearing room and sit right behind the senators. We were never asked to move. Never asked who we were or what we were doing there. The senators would introduce themselves to us.” 

Egly crossed paths with then Vice President Richard Nixon, as well as German aerospace engineer and space architect Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun was Germany’s “rocket man,” developing weapons for the Nazis before a covert move to the U.S. to work on our ballistic missile program. “I saw our next door neighbor whispering in Von Braun’s ear,” says Egly. “He acknowledged me with a ‘don’t-you-say-anything’ look. I never knew what it was about, except he was managing Von Braun.” 

An electric energy often surrounds people when they talk about their youth. Nostalgia mixes with fond memories of a forgotten time. But Egly’s memories feel even more charged, given our current political climate. Her eyes light up talking about those years, appreciating the uniqueness of her experience and the bygone era of citizen access to senators, scientists, CEOs, and union organizers. 

“I’d go to the Labor Racket Hearings. Bobby Kennedy was the questioner. My girlfriend and I were sitting in the audience. Next to us was this big guy, dark suit and tie, white shirt. He started to tell us who everyone was and what they were doing. And there, in front of us, was Jimmy Hoffa. The man said, ‘I’m going to introduce you.’ We met Jimmy Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy. A week later, I picked up Look Magazine and there was our fellow with numbers. He was an ex-con in the labor group. But he’d been as nice as he could be.”

Origin stories are sometimes difficult to pin down. What causes a teenager to be drawn to legislative procedure? “I started reading the paper toward the end of grade school,” she says. “Part of it was John Kennedy. But there wasn’t one magic event.” Were these the formative encounters that set the stage for Egly’s career? Would that career have happened anyway? There’s beauty to be found in the mystery. But the experiences certainly stuck with her.

School days

Egly grew up in an environment that valued education. Of the 700 graduates in her high school class, 500 went to college. “Most folks were in the government,” she says. “It was an upper middle class Jewish community.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Egly majored in history at the University of Maryland before transferring to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1962. Carolina didn’t accept women until their junior year. 

After graduating in 1964, Egly worked for the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Soon after, she married her first husband (Paul), enrolled in law school, and started her family. She had two children (Paul Jr. and Annie) 17 months apart while still attending school.

She began law school at the University of North Carolina. It was the first year they admitted black students, and only six women were in her class. When her husband took a job in Detroit, Egly transferred to Wayne State. There were advantages to attending a less prestigious school, she says. Wayne State had many people of color. The diversity and egalitarian attitude struck her as progressive. As an added bonus, she says, the food scene in Detroit was far better than Chapel Hill.

The early years of feminism

This, it occurs to me, is 1960s feminism. Women were beginning to have it all, but they were also doing it all. 

Perhaps Egly wasn’t the first woman to enter law school (she graduated exactly a decade after Justice Ruth Ginsberg), but women were still a rarity in the field. If she wasn’t blazing the trail, she was certainly still sweeping the path. 

And, of course, a man’s career took priority over his wife’s. Egly followed her husband first to Detroit and then to California, all while studying for the State Bar and caring for two toddlers. She volunteered in classrooms and served as a school crossing guard. She spent time on soccer fields and baseball games, and plenty of hours in the sand watching her son surf, always putting the priority on her children ahead of anything else. And then she went to work – advocating for women and children, serving on the board of the Boys and Girls Club and as first president of the Capistrano Unified School District Foundation. 

“That’s the difference between the male attorney and the lady attorney,” she says. “They’d come late to court because they’d been on the golf course. I’d be screaming at my kids, so we’d arrive in time for carpool. Or I’d be sitting in a doctor’s office with a sick kid.” Egly practiced law for over 30 years in a variety of capacities, raising two children and stepdaughter Patti. Women, she observes, didn’t have time for an interior life of thoughtful contemplation like their male counterparts. 

Jane Egly with Sebastian

Click on photo for a larger image

Jane Egly at home with Sebastian

Egly is still deeply involved in Planned Parenthood, committed to ensuring low income and uninsured women have access to affordable healthcare. The underdogs, and the support of their rights, have been an enduring theme in Egly’s life and her long career.

A head for law and a heart for justice

Women weren’t Egly’s only concern. As a young lawyer, she witnessed the destructive effects the court system had on its youngest and most innocent participants – children. “I persuaded a family law judge to appoint me as the attorney for the child in a custody case,” Egly said in a 2008 Statement when running for City Council. “He continued appointing me and we began to get lots of attention. With the help of a State Assemblymember, this practice of appointing an attorney for the child became state law and is the practice followed in the court today.” Today she says this might be her proudest accomplishment.

Egly has served on the board of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, delivering legal aid to those in need. She was also active on the board of the Laguna Greenbelt. And, in 2019, she’ll join the board of the Friendship Shelter as an advocate for the homeless.

