Three Tips for enjoying San Diego – “Mom & Pop” businesses

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Photo from 'shindohd' via Flikr

Photo from 'shindohd' via Flikr

Since it seems we could all do with a little help in this increasingly crowded metro-sprawl, my hope is that others will also post tips.

For my part, I tend to be aware of resources within central San Diego. Also, I lean toward the little guy, i.e., “Mom and Pop” establishments that depend almost entirely on local consumers. And while these places have always needed traffic, the current economy has, of course, increased that need: a steady flow of dollars can be the difference between staying afloat and bankruptcy.

In any fiscal case, I’ve seen many interesting businesses come and go at the hands of indifferent landlords – if the latter can raise the rent, there is rarely loyalty toward tenants, regardless of their hard work and investments. Rather depressing, eh? But these facts also highlight the potential in your shopping choices. Further, it has been my experience that independent stores and restaurants, where one is more likely to encounter the owner or a handful of caring (relative, at least, to those generally found in more corporate environments) employees, are much more likely to truly want to know how you are doing, to offer deals if they are able, and to go the extra mile.

1) Household

I was thinking of Ebey’s Vacuum when I mentioned that “extra mile” business. Last month I dragged in my four-wheel, 1400-watt, Sanitaire System Pro (I mention the particulars because I’ve been around a lot of guitarists lately) because I couldn’t dislodge the mysterious object that was stuck in the hose. Ebey carefully finished helping another customer before doing everything it took to make my machine functional, then acting like he might not even charge me.

“Can I give you something for that?” I asked.

“Oh, three dollars would be fine,” he replied, to which I exclaimed, “You’re a prince!”

Ebey has had to change locations at least once. He’s currently in North Park at 2346 University Avenue; 619.291.1194.

Along with doing repairs, he also carries an impressive array of new and refurbished electronic cleaners. Ebey’s isn’t a place to storm in, madly texting or gabbing on one’s handheld, or to be rude in any other way – we’re talking old-fashioned service, and behavior.

2) Mind and Soul:

Among businesses that tend to struggle, one of the most glaring examples is the independent bookstore. Within the last 15-20 years, hundreds upon hundreds have died after losing customers to Borders, Crown, and other corporations for whom books are just an avenue to cash. A haven for seekers of small press and other off-the-mainstream publications, The Blue Door vacated its Hillcrest perch in 2001. However, a couple years previous, Kris Nelson moved Bluestocking Books in next door (3817 Fifth Avenue, in Hillcrest).

While nothing can replace the Door, the Bluestocking is a special place. Polished hardwood floors, artfully arranged new and used books, chairs for reading, cards and gifts combine to give a feeling of abundant intellect and creativity. As evidenced by the following, Kris goes all out to invite book-mongering:

“Because used books are usually around ½ the new price, people can still generally afford to shop here. Also, we give trade credit for good used books, toward a 75 percent discount, or a (25 percent) discount on new books, stationary and gift items – that keeps it affordable for many folks in a way that mall stores just can’t match.”

Dearest to my heart is Kris’s dedication to free speech and community, including supporting local writers via book signings and monthly readings, and posting works by local poets amongst a sea of posters and flyers in the front window. 619.296.1424 or

3) Corporeal:

If you’re new in town you may be wondering where you can find another gasping (at least in San Diego) breed, something that used to be called a health food store. Yes, Henry’s carries a fair amount of organic vegetables and bulk items, and there’s always the masochistic pleasure of a money-shredding journey through Whole Foods. Now that Rancho’s has closed its North Park grocery, one of the only directions in which to turn the car (for now – a gourmet/organic food merchant has claimed the lot across from CVS Pharmacy, with a projected 2010 launch) is West, to Ocean Beach and the area’s lone food co-op, recently renamed Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market.

An activist/’60s outgrowth, OB People’s has been around for 38 years. Among its many pleasures are a huge array of cruelty-free health and beauty products, aisles of beautifully fresh organic produce, and an excellent vegetarian/vegan deli and bakery, with seating. Quite simply, it’s the area’s largest selection of organic foods; whether packaged, frozen, or scooped from rows of bins.

Membership ($15/year) isn’t mandatory – shopping without it entails paying a small surcharge. The co-op hosts an array of events including picnics, cooking classes, art displays, and political gatherings. It even sports another dying tradition, and health food store mainstay: a bulletin board packed with community flyers and announcements.