Santa Cruz’ East Side draws little attention. Lackluster commercial strips bisect sleepy old neighborhoods of big trees. It’s pleasant enough; but unless you live on the East Side, it’s just a place to drive through on your way to the big-box stories outside the city limits.
But the East Side does have its quiet attractions. At the very least, there is the Street of Inscrutable Enterprise. It stands unique in my six decades of experience on this planet.
The Street of Inscrutable Enterprise is a single block long. It connects two busy streets in an inconvenient sort of way; few cars enter it. When they do, their passengers see a street of mismatched commercial buildings and drab apartment houses. There’s no reason to stop.
Unless you have a keen eye, and a taste for unanswered questions.
On the Street of Inscrutable Enterprise you will find a battleship-grey frame building that houses a chiropractor’s office. The chiropractor’s name is painted on the side of the building in letters a foot high. But the doctor does not appear to practice. The blinds stay perpetually shut; the windows emit no light. No cars park in front. And yet, someone’s in there. One SUV parks in the back. It comes and goes. I have seen the front door open once, briefly, and quickly close.
Lest you think this the least bit odd, walk down the block to the Unnamed Church. The neighbors know that it’s a church. But it has no sign. It posts no name or regular hours of service. It may not have either one; I’ve seen it empty on Easter day.
The Unnamed Church seals itself tight behind tall steel fences. Weeds grow in the parking lot. Occasionally someone unlocks the lot, and a car or two appears. Once, on a Sunday, someone actually opened the church’s front door. Piano music drifted from inside; a single voice sang accompaniment. Sadly, the open door still lay behind a locked iron gate. I could have circled around through the parking lot, but didn’t bother. They didn’t seem to need visitors.
I looked up the church’s address online. It’s used by two corporations which translate bible study tracts into Chinese.
A glass-and-steel storefront down the block exposes two rooms to the street. One room, the one accessed through the front door, houses nothing but a velour-draped table and several high-backed chairs. Sometimes the table is set with artificial flowers; sometimes, pumpkins; sometimes, both. The other room stands empty save for six or seven identical wooden doors that lead — somewhere. They’re all perpetually shut.
On occasion, the postman shoves mail through the slot in the front door. It lies on the floor and accumulates for a time, then vanishes.
Another storefront bears a man’s name on the door and no other label or identification. Beyond the plate glass can be seen a comfortable office with its own mini-kitchen, an impressive desk, and a variety of plaques and magazines that cannot be read from the sidewalk. Much of the time, the office is empty. Occasionally a well-kept older man drives up in a well-kept older German automobile and sits behind the desk for a time. Then he leaves.
There are other things to discuss about the Street of Inscrutable Enterprise, but chief among them is the Darco Printing and Paper Store, a retail business that actually keeps regular hours. At Darco, only the hours are regular.
Darco prints business forms, business cards, and other print-worthy materials: “Since 1972,” shouts a fading sign. Two old folks lurk in the back; an extravagantly bored young woman of college age stands at the counter. We rarely see more than one other person in the place.
Darco sells varieties and colors of printer/copier paper that you can’t get at other stationers in these parts. In that sense it’s a valuable resource, albeit one that’s only open from 8 to 5:30 Monday through Friday. Originally Darco closed at 5, but added 30 minutes to their workday a couple of years a back. They made the slightest possible compromise with modern times. And never did that again.
But what you will notice when you walk in the door, besides regular stationery supplies, are the envelopes and pads of paper. Would you like a bundle of jet-black envelopes? How about an 8.5 by 5-inch pad of black paper?
At Darco you can get a paper pad or envelope of any color in any size, and sometimes in any stock. Does the name “Astrobright” mean anything to you? It’s the god they worship at Darco. Want an 8 by 14 pad of pink card-stock? Right this way, sir.
I’ve not seen such an inventory in the largest big city stationers. You can even get single pads in multiple colors: oranges, greens, yellows, pinks make separate layers down the side of the pads. They gleam like jewels. And it’s all — frankly — cheap.
The old gentleman in the back and I have talked on occasion. He likes to make glued pads of paper; he has the machinery to do it, and he does it. He does it so much that he uses the word “pad” as a verb. If a paper’s worth having, it’s worth having pads of it in one of several convenient sizes, that’s his view. He even takes paper scrap and pads it up as tiny “doodle pads” for as little as 3 cent apiece (for the ugly colors).
Three cents! I don’t think he sells many. He just believes that paper shouldn’t go to waste, and someday, you never know…
Rhumba goes to Darco for the drawing pads in different sizes and colors; after all, drawing on dark blue paper makes sense if you use white ink. But we both come back, again and again, for the screaming yellow business envelopes.
If you want to ensure that someone reads your letter, mail it in a screaming yellow envelope. It floats to the top of any pile. The recipient will always read it — if only to learn just what kind of person uses screaming yellow envelopes. Yellow envelopes work well on journalists, believe me. We also mail checks and money in them; tell people that their money’s coming in a bright yellow envelope, and they’ll watch the mail like hawks.
You can buy ’em at Darco by the bundle; lately, I’ve branched out into scrreaming orange, too. It’s the new hot color.
On that note we will leave the Street of Inscrutable Enterprise, that street of those people who do business — if you want to call it that — their way, with no concern for modern corporate practices. These are people who don’t’ worry about annual sales per square foot of space, or about signage, or even whether passers-by have these slightest idea of what’s going on behind those blinds and fences and blank storefronts.
They must be crazy, right? Or are they instead simply very, very lucky?
From the street, it can be hard to tell the difference. And sometimes, there isn’t one.
Wonderful! Ben Katchor would feel right at home. I don’t know why but this kind of marginal business district does my heart good. And our local paper store is no where near as interesting as yours. I’m so envious.
Santa Cruz had a lot of marginal businesses up to the recession, often operated by an older person or couple who serviced some long-time customers and didn’t look for new ones too hard. Many of them closed, then: the owners were too old to want to struggle or “reinvent themselves,” and they weren’t businesses that anybody wanted to buy, though some tried to sell. But as you probably know, the great advantage for an old, marginal business is to Own the Building, and I’d make a small wager that there’s a certain amount of that action on the Street of Marginal Enterprise. And always plenty of Free Street Parking. Tons.
Hope your business isn’t being _this_ inscrutable. 🙂
I’m fairly certain that my business is very inscrutable to some of the local folks. The locals who come to the little businesses here in this retail strip are usually looking for fast food and most of those seem disinterested in books. I do have some loyal customers who will occasionally swear allegiance to books in general and specifically to me and my shop (they do this spontaneously with no urging on my part). I don’t believe my business is quite as musty and ineffable as the ones you cited on Inscrutable Street, but then, I run it, so I may not be the best one to judge. I do expect, eventually, for my shop to be viewed as some kind of antique shop more than as a purveyor of modern reading material, that is, if I stick with this profession long enough. I suspect I’m tottering toward old-fartdom. Hope I don’t get there too soon.
Great post. It’s why I keep coming back for more. A street such as this almost makes me want to visit California…almost…
Coming back for more? You and about three other people, Forrest. Apparently. It’s appreciated. Hope you’re enjoying life out at the airport.