Laguna Mayor and City Councilwoman 

Laguna’s politics have always been spiked with passion and fraught with controversy. Those are two elements that don’t scare Egly. In 2004, someone asked her to run for City Council. That’s all it took. “I think that’s my life,” she says. “Opportunities came up and I thought they might work out. I didn’t know, but thought I’d try.” 

Egly served from 2004 to 2012 and was the Mayor in 2008. “I loved being on the council. I loved being mayor,” she says. In 2016, she was elected to the Laguna Beach County Water District’s commission.

Her second husband, Judge Paul Egly, wasn’t initially excited about his wife’s run for office. But he quickly came around to support her. “You’ll have my vote,” he finally told her. “When I ran for council, he backed me up. He didn’t tell me what to do. He would always listen.”

Life with – and without – the Honorable Paul Egly

Much can be told about us based on the people we marry. A spouse reflects who we are, what we value, and what we need. They bolster our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. Our marital complement can tell volumes. Paul and Jane Egly exemplify this truth.

Jane Egly and Paul

Click on photo for a larger image

Jane’s favorite painting of her with husband Paul

When I first met them earlier this year, I was struck by their relationship and the depth of respect and affection they held toward each other. After 34 years of marriage, Jane still seemed not only in love, but profoundly moved by her husband. Her pride in Judge Egly – and his many accomplishments – shined through the difficult heartache of watching him fade. When he passed last June, Jane knew it was the right time. “I miss him,” she says. “But he left a nice legacy.”

Jane had heard tales about Judge Paul Egly long before meeting him. When she came to California, she began practicing law in the firm Judge Egly started (although, by that time, he had already left that office for the bench). His reputation preceded him, already a legal legend in the industry. 

But when they finally did meet in person, she was initially unimpressed. “I walked into his office, and there was this old, fat man playing with his tie,” she recalls. “His shirt was open, and you could see his T-shirt. I’m thinking, ‘That’s Paul Egly?!’ I told a joke and he laughed. That was it. He had the best laugh.” The rest, as they say, is history, and there is a mountain of history between them.

Despite their 21-year age gap, Judge Egly promised to give Jane “ten good years.” Ultimately, they were married for 34. Her joke to him throughout their marriage: “When are those good years going to begin? Just let me know.” 

“I learned more about everything after I met him,” says Jane. “Look at me. I’m Miss-Gal-from-North-Carolina. I never thought I would have this…” she pauses, searching for the right word. “I want to say opportunity. Yes. It was an opportunity to know him and be married to him.”

Jane Egly’s life has been filled with opportunities. And she’s had the wisdom to seize them all, however outside her comfort zone or seemingly scary. It’s a lesson for us all. When life says, “Try this!” answer with, “Why not?”

Laguna Logo

Jane Fulton: Contributing to Laguna’s safety net


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Jane Fulton has been practicing law since 1966. She did take a 10-year hiatus to become a professional painter, but the serenity and personal satisfaction of her art took a back seat when she decided five years ago to revisit her commitment to public service and open Seaside Legal Services, providing free legal services for those in need. 

“I was kind of at sea as to what to do,” recalls Fulton. “I told one of my friends what I wanted to do. She helped me get the money to start.”

No shortage of clients for Seaside Legal Services

Five years in and Fulton says she’s “inundated with clients.” Seaside Legal Services provides attorneys and other services in civil matters. When someone is facing a criminal matter, a public defender is provided. For civil cases, no such option exists. So for things like divorce, child custody, bankruptcy, and landlord-tenant disputes, people are on their own – unless they find Fulton, or if they are a north County resident, they can use Legal Aid in Santa Ana. 

“I had no idea Legal Aid was so overwhelmed,” says Fulton. “They don’t come to south Orange County at all, and that’s all we serve.”

Legal services are part of the community safety’s net

Fulton explains that Seaside is one of Laguna’s five nonprofits that make up the social safety net. The other four are Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Friendship Shelter, Laguna Food Pantry, and Laguna Beach Seniors. Seaside Legal is run on private funding coupled with grants and a stipend from the Senior Center. 

“Law really is part of the safety net,” explains Fulton. “But people don’t like lawyers, and I can’t trot out my clients (due to confidentiality rules) and say, ‘Look what I did for them!’” 

Barbara McMurray of McMurray Marketing Communications, who does work for Seaside Legal, says, “Jane has contributed greatly to people not becoming homeless. It’s all of a piece.” 

Fulton’s crusading inclinations are not new. “This has always been my first interest,” she says. By “this” she means using the law to help those in need. But even before she practiced law, Fulton worked to help people.

Jane Fulton close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Crusading is Fulton’s first interest

A career of service

 A Navy veteran prior to starting law school, Fulton was a social worker with the Sacramento County Welfare Department while she went to University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law at night. She was one of two women in her class. Anthony Kennedy, now Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy, was her constitutional law professor. 

