Tag Archives: Laguna Beach

In My Parents’ Footsteps…

In the 1970’s, my parents owned Farenheit 451, a small bookstore in Laguna Beach, California. They had one child – my brother – and they all lived above the bookstore. They lived a carefree, hippie lifestyle. My dad would run barefoot on the beach every day until his feet bled. He drank raw juice concoctions, and he had a long, scraggly, red beard. They had a myna bird that would wolf whistle at the girls walking by. And their customers were an eclectic bunch, some of whom would come not for the books but to talk to my parents for hours. Life was interesting to say the least, but, two years in, it got even more so.

In 1974, two plain-clothed officers entered the store, purchased a Zap Comix book and then proceeded to arrest my mom who was alone in the store at the time. She was taken down to the police station where she was fingerprinted and treated like a criminal. Pregnant with my sister at the time, they wanted to strip search her, but she refused. Her crime? Selling the satirical, controversial comic books which included sex, drugs and violence – or, in other words, pornography. Their arrest marked the beginning of a two year battle with the city of Laguna Beach.

My parents, detesting censorship, reached out to the local newspapers and the community, and, fortunately, Laguna Beach responded with resounding support. The local newspaper, The Daily Pilot, gave them a voice, printing numerous articles about their case. My parents would plaster the windows of their bookstore with the articles, and when the police ordered them to remove the articles, the newspaper printed a new article about how the police were harassing them. The community attended the city hall meetings and court hearings in droves. And the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union – took on their case, offering them legal representation for free.

Not backing down, my parents continued to sell Zap Comix in their store and even celebrated the anniversary of their arrest by printing flyers which they put everywhere, including on the police cars. On Halloween day 1976 – after two solid years of fighting – the charges against them were finally dropped. My parents had won the case. They sold the bookstore later that year, left Laguna Beach and moved to a small mountain town called Idyllwild where they both went back to teaching and where, two years later, I was born. Laguna Beach was changing, and many of the liberal hippie types were leaving, including one bus load full headed for Oregon. Inside was a group called Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them and a dentist who wrote “Liberated” across his degree and taped it to the bus.

Their case might have come to a close and Laguna Beach might have officially become a part of their past, but the arrest and subsequent two year legal battle stirred a sleeping giant and awakend a radicalism within my dad. From that point on, he started writing letters to the editors about issues that were close to his heart – first censorship and then the Drug War – and he hasn’t stopped writing since. For my dad’s 70th birthday, my sister compiled many of his letters – including all of them would have been impossible – and put them in a book. The publications in which his letters have been printed range from the Orange County Register to the New York Times and even Time magazine.

But his thoughts weren’t just confined to letters. Throughout my childhood, I listened to my dad talk for hours to anyone who would listen about how we should legalize drugs. I would roll my eyes at his passionate discourse about how the government was trying to take away our freedoms one by one. He was such a starch libertarian and always so radical in his ideas. I could never understand where this undying resistance to government came from. What made him so tirelessly angry that it drove him to attend protests, attend meetings held by libertarian candidates, and constantly make his voice and opinions heard? I could never really understand it and then something happened this year that made me catch a glimpse of the world through his perspective.

Life shapes you and molds you depending on the people you meet and the experiences you have. The person you are born as will inevitably change as life runs its course and you meet people who influence you and you confront challenges that affect you. But, oftentimes, it requires having your own life experience before you can fully understand other people’s battles – even those of the people who are closest to you. This summer has been an eye opener. In 1974, my parents were dragged into a battle. July 31st 2016 marked the beginning of our own.

It was a Sunday evening when two policemen walked through the doors of AlteArte and proceeded to fine me for the terrace tables that we had on the street directly outside. Those tables had been there from the time that AlteArte was created back in 2006. Every year, we applied for a terrace license and every year the city hall approved it. But, recently, there had been a change in government, and the new party had arbitrarily decided that it was time to start applying a 10 year old regulation, a regulation that would significantly reduce many business’s terraces – including our own. We had first received word of the reduction of the terraces in early July, but it seemed so unlikely that they would actually apply it in the middle of the high season that we didn’t pay it much attention. Plus, at the couple of meetings that we had had with the city hall, the mayor and councilman who had put the order in place, weren’t being clear about when it would start being enforced. So, naturally, we decided to continue doing business as usual. After all, removing the tables would mean significant loss since we work primarily with our terrace in the Summer.

