THE EBBS AND FLOWS OF BUSINESS

Throughout its time, the Upper Village gas station has been called many names. Even before it inherited the red, white and blue Chevron insignia, it was known as “A.M. Walker’s Gas Station.” Then, Roy Jensen bought it in 1963 and customers learned to refer to it simply and endearingly as “Roy’s Garage.” For ensuing decades, Roy and his Boys ran the place, maintaining its reputation as “The Hub of the Village.” Customers came in with cars and stories and later drove away, the image of Roy waving “until next time” in the rearview mirror, a cup of black coffee in hand and new memories to linger throughout the afternoon.

“All day long they come in. Movie stars and company presidents and ordinary people,” George Tamas wrote about the station 10 years ago in the Montecito Journal. “Need a little gas. A little tuneup for their lives. That’s all. And they’re on their way again.”

Roy retired a few years ago, sold the station to one of his Boys, Jack Abston, his station manager, who subsequently ditched the Chevron logo in favor of a new name, “Montecito Service Station.”

A couple weeks ago, and more than 75 years and three owners come and gone, the station became known as something entirely unfamiliar – “Closed.” The station went bankrupt, Roy and others have reported, and Jack Abston’s left for Oregon with apparently no intention of coming back. Steven Szabo, a local real estate agent with ties to the station, confirmed last week that Abston is “out of the picture.”

“To me it’s like the end of an era,” says Tamas, reflecting on the closure. “It’s almost like you’re shutting down all the bridges in Madison County and replacing them with a two-lane turnpike.”

The Upper Village station isn’t alone either. A host of businesses, having each in their own way contributed to Montecito’s semi-bucolic charm and identity, have closed recently or plan to close soon. Video Visions, the movie rental store in the Coast Village Shopping Center, went out of business about a month ago. All that remains is a dark void of empty shelves that once held rows of videos and DVDs. On the walls hang movie posters that are peeling at the corners and empty newspaper racks are stranded at the entrance.

Others businesses are gone too. The Liquor and Wine Grotto, on Coast Village Road, closed a few months ago after a huge clear-out sale. And last week a moving truck came by the Montecito Printing Center; within a couple hours the two-man crew had loaded copying machines and equipment in a tidy stack, like Tetris pieces in a giant block. Owner of 21 years, Rita, says she’s moving out of town and out of the printing profession. “It’s a tough business,” she says with a mix of resignation and disappointment.

A few days before that, the folks at Montecito Pet Shop closed a deal on a lease for a new store on the Mesa and later announced they’d be vacating their Coast Village Road space in November. They’ve been there for 19 years.

Reacting to the departure of these businesses, Judy Foreman, an MJ writer and owner of a Coast Village commercial property, said: “I feel a deep sense of loss of that small town neighborhood feeling that brought me to Montecito to begin with. People take pride in their neighborhood and the shopkeepers are part of the people in our neighborhood. I miss them when they are gone.”

The Hub of the Village

It’s possible that no one will miss the Upper Village gas station more dearly than Roy Jensen. He began working there in 1944 parking cars for A.M. Walker. Roy left to fight in Korea in 1950 and returned to Montecito two years later when he met Gibby, whom he wed in ’54. He worked at the Montecito Fire District and continued to park cars for Walker before Roy finally bought the station, his name becoming as synonymous with the garage as Hank Williams with a lovesick country song.

“Someday, there will be a sculpture here. They’ll call it Roy’s Garage In The Sky,” Tamas wrote in the Journal. “And out in front there will be Ruben and Charley and Mario – and Roy. They’ll be handsome young men again, caught in mid-laughter and good-hearted banter.”

Roy came by the Journal office last week to drop off old photos of the station. Together we looked at them and one black and white in particular caught our attention. It was taken in the 1960s at Roy’s Garage when it was still a full-service-only station. Threemen wearing dapper white shirts with the Chevron livery embroidered on the breast were servicing an old Chevrolet. One was filling a tire and another seemed to be polishing a passenger window. The third was settling the bill with the customer, who was sitting in the driver’s seat and would motor away having paid 35 cents a gallon for a tire and oil check and a full tank of gas.

“I’m sad to see [the station] closed because I worked there for sixty years,” Roy said last week over the phone. “For me, that’s why I didn’t retire, because I liked it so much.”

Added Tamas: “It wasn’t so much the gas you were getting; it was about the people.”

As little more than two weeks ago, the Upper Village station was up for sale. Jon McConnel, owner of Village Automotive Repair Inc., which he purchased from Roy in

1999, entered a sales agreement with Abston in early May. But the deal fell out of escrow on July 13 and Abston left for Oregon reportedly uninterested in striking a compromise. “We just couldn’t see eye to eye on it,” McConnel says.

