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  • A statue of Father Junipero Serra stands outside Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

  • Autumn Cruz /

    Tea and espresso can be found served without the mermaid logo all around San Luis Obispo. The city is at least three hours from California's major metropolitan areas.

  • Autumn Cruz /

    Breakfast is served at the Garden Street Inn, a bed and breakfast establishment housed in an 1887 home in San Luis Obispo.

  • Autumn Cruz /

    James Whitaker, 32, a Cal Poly alum, owns KreizbergCA, which he calls a "book bar and coffee lounge." Staying in San Luis Obispo after college often requires wealth of entrepreneurship.

  • Even the bubble gum is smiling in "Bubblegum Alley" in San Luis Obispo. The gum has been accumulating on the wall on Higuera Street north of Broad since 1960.

San Luis Obispo is a happy place, in a laid-back way

Published: Sunday, Jul. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 - 7:20 pm

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series examining a pair of Central Cost cities that have much in common – universities, historic missions, tourist draws. Today, a look at San Luis Obispo. Next Sunday, Santa Barbara.

SAN LUIS OBISPO – They call this self-contained Central Coast college town "The Happiest Place in America." Not happy, as in Up With People spirit or relentless Disneyfied mirth. Just, you know, being content and at ease, comfortable in your own SPF-protected skin.

And who are they?

The tastemakers, the cultural cognoscente, Oprah By-Gawd Winfrey, that's who.

Spend a few days here and even the most hard-bitten skeptic must concede: There is much to like.

Stroll the river walk or window shop at the funky fair-trade stores and you can feel your blood pressure calming. Sup at local bistros and feel righteous in knowing the produce is locally grown, the wine's from nearby Edna Valley, and the seafood's from just over the hill. Take your pooch to Avila Beach, where dogs aren't just tolerated but embraced, and bask in unfettered canine joy. Head to the hills, via mountain bike or foot, and traverse Montana de Oro. Or just hang at hipster coffeehouses – no mermaid-logoed chain frappes for you – and absorb the blissed-out vibe.

What is going on here, you wonder? Have they spiked the municipal water system with both fluoride and Prozac?

Yeah, it's easy to totally buy in to this whole "Happiest Place" thing, which came about in January 2011, when Oprah interviewed Dan Buettner, author of "Thrive," on her show. Buettner had measured cities' quality of life and "personal well- being" and determined that San Luis Obispo was the only U.S. city deemed list-worthy.

So Oprah dispatched a film crew, which chatted up many of the town's 45,000 inhabitants, and emerged suitably smitten with the so-called SLO life.

Not surprisingly, the city's chamber of commerce pounced on Oprah's endorsement and touts it shamelessly.

But even those locals and jaded Cal Poly SLO students who admit the "Happiest" label is overhyped do not begrudge its veracity.

Take Richard Ferris, owner of the popular used record store Cheap Thrills and a noted civic gadfly. He will bend your ear into origami for a full 20 minutes about how the "L.A. types" are coming in and changing the city, how buying a home here is only for the affluent, how the chain stores outside the downtown corridor are usurping business from locally owned shops, and how the city's treatment of the homeless lacks compassion.

"I warn you, I'm political," he said. "You ask me about Happy Town, and I'll tell the truth."

Contrarian as he is, Ferris cannot help but smile, run his hands through his flowing salt-and-pepper hair and admit that, all in all, life is pretty freakin' good in SLO. It's why he and wife Sharliss scrimped and saved and worked hard to stay in town after they graduated from Cal Poly in 1971.

The alternative, he said, was returning to his hometown of Galt. And that, he said with a wink, was no real option.

"This is one of our bad days," he said, looking up a glorious cirrocumulous sky. "It's 70 degrees out. I do love it here. Who wouldn't love it?"

Weather, proximity beckon

It's the temperate weather and the equally placid citizenry that make people stay put like the wads of masticated chewing gum plastered on the walls of kitschy Bubblegum Alley. This, despite real estate prices that preclude middle- income home ownership and high rents that force lower-income people to the fringes. Other than Cal Poly, there aren't many industries to provide jobs, and commuting is out because there's no metropolitan area within hours.

Yet the lure of the SLO life is so strong that people find a way to make it work. Take James Whitaker, owner of Kreuzberg CA, dubbed a "book bar and coffee lounge," as well as three other dining and drinking establishments. He came here in 1997 as a Cal Poly student, left to live in Berlin for a while (hence the name of his coffeehouse), but felt the allure of SLO beckoning him back.

"What makes San Luis special is that it's at least three hours, either way, from the nearest big city," Whitaker said.

"I think a lot of other college towns, like Davis or Berkeley, are kind of satellites for bigger cities. But there's something that happens, kind of psychologically, in knowing that you're alone – three hours that way, three hours the other way. You're away from the claustrophobia of a large metropolitan area.

"That, combined with weather, the university, great downtown, tons of outdoor activities – it all just makes people nice and friendly."

Please note, Whitaker is not some glad-handing chamber of commerce booster. He's 32 and simply wants to balance a thriving career with a laid-back lifestyle. It's not so easy for younger people to stay on in SLO, once they have a diploma in hand and the parents are no longer paying tuition and room and board.

Fred Hornaday, owner of Bamboo Batu, a 100 percent bamboo clothing store and boutique, scoped out the three types of San Luis residents.

