Is upscale Carmel becoming too tacky? Changes: Locals grouse that the city's ambience is being destroyed by T-shirt shops and chain stores.

March 30, 1997|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

You won't find see-through plastic visors decorated with a drawing of the local mission here. Or hot-pink sunglasses shaped like seashells. And you won't find postcards of bikini-popping blondes crowing about Carmel's sandy splendors.

But there's a queasy feeling here nonetheless.

A dread that Carmel, Calif., may -- just may -- be turning tacky.

Sure, Ocean Avenue, the premiere downtown strolling strip, is still dimpled with cozy little courtyards and genteel nook-and-cranny boutiques. But locals complain that the stale, canned look of a shopping mall has started to congeal over parts of downtown.

Several chain stores have moved in. And so have a few brash T-shirt shops. Some of these stores play rock music. Their employees walk around in sweats. They are very, very un-Carmel.

And they have the Old Guard here atwitter -- and plotting a crackdown.

Carmel, they insist, is supposed to be about fine art and refined clothes. It's supposed to be about one-of-a-kind boutiques where the proprietor knows your name and remembers what color cashmere sweater you bought last fall.

Image problems

Why, locals ask, are there plaid boxers hanging from the window of a Big Dog Sportswear store on Ocean Avenue? (The same plaid boxers, they point out with pique, that Big Dog sells in all of its 125 stores nationwide.) Why is there a plastic mannequin swimming across the ceiling of the Speedo store? For that matter, why is there a Speedo store at all? Or a Sharper Image? Or four shops stacked to the rafters with Carmel T-shirts?

One longtime resident summed up the prevailing mood with a nod toward the offensive shops and a sour grumble: "That's what's killing Carmel."

To prevent their beloved town from degenerating into a tawdry tourist trap, a citizen task force is now at work drafting two ordinances: one to sharply restrict T-shirt sales and the other to roust out chain stores. Much as other cities seek to regulate liquor stores or gun shops, the committee is considering banning T-shirt displays in store windows and phasing out chain stores. As one T-shirt vendor complained: "In Carmel, people treat me like I'm selling pornography."

To outsiders, the crusade to preserve Carmel may seem unduly alarmist. Carmel still boasts at least 70 art galleries. Tourist after tourist praises the town. And the much-reviled chain stores are largely upscale; it's hard to imagine Ann Taylor or Benetton bringing down a neighborhood. Even the T-shirts carry prices that can top $40 apiece -- no flimsy beach-bum rags sold here.

"It's not like we're coming in with in-your-face stuff," said Big Dog executive vice president Anthony Wall, who steams at the anti-chain snobbery. "It's not even like we're a New York brand coming to Carmel. We're from Santa Barbara!"

Yet the anti-chainers care not a whit about the location of the corporate headquarters. They complain that the mom-and-pop boutiques that make Carmel unique cannot compete with the big bureaucracies.

Most longtime residents do acknowledge that a couple of mass-market stores won't kill Carmel. The problem, locals say, is balance.

Carmel is very big on balance. This is, after all, the town that exploded in a fierce political hoo-hah on the issue of whether Mrs. Field's was selling the proper proportion of cookies to muffins. It's the town that tells each store owner only a certain percentage of merchandise can be emblazoned with "Carmel" -- and then sends code enforcement officers to count the stock.

So it's serious when locals start to feel as though the balance between hand-painted music boxes and mass-produced bathing suits is sliding out of whack.

'The kiss of death'

"When you get Crazy Shirts, Speedo and Big Dog all in one block, people get worried about it, because they cater to the lowest common denominator," explained Doug Steakley, who has lived in Carmel for 20 years. Leaning over the counter in his Concepts gallery of jewelry and art, Steakley added: "To me, it's the kiss of death."

That doomsday attitude sounds like a major case of denial to entrepreneurs like Anthony Lucido, a third-generation Carmel resident who operates a little T-shirt shop on Ocean.

Like it or not -- and most residents do not -- Carmel lives off tourists. Twenty percent of the municipal budget comes from hotel taxes. Another 30 percent comes from sales taxes, largely generated by visitors, according to senior city planner Richard Tooker.

Yet Carmel is so ambivalent about its tourists, it doesn't even count them. (The best estimate is 1.5 million a year.) And Lucido says his fellow citizens make him feel as though he's doing something dirty when he stocks his shelves with Carmel T-shirts and Carmel magnets and fuchsia Carmel tank tops.

"They treat us like we're nondesirables, selling some exotic weird product," Lucido protested. "I don't see how a picture of a sea otter (on a T-shirt) is going to contribute to the delinquency of a minor. This is what tourists are looking for."

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