Lifelong Laguna Beach resident and entrepreneur Mark Christy shares his passion and his vision for the city with which he’s enjoyed an enduring and steadfast love affair.
By Lauren Simon
If Forest Avenue is the heart of Laguna Beach, then certainly Mark Christy lives his life in sync with the rhythm of that heart. As president/principal of Hobie Sports and Tuvalu home furnishings, partner at La Sirena Grill, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway and managing partner of The Ranch at Laguna Beach (titles updated for 2021), Mark is inexorably enmeshed in the place he has called home since his infancy. His heavy involvement shows not only in his many investments in local businesses, but also in his willingness to donate time and resources to making this a better place to live and work.
Recently, Mark asked local residents to spend their money in Laguna Beach in support of local merchants. “Our local shops have really cool stuff at competitive prices and will earn and appreciate your business like no one else,” Mark wrote in the Laguna Beach Independent. “And the best part; the experience itself will give you a community-supportive morality boost.”
Laguna Beach Magazine sat down with Mark to talk about his dedication to the city he deeply loves.
Q: You’ve encouraged residents to support local businesses by shopping in town. Why is that important to you?
A: I just know how tough it is to run an entrepreneurial business under the best of circumstances. And in this economy, I feel for my friends and neighbors, many of whom I’ve known for decades, who are experiencing acute financial strain right now as a result of forces beyond their control. But I’m not asking local residents to sacrifice in any way. I just hope to remind them that Laguna’s shops offer very cool stuff at competitive prices.
Q: Do you make an effort to spend your own money locally?
A: Whenever possible, I shop locally. But I’ve been doing that for many years. I might pay an extra dollar or two at Laguna Auto Supply, but Jerry [Piper] is a cool guy and will gladly walk out to your car to see if you’re on the right track. Most Laguna business owners will gladly go the extra mile or two for you.
Q: How much of the supplies that go into Hobie products are produced locally? In other words, do you extend your desire to support local business beyond the purchase of end products?
A: We make every effort to keep it local, though some things we just can’t source here. With our surfboards, even after the closure of Clark Foam, we still buy the blanks locally. Then Terry Martin and Gary Larson shape our boards in our original Capistrano Beach surfboard factory. Within our clothing line, take T-shirts, for example, we buy most blanks locally, preferably organic; then Brandon [Lane] at Sundance Graphics does our screenprinting. He’s the best there is and a nice person to boot.
Q: What does Hobie do to invite shoppers into your stores?
A: We pay attention. In all our stores, the windows, the product, the merchandising and the layout are constantly evolving. If you haven’t visited any of the stores in three weeks or so, your experience should offer you something completely new and fresh in terms of product and presentation. I literally walk each store with the scrutinous eye of a customer. If it isn’t exciting to me in terms of cleanliness, fun factor and fresh styles, then we’re doing something wrong.
Q: In addition to Hobie, you also co-own Tuvalu with your sister Laurie Alter and partner Joe Gelber. How much of Tuvalu’s merchandise is produced by local artisans and manufacturers?
A: Tuvalu is really my sister’s baby. But I can tell you that while she literally scours the globe to find incredibly cool and unusual stuff, a large portion of the product is created within 30 miles of the store. Laurie and I share the same “think globally, shop locally” philosophy, and she features local artisans whenever possible. Local artists like Mike Hallinan, the late Patrick Tobin, Anne-Liv Scott and jewelry maven Candace Hurley are just a few of the many who have worked with us for years. This is particularly important given the frustrating lack of availability for local gallery exposure faced by most local artisans. There is so much talent in this town and so little opportunity to exhibit work on a year-round basis.
Q: Share how your businesses contribute to the local economy and give back to the community.
A: Locally our sales are in the mid-seven figures, so, of course, we generate some decent sales taxes. We employ about 150 people at the Hobie and Tuvalu stores, with another 20 or so within Hobie designs/surfboards. And there are dozens more with La Sirena Grill. All told, we’re probably fueling a couple of million dollars annually in local salaries. But beyond the in-house operation, grassroots community involvement also is very important to us, so we are always looking for tangible, effective ways to give back to the town. To that end, we are perennially one of the largest supporters of SchoolPower, along with independently supporting virtually every sports team and club at all the local schools. We donate heavily to the Friendship Shelter, the Boys & Girls Club and other local causes we believe in. And last year, we lent some serious support to the South Coast Hospital Foundation’s annual gala to help ensure that a prospective buyer recognizes how important this facility is to our town. The volunteers with all of these charities and organizations are doing the heavy lifting, and we’re stoked to lend a small hand.
Q: What do you believe would enhance the downtown Laguna Beach retail district to encourage residents to shop locally?
