The Venice of my imagination was the product of movies and media and that one time in 2009 when I sat on its beaches watching street performers and wild-eyed, skinned-elbowed boys on skateboards. But it’s more complex than that. A lot has changed since my last visit to the L.A. neighborhood almost a decade ago—including more girls at the skateparks. The Venice I thought I knew is only a sliver of the pie.
First, the elephant on the block: gentrification is in full swing. More big brands are pushing in, and the tension is palpable. “They can buy culture [but] not necessarily create it,” says local business owner Matthew Schildkret. The oceanfront neighborhood is currently an eclectic mix of old and new. Give it a decade or two, and maybe it will have lost its gritty surfer-artist charm altogether. But, for now, those born and raised here are holding tight to its roots—roots that have brought life to a much more polished Venice, for better or worse.
These creatives have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit as a way to respond to the unique characteristics of the place they call home. From a humble beachside café to a music studio–cum–surf culture brand, I crisscrossed their neighborhood to speak to the people behind some of the independent businesses here in Venice.
The merchants of Venice
I started, naturally, where I left off 10 years ago: at the beach. The 9 am vibe at the intersection of Westminster and the boardwalk was subdued. Most shops had yet to open, and even the sunshine was hitting snooze behind hazy cloud cover. Here, like the city’s inhabitants, the sun is not a morning person.
But by 9:30, shops began setting up sandwich boards and it was time for coffee. The Westminster location of Groundwork Coffee is a tiny hole-in-the-wall. No seating, because why sit inside when the ocean is right there? This stretch of the street is packed with other take-out establishments: a halal smokehouse, a soft-serve ice cream shop, pizza by the slice. Chris, my barista, is efficient in making my (delicious) soy latte and unflappable as Venice’s earlier risers spill out the door. Groundwork has a long history in L.A., opening its first location in Venice in 1990 before growing into the multi-city brand it is today.
Bikes and boardwalks
Just up the street, Solé Bicycles is an 8-year-old business that continues to thrive in a city not known for its bike-friendliness. Unlike Amsterdam, Portland, or Vancouver, L.A. is a city dominated by cars. But Venice may be an anomaly, with more bike lanes, a wide multipurpose boardwalk, and seemingly more people on two wheels (including the growing network of Bird motorized scooters). Also, Solé does most of its business online. While L.A. is still warming up to the cycling mind-set, Solé delivers bikes to riders around the world.
In 2010, Solé president Jimmy Standley and his business partners envied the NYC riders and their high-end bikes. Still college students at the time, the partners couldn’t afford the $2,000 or more to buy parts and custom-build their own. So they created Solé. With a $15,000 initial investment, they stored the bikes in their frat houses and sold them to fellow students for a fraction of the cost of their high-end counterparts. (Staying true to their student roots, Jimmy and his partners opened a second location on the University of Southern California campus in 2018.)
After graduation, the team settled in Venice, which Jimmy dubs the “cultural hub of California.” The location helped shape the brand. “[Venice] inspired the color wave, inspired the people we worked with, and inspired [us to build] a bike no one had really done before,” says Jimmy.
Outside the Main Street storefront, the team paints rotating slogans on the garage door and adjacent garbage bin—“1-bdr dump $2500/mo”—a jab at the neighborhood’s changing demographics. Though rents have skyrocketed due in part to corporations moving in, this community of creatives resisted a hostile takeover—and, sometimes, won. “Venice is a lot of movers and shakers,” Jimmy says. “It’s a lot of entrepreneurs.”
Next stop: General Admission, a California-inspired menswear and lifestyle store and the brainchild of co-owners Gavin Dogan and Damien Fahrenfort. The space is designed with the little details in mind, and experience is paramount. The hangers are weighty and matte black—design objects in their own right—and a vintage-style beer fridge stocks cans of Venice-made House Beer, brewed just around the corner. Building the shop, Gavin says, was a reaction to the lack of menswear options on L.A.’s west side. Along with its recently launched house line, General Admission features collections from other independent labels, unique alternatives to the growing chain retail presence in Venice.
Though the shop is set away from the retail center of Abbot Kinney, it has strong ties to other small businesses, like next-door barber shop Svelte, whose owner, Raul Guzman, has just stopped in for a visit. And, General Admission gets all of its flowers from another neighboring shop, says buyer Rider Germann. “It’s a good community,” Rider adds, though this born-and-bred Venetian has seen his hometown through its awkward transformation. One chic restaurant nearby is perpendicular to “skid row”, Rider says. “It’s just making things very black and white.”
Along Rose Avenue, just up from House Beer brewery, is Lily Ashwell, a cacti-lined building housing the apparel designs of its namesake owner, along with lifestyle goods.
Lily’s pretty slips, equally suitable for sleeping or going to dinner, hang amid handmade balms and gourmet cookbooks. A sales associate says she’s “picky about coffee” and directs me to the best cafés in the area.
