Laguna Beach’s industrious Old World artisans share the stories behind their craftsmanship and the keys to their professional longevity.
By Peter A. Balaskas | Photos by Jody Tiongco
On Ocean Avenue near downtown Laguna Beach, a leather craftsman repairs and refurbishes handbags from deluxe labels such as Prada, Gucci and Chanel. In the neighboring Forest Avenue Mall, a watchmaker recalibrates a 100-year-old grandfather clock and, in south Laguna, a tailor meticulously adjusts a wedding dress for a blushing young bride.
If there is one thing that these local entrepreneurs have in common, it is that they are dedicated masters of their Old World trades. And through hard work, timing and luck, they have become accomplished craftsmen in Laguna Beach. While their talents are rapidly becoming obsolete, their passion has allowed them to build successful, long-term businesses that thrive in Laguna and expose locals to a new (and old) kind of luxury.
A PASSIONATE CRAFT
Every artisan has a unique story about how they broke into their industry, and each one carries a special passion for their trade. For Denny Verlinger, owner of Cobbler’s Corner, it was his specific drive to become a business owner and a desire for hands-on craftsmanship that made him Laguna’s go-to man for shoe repair.
“I was independent enough to think that I would have a hard time working for somebody else for the rest of my life,” Denny says. “And [I was] already doing custom leatherwork at the time. So, [I] just felt it was a natural progression.”
After serving in the army and completing college, Denny honed his skills in custom leatherwork and local shoe repair before moving from Ohio to Phoenix to establish his own shoe repair shop. He operated that business for 25 years before relocating to his Laguna Beach workshop in 2007. He remains there to this day, offering full-service boot and shoe repairs utilizing specialized tools such as a sander, a McKay sewing machine (for mending soles) and a large selection of dyes, threads and heels for replacement.
Unlike Denny, who found his career as an adult, Arthur Martinez fell in love with his craft at an early age. As the new owner of established jewelry and watch repair shop, A Step Back in Time (previous owner Pat Espe recently retired and sold his shop to Arthur, the only person he trusted to carry the torch), Arthur carries a passion for repairing timepieces and jewelry that began when he was just 14 years old.
“It requires a lot of patience because a lot of times you are literally, hour by hour, dealing with something that is so detailed,” Arthur says. “… But it brings a lot of satisfaction when you see the end results.”
It’s this fortitude and attention to detail that also fuel Soheila Golgolab’s drive as the owner of Mimi’s Tailoring & Design. Inside her intimate shop in south Laguna are sewing machines and work stations where she expertly repairs, alters and designs custom clothing, bridal gowns, draperies and slip covers. But it is the creative process that stirs her mission to present the best product for her customers.
“When I’m working and something is coming out right … I have a big smile on my face,” Soheila says. “I think I’m either crazy or I’m in the right business. So, what I can do and what I can create is exciting for me.”
Like Soheila, Paula Del Percio, owner of The Hat Box, allows that creative insanity to fuel her own drive to be a top milliner in Laguna Beach. A cornucopia of hats populate her shop, ranging from basic beach bonnets to specialized caps, which she has personally made and measured using exotic materials such as Milan straw, Swiss braid, beaver felt and silk ribbon.
Although a dedication to the trade plays a large part in their success, it took more than passion for these artisans to become experts in their Old World professions; it also took unmatched skill, passed down from masters of the craft. Oftentimes, these vocations are handed down through family, as the importance to carry on with tradition is instilled in the younger generations.
Soheila understands this firsthand. When she was just 10 years old, her mother taught her and her sisters how to sew and create their own outfits and dresses, as though the skills were in their blood. “She knew fashion at that time,” Soheila says. “[My sisters and I] were the fashionistas of the whole family. We always had the best dresses; we always had … [my mother’s] eye for fashion, her eye for detail and [her] patience.”
Similarly, when it came to timepieces and jewelry, Arthur’s mentors were his father and grandfather, both of who were business owners in Mexico and Texas. His apprenticeship with them—which involved considerable hands-on training—lasted into his early 20s. He then set out on his own, working with high-end jewelry and watch retailers, including Neiman Marcus and Rolex, before taking over A Step Back in Time.
For Tom Graffio, owner of leather goods repair shop Factotum on Ocean Avenue, his training as an expert in leather repair and maintenance was also multigenerational. His grandfather and great uncle fixed soles and heels for shoes for a living when they moved to Long Beach from New York in 1921. Thirty years later, Tom’s grandfather died and his father took over the business. But he wouldn’t be where he is today without his family who taught him the trade.
As a child, Tom worked with his father on Saturdays and through the summers until he went to seminary as a student. There, he repaired shoes for the priests and other seminarians until he began as a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, working at several shoe shops throughout college before he opened Factotum’s Laguna Beach location in 1982. He soon expanded his leather repair beyond shoes to include all leather products, such as jackets, luggage, briefcases, belts and handbags, and has since opened two additional locations in Orange County.
“Gradually, [we started] working on other things than what [we] did before, like our handbag business, [which is] a big part of our business,” Tom says. “But we figured out over the years how to do all the dye work and … we’ve been able to further our leather craft … through our own experimentation.”
For Paula, her training as a milliner began when she helped her father at his hat factory in New York during the 1950s. In fact, out of all the tools she uses, Paula loves working with the same wooden hat blocks that her father once used to shape hats. Although she temporarily left her father’s factory to become a math teacher, she gave up her teaching career during the late 1980s to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York and pursue her passion for hat making.
This eventually led her to create high-fashion hair accessories and hats for major department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Nordstrom.
Although Denny did not learn the trade from a family member like Paula and others, he still received an education from a master of the craft, an Italian man named Tony Provenzale. “He was 70 years old when he came into the shop … he just had unbelievable energy, and the education was amazing,” Denny recalls. “But the [most important] thing he taught us was to embrace everybody that walks through your door because without that customer, you have nothing. And I have always lived by those words.”
Gurus of Old World vocations, like Denny, Tom, Paula, Soheila and Arthur, have managed to take advantage of Laguna’s demand for skilled craftsmen and have harnessed their talents to become successful Laguna Beach business owners. By applying handcrafted touches to their services, they have eradicated the myth that their skills are antiquated and should be replaced by technology.
Soheila, for example, feels that customers crave personal relationships with artisans who, like her, posses such rare skills. “I have [a] few [customers] that walked in here and now they are my good friends,” she says. “I cannot do ‘just business.’ ”
Paula feels there is also a practical aspect to as why Old World masters survive professionally over state-of-the-art companies: “[Larger companies] don’t offer the fine quality product,” she says. “It’s too much, too laborious, the raw materials are too expensive … it’s too individualized.”
It is their personal attention—not to mention their unmatched skills—that have led these five entrepreneurs to long and rewarding careers. For example, although Arthur only took over A Step Back in Time this past May, his customer base has remained loyal and continues to grow. And after seven and 10 years, respectively, Denny and Soheila have established their own niches in their south Laguna shops and have a solid foundation of customers who swear by their work. For 12 years, Paula has made quality hats for locals and well-known celebrities (Susan Lucci, Stefanie Powers, Dennis Rodman and even Robert De Niro have worn her custom creations). And after 32 years, Tom continues to work and thrive at his cozy studio along Ocean Avenue. He, along with his fellow craftsmen, appreciates the opportunity Laguna Beach offers Old World masters to accomplish their dreams and become successful entrepreneurs.
“Laguna Beach is as good a place as any … to exercise your creativity and … challenge … your skills as a craftsman,” he says. “So, we’re grateful that we have an opportunity to be in a place where people can recognize what [we] do.”