However, when the cops wrote us up on July 31st because we had the two tables and eight chairs on that street when we weren’t supposed to have any, we realized that it was most definitely being enforced. The fine ranged between 750 euros and 1500 euros, depending on when we paid it. As far as we know, we were the first to receive a fine for putting out our full terrace. In the weeks that followed, more businesses got fined, one business as much as three times over three consecutive days mounting to a total of 4500 euros. That restaurant finally consented and removed their whole terrace. Another business was severely fined and forced to reduce their tables as well as the big umbrellas that were fixed securely to the ground. The only umbrellas they were allowed were ones that could be removed every night. That would have been fine except the wind can get so strong that it literally uproots the flimsier umbrellas – as we saw ourselves days after they made the switch when we drove by on our scooter and saw the customers desperately holding on to the airborn umbrella. And yet another business got their whole terrace removed. On August 30th, that business closed their doors for good.

The city deciding to make these drastic changes was one thing, but for them to decide to do it literally at the peak of the high season was utterly absurd – and it began to feel disturbingly as though we were under attack by our own city. And the worst part was that they didn’t have any clear or logical reason for doing what they were doing. They claimed that the terraces obstructed passageway and gave a bad image of Altea to the visiting tourists. Seriously?! Lively terraces surely gave a better image than the cops going up and down the street counting all the tables and chairs and talking to the owners of the businesses, which is what they did on two consecutive Fridays at 10pm when the old town was bustling and the businesses were full. They claimed they wanted to keep the quality of tourism high – unlike in Benidorm, the next town over known for its unruly and rowdy tourism. But then why start renting out inflatable ducks and slides? Didn’t that capture the very image of Benidorm?? Why spend tons of money building a beach? Hadn’t Altea been attracting a different type of tourism specifically because we didn’t offer the same as the tourist-ridden beach towns around us?

The meetings with the city hall were futile. The councilman who, apparently, was the one who had started the whole mess was just a baby. According to his Facebook page, he had just graduated from school in 2014. He was present at the first couple of meetings but then conveniently on vacation in August when the business owners were most under attack (and also the angriest), and, at subsequent meetings after that, he conveniently stayed hidden behind the mayor. The mayor was no better. Uninformed of what was happening in his own city, it was up to us, the business owners, to inform him about what was going on. His only response was that, as mayor, he didn’t have the power to put a hold on what was happening. Of course he did! The police had obviously received the orders to regulate the terraces from someone! He also insisted that all the businesses were being treated the same. Then how come some businesses (interestingly, all the foreign-owned ones) were being outright persecuted while others continued to put their full terraces out and apparently hadn’t even received a single fine?

August passed and we limped along as best we could, although we were seriously feeling the loss of our tables and chairs. And just when we were feeling tired and defeated and losing the strength to fight, some of our friends took up the fight for us, leading a sit-in protest. They sat on the stairs of Calle Santo Domingo and held the petition up explaining the situation to the tourists passing by. And they added pages of signatures. Their support at that moment was undescribable. They gave us their strength at a moment when we were lacking our own. It assured us we weren’t alone. It lifted us up in order to keep going even in the face of absurdity.

And we welcomed September with an eagerness unlike any other Summer before. Between the late nights at work, the early morning meetings, the unrelenting intensity of the high season and the draining consequences of being under attack, September couldn’t come fast enough. And when it did, we planned a protest in front of the city hall. And when the mayor was in a meeting, we stormed his office and finally got his attention and secured a date for the next meeting. And at that meeting, he finally gave us enough respect to come prepared, and he laid out a plan over the coming months to have someone come out and measure all the terraces. The battle with the city was far from over, but at least it was finally garnering some results.