"It's students, retired people, and a lot of – what would you call them? – hipsters, winging it working in coffee shops and retail places and aspiring to be artists," said Hornaday, a UCLA grad who came to San Luis in 1996. "Then there are entrepreneurs like me who found our niche and eke out a living doing something we really enjoy.

"So people either make that sacrifice, or else they're just, you know, affluent. In which case, they don't see it as a sacrifice. They see it as working hard all their life and now they're going to move here and retire and enjoy the sweet life."

History and hipsterism

Tourists, of course, need not worry about cost-of- living and all that depressing stuff. This is the Happiest Place in America, remember. They come to San Luis to escape such depressing subjects.

And the town is chock full of entertaining distractions, ranging from the historic to the cutting edge.

The historic is highlighted by the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, smack dab in downtown with the statue of Father Junipero Serra, staff in hand, presiding.

Docent George Abrahams, a font of church and Chumash Indian lore, relates that this was not the mission's original site in 1772.

"That was one mile downstream," he said. "But after getting flooded twice, they moved it up here. Father Serra finally learned to go to higher ground. You know, we get a lot of fourth- graders here on tours. They ask a lot of great questions to me, like, 'Were you here when Father Serra was around?'"

Not quite, Abrahams always answers. But he does relate that the mission had only two bell ringers in 134 years. "These men," he said, "either kept healthy ringing the bells or they were blessed. I signed up for that job, but there were 24 people ahead of me."

Another historic edifice is the Garden Street Inn, a downtown bed and breakfast in a Victorian house (1887) once owned by a local mercantile mogul. It offers much more sedate accommodations than the aggressive tackiness of the Madonna Inn, long a tourist favorite, outside of town.

Restored in the 1980s, it features themed rooms, such as the "Walden," a Thoreau-inspired motif with wood paneling, muted green walls and bedspread and a bookshelf that includes copies of Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose" and, perhaps for comic relief, Dave Barry's "Bad Habits."

This being a college town, the intellectual life is cultivated. The town once boasted 10 independent bookstores, but in a sign of the times, all but one has shut down. The lone survivor, the aptly monikered Phoenix Books, is a vessel for rampant bibliophilia, with eclectic categories ranging from "Bohemia" to "Occult Arts" and "Smut" next to shelf upon shelf of high-brow literature.

"Demand is shrinking," said Susie Metzler, behind the counter at Phoenix. "It's not so much the students we get; it's the tourists."

You can find more of a mix of town-and-gown (and tourists) at Kreuzberg, the coffeehouse Whitaker opened as an homage to the hip neighborhood in Berlin where he lived for two years.

On a lazy midweek morning at Kreuzberg, Cal Poly math lecturer William Hesslegrave was grading a foot-tall stack of final exams and sipping coffee, while two young women in ponytails and SLO sweatshirts spoke in rapid, hushed tones, punctuated by occasional snickering.

Neither Hesslegrave nor his questioner could figure out the stern visage next to Shakespeare and pipe-toting William Faulkner staring down from the author- portrait wall.

"Oh, that is George Orwell," Whitaker said. "All the artwork here, except for those (author photos) are actual photographs of street art in Kreuzberg. This piece of graffiti here – the east-west masks – was put up while I was living in Kreuzberg. It was in the spot almost exactly where the (Berlin) wall had been.

"Berlin is a very hip cool city, and I wanted to bring that vibe back to SLO."

College-town quirkiness

But San Luis is a college town, at heart. And every college town worth its hipster street cred must have its quirky holes-in-the-wall boutiques and cool watering holes.

Ferris' Cheap Thrills Records and Captain Nemo's Comics qualify. So does California Blonde, a zeitgeisty boutique that features everything from Varga prints to beach- culture kitsch to gag gifts to a mint-condition Scott Baio LP.

"I'm a retail slut – what can I say?" owner Joy Baker said. "I'll buy anything. My theme is urban industrial retro-chic atomic lounge. My store's a nostalgic look into the future. I just try to make my customers happy."

Well, of course she does. This is "The Happiest Place in America," after all.



• Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 751 Palm St. Cost: Free. Museum hours: Winter (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.); Summer (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), daily

• Bubblegum Alley: Higuera Street, between Broad and Garden streets.

• San Luis Obispo Museum of Art: 1010 Broad St. Cost: Free. Hours: July 5 - Labor Day: Open 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.


• Bamboo Batu, 1023 Broad St. Clothes and items made from 100 percent bamboo.

• Cheap Thrills Records, 563 Higuera St. Used CDs, DVDs, vinyl records and video games.

• California Blonde, 1137 Garden St. Retro-boutique, vintage fashion.

• Phoenix Books, 990 Monterey St. Used books with a literary bent.


• Garden Street Inn, 1212 Garden St. Bed and breakfast in a redone historic home. The only lodging in the heart of downtown.

• Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road. Kitschy faux Swiss chalet with intentionally gaudy rooms.


• Big Sky Cafe, 1121 Broad St. Organic fruits and vegetables, local produce and dairy products, fresh seafood.

• The Natural Cafe, 698 Higuera St. A small Central Coast chain featuring vegetarian and vegan entrees.

• Luna Red, 1023 Chorro St. High-end dining, featuring fine wine and a tapas bar.


• Kreuzberg CA, 685 Higuera St. Murals from the streets of the Berlin neighborhood of the same name, concerts and art exhibits.

• Linnaea's Cafe, 1110 Garden St. Long established as a meeting place for students and townies alike. Folk concerts featured.

– Sam McManis

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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