She suggests Groundwork Coffee. The small chain has more than a dozen locations in greater L.A. (and a few in Portland, Oregon), each as distinct as its surroundings. The Rose Avenue location is like a warehouse compared to the one I visited this morning, with two large eat-in areas and an expansive patio. An enthusiastic customer tells me she’s loyal to Groundworks for the service and because “they don’t charge for almond milk.”
Next, I cut northeast to Abbot Kinney, a bustling mile-long stretch of businesses named for the famed 19th century tobacco magnate who founded Venice. As neighborhood mainstays like sandwich shop Abbot’s Habit and Tortoise Gifts have closed or moved on to other locales, and high-end shops take their place, the crowd here is becoming markedly different from the characters just a few blocks down at the boardwalk. Women in full contour makeup and white patent stilettos wait for a table at The Butcher’s Daughter, a popular vegetarian restaurant, while nearby a group of Midwest tourists park their rental bikes.
Though it’s the most obvious example of Venice’s changing face, dotted with elevated ice cream shops, organic wine bars, perfumeries, and global brands like Warby Parker, many of the boutiques are still independent. One of those is Huset, an homage to Danish design in every category from food to fashion. Bins of self-serve bulk Scandinavian candy—green sour marshmallow bananas, stripey strawberry vanilla twists, and salty licorice—greet customers just inside the door, and the modern space stocks a mashup of design objets: Hay designer scissors, pastel ceramic snack bowls, bold shirts by Samsøe & Samsøe, and leather fly swatters.
When owner Holly Hallberg visited Scandinavia for the first time, she fell in love with the clean design aesthetic. She launched her business as a way to give yet-unknown designers from the region visibility in her hometown, back in the U.S.
Burro Goods is a long-standing gift and lifestyle shop that has seen Abbot Kinney through years of transition. In 2011, owner Erinn Berkson opened a sister shop next door, aimed at kids and their parents, and has recently expanded to locations in Malibu and Westlake Village. Inside, the space is baked with California whimsy and among its offerings designed for gifting are locally inspired books like Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California, moonstone necklaces, brass plant misters, “Take It Easy” iron-on patches, astrology-print tea towels, and glitter-dipped candles.
An indie designer springboard
A few steps east, Enze Apparel welcomes customers through wide-open doors into a turn-of-the-century bungalow lined with linen color-blocked midi dresses, buttery soft suede espadrilles, and poppy hand-illustrated scarves. “We wanted our flagship to be on Abbot Kinney because of the unique feel and roots,” says co-owner, stylist, and performer Jamie Hultgren. When Enze took over the space, it needed a massive renovation, but Jamie says they kept the bones as “a tribute to the local culture.”
Launched in 2015 by Jamie and textile industry veteran Nuri Topbas, Enze is an ode to Mediterranean design. The owners’ goal was to introduce emerging European and Middle Eastern designers to the U.S. market, and Jamie says they’re proud to watch some of them gain international attention, thanks in part to the shop. One such designer is Istanbul handbag brand Mehry Mu. Its founder, Gunes Mutlu, is working to banish fakes in Turkey “by bringing back traditional craftsmanship and supporting local artisans,” says Jamie.
Enze’s social media coordinator, Alise Mongeon, has worked in Venice retail shops for the last 10 years and has seen the neighborhood change under her feet. “You wouldn’t walk on Lincoln [Boulevard] even two years ago,” she says.
And Lincoln, it turns out, is my next stop.
Paying it forward
Lincoln is now home to shop owners pushed north by soaring Abbot Kinney leases. A small business community is forming, and car washes and gas stations are making way for superfood restaurants, motorcycle cafés, and vintage shops. At Late Sunday Afternoon (LSA), creative director Thomas Brodahl greets me dressed in suspenders, a white tee, and a signature LSA ascot — he’s the embodiment of the store’s aesthetic and laid-back ethos. The company is one part social enterprise—scrap fabric from production is used to make beds for shelter dogs and blankets for foster children—and one part retail space where the LSA line is complemented by a mix of independent brands. Thomas guides me through the offerings: a gingham vintage dress, Palo Santo surf wax, art books, and LSA’s own scarves, stitched “with intention.”
Sales “queen” Andrea Tan is a designer too, making jewelry on the side and selling her creations in the shop. She shows me how to tie a scarf and notes the four small knots that finish off each piece. They signify love, happiness, adventure, and mystery.
It was super trippy to put this together.Matthew Schildkret, local business owner
A web designer by trade, Thomas is a 14-year Venice veteran who loves that the neighborhood attracts like-minded creatives and starters. “The vibe draws people here—people who want to be outside when it’s sunny, and not be dictated to when they have to show up,” he says. But there’s a downside that seems to be an L.A. problem at large. Try going to a 2 pm yoga class, he says, only to find it packed. “What the fuck?” he asks. “No one has jobs?”
LSA lucked out with their Lincoln Boulevard location, connected to popular restaurant Superba Food + Bread. Owners Paul and Tiffany Hibler sought to support creative tenants who would help drive community, rather than taking the highest bidder. “They invested in this community,” says LSA founder Matthew. “[They are] truly the only reason why I even have a store.” In kind, LSA is giving back to even smaller brands by carrying their goods and supporting local work through pop-ups.