A: To succeed in Laguna, it is all about taking care of the locals. This must happen within each store, and on a macro level, as a town. I grew up here, plan on staying here and want to be proud of what we offer to the local customers. As a result, our stores focus primarily on giving our friends and neighbors everything they need and then giving back what we can to the community. Thankfully, the majority of the other retailers feel the same way. But admittedly, some downtown merchants need to reassess their business model and could simply do a better job. This economy, in particular, should remind them to continually improve product mix and focus on the customer experience. The service may be there, but the store itself is just not compelling enough to attract initial or repeat business. Entrepreneurial complacency will ultimately invite Darwinian principles to take effect. Combine that with a national funk, and you’ve got a serious problem.
Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do proactively, and our Business Task Force groups are working on these right now. First off, let’s clean the place up. Paint the buildings, clean the ice cream off the sidewalks and tend to the landscape. In essence, just show that we care. The city does what it can, given its budget constraints, and the crew that picks up the trash and maintains the city’s pocket parks does a great job. The rest is up to the building owners and the merchants.
Personally, I’d like to illicit a discussion about a pedestrian mall for the first block of Forest combined with a “Laguna Walk of Fame,” paying tribute to the legendary artists, environmentalists and civic leaders who have combined for nearly a century to make this place so magic. Forget Hollywood. I’d love to see a brass sidewalk plaque illuminating William Wendt’s plein air brilliance near others recounting the civic foresight of Jesse Riddle and environmental advocacy of James Dilley. Laguna has dozens of great stories. We should share them with the locals and visitors.
Q: How can Laguna Beach balance its desire to support its local retailers, to stay small and unique, and to provide residents with a good variety of shopping opportunities within the city?
A: I believe that striking the balance, while elusive, is fully achievable. The downtown specific plan (DSP) is a well-intended document akin to that of Carmel and is the only reason our downtown doesn’t look like the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Citywalk. Without the DSP, we would migrate toward a proliferation of high-margin storefronts selling T-shirts, ice cream, trinkets and souvenirs—all geared toward tourist dollars. The maintenance and enhancement of Laguna’s character is essential to creating a unique experience for locals and tourists alike. But if we aren’t vigilant, then we’ll just become another mutated variation on a strip mall.
That said, we still need a place to buy sheets. However, it is a common misperception that City Hall won’t allow chain stores into town. The fact is only the downtown basin falls within the confines of the DSP, and nowhere in that document does it preclude chain stores. It merely tries to discourage formulaic presentation. But it would be wise to attract some retail anchors that offer something fresh and unique for the locals while maintaining the essence and vibe of Laguna. As an example, I’d love to see an Apple store downtown. Those guys do an amazing job with the in-store experience. But to allow any willing national retailer with deep pockets to sign up without limitations would inevitably diminish the charm and drive out every mom-and-pop store in short order.
Should the DSP be simplified and clarified? Absolutely. Should it be scrapped entirely to let market forces be the sole determining factor in the design of the new downtown Laguna? I don’t think so. And I own several properties on Forest Avenue. It might mean a huge financial windfall to me, but in my heart, I know it would be the end of Laguna as we know and love it.
Mark Christy Close Up
Years in Laguna Beach: Since he was 18 months old
Local businesses: Three Hobie stores (Laguna Beach, Dana Point, San Clemente), two Tuvalu stores (Laguna Beach and San Clemente) and La Sirena Grill (three locations, including two in Laguna Beach and one in Irvine) and The Ranch at Laguna Beach (updated for 2021)
Hobie products: Surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, clothing, sunglasses, boats/kayaks (owned by another entity), skateboards and numerous other lifestyle accessories
Favorite things to buy locally: Meals at local restaurants, organic fruit at the farmers market, pet supplies, books, music, shoes, groceries, clothing and gifts
Things you buy elsewhere that you wish you could buy locally: Small household appliances. Office supplies, “especially when my son’s printer cartridge goes empty mid-homework assignment.”
One thing people think they know but isn’t true: “Hobie founder Hobie Alter is not my father-in-law. He is my sister’s father-in-law but is my partner in several investments. He is a very humble, incredibly bright man and a mentor of mine.”
Favorite current surfboard: A Hobie stand-up paddleboard. “Taking a morning Zen-like paddle along the Laguna coastline on a glass-bottom boat day? Priceless.”
Photos courtesy of Courtenay Nearburg
On the 2009 article: Mark Christy, managing partner of The Ranch at Laguna Beach—among his connections to other local businesses—encourages investing in the town to make this community a better place to live and work. We support his mantra; to succeed in Laguna, it’s all about taking care of the locals.