“If you can’t learn constitutional law from him, you can’t learn it,” she says admiringly.

After her admission to the bar, Fulton worked as chief counsel for the California community college system. “I was 28 years old and wholly unqualified,” she says good-naturedly. “I went to all 99 junior colleges, at the time, and went to their board meetings. I was immediately struck that nobody ever talked about the students, the teachers or the curriculum. All I ever heard any of them talk about were their building funds and their salaries.” The wrong headedness of those meetings convinced Fulton to become a public defender in Los Angeles in the 1970s. She prepared and argued appellate briefs before the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. “That started my thirst for poverty law. I never got over that.” 

From Beverly Hills to Laguna

However, Fulton left the public defender’s office to set up her own practice. She says she was “happily” practicing law in Beverly Hills when a romance prompted her to move to Laguna in 1977. She set up her practice here in 1979. “I practiced family law and criminal law,” she says. “It’s amazing how those things go together.” In 2000, she decided to retire.

Coming out of retirement to right some perceived wrongs

Fulton had a plan for her retirement, and it did not include golf. She was determined to become an accomplished painter. She went to art school. She traveled. She painted. Then, in 2008, she says she witnessed something that disturbed her. “I saw some homeless people being mistreated,” she says. “I knew (City Council member) Jane Egly. I wrote her a long, outraged letter. She wrote me back. She said, ‘Boo hoo. Get involved.’” The next thing Fulton knew she was on the City’s task force to build the Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) for homeless individuals and, after that, Seaside Legal Services was born.

Jane Fulton with painting

Click on photo for a larger image

Painting subsidizes law firm

The way Seaside Legal works is that all potential clients fill out an intake sheet online. Fulton says the requirements to qualify are loose because everyone’s situation is different. Someone may make what seems like a decent salary, but if they have a child with extensive medical needs, they might qualify. “If there are people who need – not want – aid, I can figure it out. If they don’t qualify, I try to send them to a lawyer we know who will treat them well.” Local attorneys Tom Davis and Larry Nokes are two such colleagues whose praises Fulton sings.

Providing more than just legal services

Legal services are Fulton’s expertise, but she also provides some outreach counseling. Martha Hernandez, a counselor with the Senior Center, is someone Fulton works with a lot. “We’re involved in affordable housing. The one thing they all have in common is they’re house-challenged. This office represents the people who live in the affordable housing complex on Broadway. They were going to lose that in June,” according to Fulton.

A local developer lends a hand for affordable senior housing

However, there is hope. Fulton extolls the commitment of local developer Mo Honarkar. “He has been unfairly maligned,” says Fulton. Honarkar negotiated a 60-year lease for land in the canyon because HUD requires a 55-year lease for their properties. “He’s got plans to build low-income senior housing. We’re working very hard to accomplish that.”

Helping seniors is a lot of what she does, but by no means all

Fulton says more and more of her clients are seniors. She offers a regular legal clinic (everyone gets a half hour appointment) at the Susi Q. “My clinics are almost always full,” she says. “I ascertain if I can help them. If I can’t help, I refer them out.”

Jane Fulton with sign

Click on photo for a larger image

The three Janes listed – Seaside Legal, Fulton Fine Art, and Attorney

It’s not only seniors Fulton works with, of course. There are many – too many – people who need her services. That is why she would very much like to hire another attorney. “I work for a pittance,” she says, which is why hiring another lawyer will not be easy. “I need to be able to pay them at least enough, so they can pay their law school debts,” she says. Seaside Legal Services is a 501(c)3, which means if you work for them for 10 years, any law school debt you have remaining after those 10 years will be forgiven. “I’d like to get a younger lawyer to take my place,” she says. Lawyers with a California license who would like to volunteer their services would also be very welcome.

Her painting now helps subsidize her law firm

Seaside Legal Services is getting ready to send out their year-end ask. “We just need people in this community to please remember us,” she says. “It’s tax-deductible!” And should you need some art for your walls, Fulton’s office operates as a fine art gallery as well. “It helps subsidize what we do,” she says. Plus it keeps her painting. “Painting is my excuse to stand outside and enjoy the scenery.”

Committed to doing something meaningful

“I really needed to do something meaningful with my life,” says Fulton. Certainly that mission has been accomplished. And she is as committed as she has ever been. She is quick to say she isn’t doing it alone, heaping praise on the women who sit on her Board of Directors (yes, they are all women) and the Kling Family Foundation that supports her, as well as the accountants and lawyers that help her out when asked.