The storefront, which they demolished and built themselves, also serves as a community event space, hosting jazz nights, tarot readings, and book launch parties. “It was super trippy to put this together,” Thomas says as he shows me the mural they uncovered during construction. It reads: “Since 1924 in the same location,” referring to the radio repair shop that once stood in LSA’s place.
Breaking from the California sun, I step into Deus Ex Machina, just one of many global locations of the Australian-born brand. The company—built around bike, motorcycle, and surf culture, plus apparel to withstand the demands of each—was founded, along with two partners, by Dare Jennings, who made a name for himself with his iconic ’80s surfwear brand Mambo (later sold for $20 million AUD, about $14.5 million USD). Dare built that first company after dropping out of college and teaching himself to screen-print T-shirts. The family farming business didn’t appeal to him, and he was drawn to the cultural movements happening in the late ’60s. “And compared to driving a tractor around in circles, it sounded a lot more alluring,” he told Business Insider Australia.
If Venice had its own version of comedy series Portlandia, it might be shot here at the Deus flagship. At the store’s café, I order my third coffee of the day, and the barista wonders if I might like it with a CBD oil shot or a gluten-free cookie. It’s eerily quiet here (did everyone opt in to the CBD?) with people either “working” on laptops or dreamily taking in the perfect day on the expansive patio. The soundtrack is an apt mix of classic crooners and surf rock.
A community connected
Last on my tour of Lincoln Boulevard is Lone Wolfs Objets d’Surf, run by music producer Alex Kemp and art director Scott Brown. The front of the space is a monochromatic surf culture shop lined with boards, all-black apparel with hidden references to cultural icons (a portrait of Allen Ginsberg is printed inside a pair of “Cozy as Fuck” pants), and accessories made from recycled wetsuits. But in the back, Alex takes me through a full-service recording studio. He shows off his new “baby”: a 1965 16-track recorder similar to the one used by Jimi Hendrix. “This might be the same one,” he tries to convince me.
There’s a lot going on here.
I wonder aloud: “How does it all fit together?”
“Really good fucking question,” Alex says.
Wolf at the Door came first—a recording studio he co-founded with musician and producer Jimmy Haun that churns out music for ads, film, and TV. The pair has worked with clients such as Netflix and Airbnb. But Alex says he wanted more connection with the local community. With Scott, a friend from the ad world, they tacked on public-facing Lone Wolfs. “This seemed like a way to make the space more social,” says Alex, “as well as get a little more exposure.”
It was kind of a PR stunt for the music company. But it’s really become like a legitimate part of the surf scene here in Venice.Alex Kemp
The shop welcomes passersby to experience their own take on surf culture, and the next-door parking lot provides space for parties that the owners throw year-round “because we can,” says Alex, referring to L.A.’s perennial good weather. The pairing may seem strange, but the relationship between the business’s two halves is symbiotic. The recording work funds the retail space—though the latter is gaining traction in its own right, through ecommerce and international wholesale—and the retail space provides the connection point to network with potential music clients. “It was kind of a PR stunt for the music company,” says Alex. “But it’s really become like a legitimate part of the surf scene here in Venice.”
In 2018, Alex and his team were invited to create an experiential pop-up at Paris’s Le Bon Marché department store, bringing more global visibility to Venice’s famed surf culture. It was a natural move for a retail brand already pushing outside industry norms.
Behind the gates of sorbet-colored Venetian-style houses and the quaint cottages lined with VW Westfalias and vintage Broncos, Venice is home to even more thriving commerce—those founders sending California fairy dust to customers around the world via their online stores. They may be unseen, but these founders are part of Venice’s rich small-business community. Among them are Electric & Rose, a yogawear brand run by Erin Chiamulon and husband Eric Balfour; Marysia Dobrzanska Reeves’s namesake luxury swimwear brand, Marysia; and Hanah, a superfood supplement product created by Joel Einhorn and JR Smith in partnership with Dr. V.A. Venugopal.
Don't call it a comeback
As I walk back to my Airbnb, a young man with homemade face tattoos gives me an unsolicited sermon while Ryan Seacrest’s neon white smile looks on from a billboard overhead. It’s just another example of the slightly unsettling contrast here. Modern-day Venice, experienced through outsider eyes, though, is a beautiful reprieve from L.A. bustle and smog, an actually walkable enclave of the city. It hasn’t yet been gentrified to the point of sterility, its retail presence a high-low mix born out of a passion for local culture, yielding a treasure trove of unique California-infused goods and experiences. Something for everyone.
Venice, it seems, is still nurturing its artists and early-days startups, those yet to be driven completely away by rising rents. And a community of doers is working hand in hand to preserve the area’s culture. Though Matthew of LSA cautions my calling it a renaissance—the urban planner by trade knows not to expect happy endings—he’s still fighting the fight. “You can evict an artist out of his lot, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to stop creating.”
Feature image by Verónica Grech