But this doesn’t mean the deal is dead. For years McConnel’s been adamant about owning that station, saying he regrets not having bought it from Roy when he had the chance. Norman Borgatello owns the station building and McConnel says it’s possible they could negotiate a complicated agreement where by McConnel would reopen the station in a couple months and manage it, even in Abston’s absence. And McConnel already has plans.

“We don’t want to convert it to anything else but a gas station,” he says. “If I came here, I’d want to bring it back in time and make it a full service gas station. You just don’t find that here anymore.”

Roy would be happy with that too. “I’d like to see it return exactly to what it was,” he says.

Montecito’s Pet Emporium

Like so many of the pets who came into their midst and went off in the arms of a doting new owner, the staff at Montecito Pet Shop have found another home. In November, they’ll move into their Cliff Drive digs (near Albertson’s) with 400 additional square feet to play with. Owner Elise Kuhn says she didn’t want to leave. But when Gene Montesano (who coowns nearby Tre Lune) bought the entire building and raised the rent, Kuhn realized it would be impossible to stay.

“Of course you’re very shocked at first when you’ve been here for nineteen years,” Kuhn says. “But it’s also a miracle because the spot on the Mesa opened up.”

Still, it’s tough for Kuhn and her crew to contain their sadness. For them the store has been akin to a spa getaway; it’s a sanctuary where “pet junkies” arrive for ephemeral peace and relaxation. “The thing about Coast Village Road, with all its booming business and it being so built up, we are a huge stress break for people,” says Liza Johnston, the store manager. “They come here and get their puppy or kitty fix and go back to work feeling better.”

Johnston says what she’ll miss most about the store is “how good it feels to find the perfect home for the perfect pet. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it.”

One thing customers could always rely on at Montecito Pet Shop was its selection of “toy dogs.” The store is too small for bigger breeds, Johnston says, and besides, “big puppies get big too quickly.” They’ve kept about a dozen dogs at a time, in two or three breeds, and the puppies would paw at the exterior window, faces pressed against the glass to tantalize passing pedestrians. The pet shop keeps other critters also: cats, birds, fish. They quit selling reptiles some years back. Apparently few people bought them.

The pets are all chosen individually. Kuhn and Johnston order all of them through private dealers, and customers seem to respect that. “I’m very disappointed they’re leaving,” says Pamela Toscher, a pet shop client of 13 years. “My dogs always get bathed and clipped here. These are people who really care about animals.”

Kuhn apparently cared about animals long before she even owned a pet store. She’d been a part-time pet groomer and was something of an animal collector. She owned a litter of creatures that ran the gamut: cats and dogs, wolves, alligators, chickens and so on. “I always had tons of animals,” Kuhn says. “And I mean a lot!”

She bought her store space in 1987 back when it was the Bike and Hike Shop, which had been there for nearly 40 years. She immediately opened the pet grooming salon; the pet shop came two years after. From then on, the staff saw thousands of pets come and go, and thousands of children come and grow. Those are the thoughts that stay etched in their memory bank.

“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up,” Johnston says. “I’ll see some of them at the new shop but some of them I won’t see again.”

They Come; They Go

In Montecito, not unlike any other area of the world, businesses come and go. Habits change, rents go up and people move on. “That’s a natural turn of events,” says Mike Chenowith, a Montecito commercial property owner. “As long as I’ve been in Montecito, I’ve seen a lot of local businesses turn on Coast Village Road.”

Chenowith attributes the latest disappearance of stores to an abrupt and steep increase in commercial rent. Many shopkeepers’ long-term leases have elapsed recently, Chenowith says, and property owners have been forced to bump rent up to market value. Some small businesses can stay alive at $4 per square foot, but “they can only reach a certain threshold,” Chenowith says.

Which is not to say that when small businesses go, corporate chains take their place. That trend is more common in places like State Street, where rents reach north of $6.50 per square foot, and places like Starbucks and McDonald’s have found a niche. Recent history in Montecito suggests that when a locally owned business shuts down, another locally owned business replaces it. Here’s the Scoop, Panino, Susan Pitcher’s Dressed and Ready, Gelateria Gioia and Los Arroyos are all examples of this enduring tradition.

Property owners contend that as long as people are willing to live in Montecito, they’ll also be willing to own businesses there. “I think Coast Village Road is a reflection of the residential market,” says Judy Foreman, who owns the building where Los Arroyos and Red’s Studio operate. “If someone can get an exorbitant price for their home, commercial property will follow, and the kinds of stores that can thrive in Montecito will change. The shopkeepers will have to have deep pockets, staying power, selection and quality.”

Not all merchants are affected by the pressure of high rents, of course. This year, the Montecito Barber Shop, in the Coast Village Shopping Center, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Last Thursday afternoon, employees set down their combs and clippers long enough to declare, “We’re alive and well.”