“Thanks to my age, they’re nice to me,” she says half-joking. It is abundantly clear to anyone who meets her it is not her seniority that draws people in, but rather her commitment to those in need. Plus it’s hard to say no to someone who has no qualms about asking, because she’s not asking for herself. “When people get our cards, don’t be cheap,” she says feistily. Or come in and buy a painting. “If you’re nice, I’ll let you make the check out to Seaside Legal Services,” she says mischievously. That would make the painting a donation. And that is what is called a win-win.

Laguna Logo

Sue Kempf: Ready to get to work for Laguna


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

People move to Laguna Beach for all sorts of reasons. In Sue Kempf’s case, it started with traffic and volleyball. With her job in Irvine and her home in San Diego, the hour drive through traffic, back and forth each way, every day, was unsurprisingly taking a toll. It was during this time that Kempf also sat on the Board of the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association (WPVA). A former collegiate player from Indiana University, Kempf would stop and visit a friend who lived in Laguna when she had WPVA meetings. “I was tired of driving and I said ‘I’m moving to Laguna.’” In 1999 she did.

City committees lead the way to City Council

Kempf continued her work in systems and software engineering when, in 2010, the City launched the Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee. Kempf chaired the committee for three years. “It was just something I had an interest in,” she explains. “We’re a fire prone city, and we hadn’t really been doing anything like that.” Kempf’s interest in disaster preparedness was undoubtedly heightened by the Berkeley fires in 1991. “I was working in Berkeley during those fires. 25 people died in their cars. That got my attention,” she explains. The recent devastating fires in California have only helped highlight the committee’s important work.

Sue Kempf close up

Click on photo for a larger image

Sue Kempf, one of Laguna Beach City Council’s new members

From that committee, Kempf was asked to participate in the View Preservation Task Force, another City committee where passions can run high. “We visited a lot of people,” says Kempf. “It was a good experience and we put together an extremely good ordinance.” Little did she know that these experiences were the start of her political career.

A hard pass eventually becomes a yes

That became evident pretty quickly when Bob Whalen and Kelly Boyd invited her to breakfast. It was not a social call. They asked her if she would consider running for City Council. “I said, ‘Ooooh no,’” laughs Kempf. “Then more and more people started to ask me. I just decided to go with it.” She says she’s not a natural politician, but she threw her hat into the ring. “I was in it to win,” she says, spoken like the collegiate athlete she once was.

And win she did. When Kempf and I met, she’d known the results for several weeks. However, she said it took that long for her victory to sink in. “I was very tired. For three days, I didn’t go out of my house (after the election). You have a few days where you wait for the vote totals. This is the first week that it hit me that I won.”

It turns out campaigning is not all that fun

As for campaigning, it’s probably no surprise to learn that Kempf found it trying. “Self promotion is very difficult. You get pretty tired of talking about yourself,” she says. “It’s challenging.” Nevertheless, she managed to stay true to what she believes is a respectable – and effective – way to conduct a campaign. “Be yourself. Don’t engage in negative politics. Be prepared to defend your reasons. Don’t cast your fellow competitors in a bad light. Talk to as many people as you can, and be a good listener.”

Sue Kempf at Heisler

Click on photo for a larger image

Sue Kempf visits one of Laguna Beach’s true treasures, Heisler Park

With the victory clinched, I wondered if there were parts of the campaigning experience that were better than she’d thought they would be. “None of it was better than I thought,” she says wearily. “It was all worse. The last three weeks, it always seems to kind of devolve in every election. That happened here as well. I think, most unnecessarily.” 

A linear approach to work

Despite the bruising nature of the election, now that it is behind her, Kempf is excited to get to work. “I’m very linear about doing the work,” she explains. “What we want to work on and how we want to work on it is interesting to me. I have been successful in business, and I hope to be successful here as well.” And there are a lot of things to work on.

Open to changing the rules to encourage new business

However, identifying the issues is not the hard part, coming up with workable solutions is. Recognizing that, Kempf says she is open to making changes. “Our rules prevent us from getting new, interesting businesses. We’re going to have to change that,” she says. 

Sue Kempf sitting

Click on photo for a larger image

Sue Kempf taking a break at Heisler Park before she begins her first term on the City Council

The silent majority is alive and well

And while she didn’t really enjoy campaigning, she did find parts of it to be valuable. “You learn a lot about the community. There’s a large, silent majority that doesn’t come to the City Council meetings. But they’re paying attention. It was really good to talk to those people.”

Going forward as a new City Council member, Kemp says she’d like to continue hearing from as many people as possible. “I’m an objective and open-minded person. I’m also an open door kind of person. I hope we can have a Council that doesn’t listen to the same 10 people.”

The golf course will have to wait

Kempf retired from her software career in 2017. At the time she thought about just indulging in her favorite past time. “People said, ‘You can’t just play golf every day!’ and I thought, ‘Why can’t I?!’” she recounts laughing. But duty called, and now her full immersion on the fairways of El Niguel Country Club will have to wait for at least four more years.

Page 1 of 26