And I couldn’t help but compare our experience with my parents’ fight. And, 38 years later, I finally began to understand why my dad had become the way he had. When you don’t know better, you trust the government to have our best interests in mind or, in the very least, to know what they’re doing. You innocently disregard corruption and personal connections, thinking all of that happens elsewhere. You naively believe that everyone plays on the same playing field. The summer had worn down my faith and opened my eyes to how and why things are really done the way they are done. And, for the first time in my life, I understood my parents’ battle with the Laguna Beach police for what it was – not just a story that I had heard retold countless times throughout my life, but a story about an identity-changing experience for my parents, a story about my parents’ courage and resilience in standing up for something that they believe in.

The high season was over, making the terrace reduction less financially painful, and the battle with the city hall was on hold until the next meeting. But just when we started to relax and breathe easier, we found ourselves under attack yet again. But, this time, it wasn’t the city coming after us for our terrace. This time, the enemy was even closer to home and was all around us, watching our every move…


Talking Business

I was 16 years old when my parents were approached by a group of people trying to raise capital in order to keep the Fahrenheit 451 bookstore in Laguna Beach, California open. They came to my parents for money because they hoped that, as former owners of the bookstore, my mom and dad might embrace the cause. I hoped the same and tried to talk them into it – but for slightly different reasons. The thought of owning a business was exhilarating. I could just imagine myself working the register and seeing the money flowing in. I wished that my parents hadn’t sold the store before I was born and saw this is a chance to reclaim it. Later, I would come to understand why they decided against it. I would become rational and logical and would think only of the risk, the stress and the responsibilities that owning a business entails, but, at that time, I could only see the fun side and dreamed of owning a business of my own when I grew up.

It has been a long time since I had that dream and the memory is at the edge of my consciousness – as if it could disappear for good at any moment. And it surely would have if I hadn’t met David and if life hadn’t happened as it did, dropping David and me off in Spain searching for a business of our own.

Since July, we’ve been searching for the right opportunity. We saw practically everything that was for rent and for sale in Torrevieja ranging from a space so small that we wondered where we’d stock the supplies to a restaurant so big that we wondered how we’d pay the rent. But big or small, there was always something that just didn’t feel quite right.

And then, in September, we visited Altea and fell in love with it. We saw an apartment for sale and, on a whim, decided to call the owner to see if we could visit it. He showed us the newly renovated 2 bedroom apartment that was on sale for about $150,000 and then asked us if we wanted to see another property that he was selling. It turned out to be a 3 story house in the old part of Altea, and, as soon as we saw it, we started dreaming. We could live on the 3rd floor and turn the other floors into a tea house. The house was full of character and charm and we went home brimming with ideas but soon faced a reality check. As beautiful as the house was, as long as it was priced at $500,000, there was no way that we could afford it.

So our search continued and we returned a second time to Altea. And we visited a little bar that was available as a turnkey just one street over from the house. The rent was the cheapest we had found yet – about $650/month – and it was small enough for just the two of us to run, yet large enough to work with. While the sign outside announced that it was an art and internet lounge, from the inside it was clear that it was being run as a bar. Nevertheless, the space had potential. Transformed from an old house, it had a mezzanine, small windows, a decent stock room. And it was just one street down from the church, on one of the most charming streets of Altea. And we went back to Torrevieja with new ideas and possibilities.

In many ways, the business felt right and we started making plans to move to Altea. Even if we didn’t end up taking the cafe/bar, we loved Altea just as a place to live. And when we were settled in Altea, we started frequenting the bar and we discovered that it was a very cool, local hangout. And we started to get to know the people who hung out there. We met Andreas, a German guy who has been living in Altea for the past 35 years. He has an antique and furniture restoration store and is good friends with Pepe, the owner. We met Ignacio, the son of the mayor. He was talking to me in English while David went to the bathroom and casually mentioned that his father is the mayor. However, because he didn’t know the word, “mayor,” in English, he said it in Spanish. Had I understood correctly? I asked David to reconfirm in Spanish, and, sure enough, I had. Here, sitting before us, was the son of the mayor of Altea. And I couldn’t believe the company that we were keeping.

And, after much contemplation, we decided to take the leap and buy this business. And we met with Pepe and the landlord in a meeting shortly before we would sign the papers at which time David asked to see the actual business license. David’s stepmom had warned us countless times to make sure the license was in place. And we had asked about it the first time we saw the cafe/bar but had put it out of our minds after getting assurance from the landlord’s son that all the papers were in order. However, this time, when David asked to actually see it, the story was different. Pepe informed us that it was being processed, but that this was normal for businesses here. Because of the snail pace that things move in Spain, the license had been applied for 3 years and 7 months ago and they were still waiting word about the license! In the meantime, the business was fully operating. There was an established beer provider, wifi and telephone service, a faithful clientele. The only thing missing was the license. Yet it was the one thing that we needed to continue with the deal. After all, the surest way to make a bad investment in Spain is to buy a business that doesn’t have its license. And who knew when the license would be approved? It could drag on for years and, sure, if we took it over, we could operate the business, but, at any moment, we could also be shut down – or faced with a long list of requirements needed to bring the building up to code in order to get the license. It could turn into a big nightmare – with a huge price tag.

Armed with this new information, we decided to not take the business. And we called the next day to call off the deal. But Pepe asked to meet with us and so we did. And he assured us that he would cover the costs of any changes required for the license (we knew for a fact that the staircase would have to be widened) and even offered that we could pay half the turnkey up front and the other half when the license was approved. We were wrought with doubt and confusion. If he was really willing to cover the expenses, then that would greatly reduce the risk. And if he was willing to wait for the remaining amount of the turnkey fee then he would have reason to make sure it went through.

But we hadn’t known Pepe for that long and weren’t sure that we could trust him. But, as we wavered and as the days passed, we had the opportunity to get to know him better. We went out for dinner with him and his girlfriend, we heard from people around us what a good person Pepe is and how he comes from a great family. And the details of Pepe’s life came in to focus. We learned that his father owns a hotel on the promenade and that he works there full time and, for that reason, didn’t have the time or energy to run the bar – which was why he was now selling it. We watched in awe as he said hi to one person after another and then understood how he knew so many people when he told us that his family has been in Altea since the 16th century. His family has a hotel, an apartment building, a house in the countryside. They have orange trees and even make their own olive oil – 800 liters per year, to be exact – that they serve at the hotel’s restaurant. You couldn’t get more Altean than Pepe. Yet, even though he is so established, he is also very humble and doesn’t show his wealth. And we hung out more at his bar and even got to meet his brother and parents who came by for a drink, and we were impressed with how warm and welcoming they were. And our trust grew over the weeks. And we confirmed with others that it’s true, indeed, that many businesses in Altea don’t have their business licenses.

And, slowly, we tilted back toward taking it. And we set up a business account and even arranged a transfer of half the turnkey fee into his account. And then we left the bank and rounded the corner to go see the landlord’s son at the computer store that he owns, and, there, we not only found the landlord’s son but also his father and Pepe. And from the look on Pepe’s face, we knew that something was wrong. And we went out for a coffee and he told us that, honestly, he wasn’t sure how long it would take to get the license and how big of an ordeal it would be. He told us that he he preferred that we make our decision with everything out in the open and that we could take our time to decide. Just as we had grown to trust him, he had grown to like us and, apparently, couldn’t sell the business to us without being completely honest. At this point, he was beginning to feel more like an accomplice than someone trying to sell his business to us.

We were taken aback by his honesty but also deeply troubled. How could we go forward with the deal when even the seller was basically warning us against it? We immediately stopped the bank transfer and went home, disappointed and lost once more. It seemed as though our first attempt at buying a business had ended in a dead-end. More importantly, we realized that buying a business in Spain was very complicated, indeed. The whole process had been exhausting, and we decided to start a new search – for jobs. After all, every other business for sale in Altea was more than double – but, most often, triple – the price, which we just simply couldn’t afford.

Sadly, a small miracle would have to happen for us to even reconsider taking this one.

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