Gary Gilmore – Newport Avenue’s goldsmith par excellence – is proud of the fact that he arrived in Ocean Beach in 1973 with nothing else but the clothes on his back, his guitar, and his leather tools. He had journeyed across the country and had found heaven. And he’s been in OB ever since. His is a true classic rags to riches story. Yet it’s an OB hippie version of the classic. For Gary Gilmore certainly looked like a hippie when he arrived 37 years ago.
Gary’s love for OB is so evident that it’s almost difficult to get him to talk about anything else. This was all apparent as we took our seats for a lunch at the quintessential OB restaurant – the Old Townhouse – featured prominently in the current television series “Terriers” which was filmed in OB.
It was Monday and as Gary’s gold and silver shop is closed that day, he had time to give me an interview. He’s closed every Monday and Sunday. “I get more done on Monday than all the rest of the week,” he said almost apologetically.
Gary told me he does all the custom work that his shop does, but he does carry the wares of other craftspeople from all over the country. Only about 15% of the items in the display cases are his, he said. And even though he complains about the current economy hurting his business, he told me “life is good.” He made it to Newport Ave years ago and has been involved in improving it and the surrounding community over the decades.
He’s been in his current location on the 4800 block of Newport since 1996 and it’s quite obvious he’s doing quite well, thank you. He’s got Steve Correia’s glassware on one wall, silver and gold jewelry and other works in the display cases, artsy photos on another wall, antique bowls from the Americas on counters – the place ensues quality. (Go here to see his website and examples of his work.)
His clients these days are the well-to-do, the folks who can afford to care about superior craftsmanship. One of the last times I visited his shop, Michael Turko of “Turko Files” walked in looking for his wedding rings.
It hasn’t always been that way, however.
It wasn’t that way when he arrived in 1973, and it took a while for Gary to make it to Newport Avenue, his goal.
Gary was born in Pittsburgh, PA. His dad was Scottish and his mother Brazilian. And when he was 10 the family moved to his mom’s birth country, where he got to know Rio and Sao Paulo while growing up. As he talked about those days in Brazil, Gary’s eyes sparkled – hinting of old memories from that part of his childhood. He has one sibling, a brother Scott, who is 4 years younger. At some point, his parents split up, and his dad – a school teacher – took the boys to Florida.
Around 1964, Gary picked up the guitar and started playing. He was in a small folk band for awhile – the “Lonesome Travelers” – the kind of band that plays after the well-known ones have already finished.
“We were playing about coal mine disasters, and the other bands were playing ‘Louie-Louie.’ ” He laughed. “We mainly played for our friends and girlfriends.”
Gary finished high school in Florida, began college, but then he moved to Port Huron, Michigan to try college some more. This was in 1970 – a crazy time for the nation’s college students and young. He was sporting long, curly locks and a thin beard by then. ‘Tune in, turn-on, drop -out” was one of the mantras of the hippies.
After 9 months, Gary did drop out of college and he became a leather craftsman.
“There was only 4 hippies in Port Huron,” he said.
He opened up a leather shop in an abandoned building and only paid $50 rent. He slept there also, taking showers at friends. This was the way it was back then. “I was living outside the system.”
Becoming a focused craftsman in leather, he made belts, hats, vests, watch bands (who didn’t have a leather watchband back then?) and purses “with a lot of fringe.”
The building didn’t have any heat, and one winter night it dropped down to 18 degrees, he remembered. His sleeping bag was only good for 20 degrees. That’s when he decided to move.
At that point, brother Scott was living in Coronado attending a local school of fine arts. So Gary came out west to check out the San Diego scene, and like so many others those days – became enchanted and ended up staying. He had his clothes, his guitar and his leather tools. It was late 1972.
Once he settled in a bit, Gary hitchhiked around San Diego, and one day, a guy picked him up and told him about his shop on Voltaire Street where he was a manager. The store was called “Baba Yaga” and it was one of OB’s first hippie antique shops, plus it had silver and turquoise crafts on consignment. They didn’t have any leather though – so Gary ended up joining them, and he set up a a corner of the shop for himself , agreeing to hand over 25% of his take to Baba Yaga’s owners.
Baba Yaga was one of the first stores in Ocean Beach to be run by hippies. The place later became the site of “Angie’s Cheesecakes”, and eventually was torn down and replaced by the building that today holds the “Dog Beach Dog Wash”.
At first, Gary didn’t have his own place, so in order to save money, he slept up on the roof of Baba Yaga, a single-story building, along with some of the other craftsmen. There was an old mattress,” he told me. They slept up on the roof until late Fall.
It was the Gary’s first stake in the town he would call his own.
“I had landed in heaven,” Gary said about his arrival in OB. “OB was the place where I could flourish. OB was it.”
So, the Spring and Summer of 1973 found Gary was working and selling his wares at Baga Yaga. After a few months in the leather game, he found it was a fading fad, so he switched his skills to making jewelry, especially silver and turquoise. Yet it was fun times, he also said, hanging out on the roof, flirting with girls, partying. “Back then,” he added, “you’d just ask strangers to party.”
Gary also met his future wife during those days. Beth – hailing from Indiana – was hanging out with the gang at Baba Yaga, and was working at “Rare Comforts” – a hippie-type clothing store on Newport. Finally, at a concert with her, it dawned on him that Beth was his one and only. They got married in 1976 and moved into a cottage on the alley between Newport and Santa Monica. “We could see the ocean and it was only $175 a month,” he told me.
Somewhere around the Spring of 1974, Baba Yaga fell apart. Gary joined several others of the craftsmen who sold wares there and moved into the upstairs space above what’s now the 99 Cent store, on the corner of Newport and Bacon. Then it was Adler’s Pharmacy. (Gary later learned that Baba Yaga had been a front for big time pot dealers.)
It was mostly wholesale at this new place, as it was tough to get customers to climb the stairs. A lot of Gary’s work was being taken to Arizona and New Mexico for sales. He was making silver wares, bracelets, pennants, rings, and branching off into other stones. This lasted a year, and by that time there was only two of them - Gary and Steve Mackres. The two moved together into Scrim Shaw Square over on Santa Monica. There he could do retail again. He and Steve had their own work but split the overhead.
About four years later, some large space on Newport Avenue opened up. It was 1978 and Gary jumped at the chance to move into 4919 Newport – and the time was right.
“I always wanted to be on Newport. Newport was big time. I had arrived.”
It was a big place, Gary said. “I did so well, better than imagined,” and he had to hire his first employees – someone to do repairs and he needed help at the counter. The silver and turquoise fad was then fading, so he went into gold. Gold was then selling at $200 an ounce.
The price of gold is something Gary knows very well, and he and his wife and co-worker Beth check it each day. It’s obvious why – their shop revolves around the cost of the precious metal. During that part of our interview at the shop, Beth came by and informed Gary what the price was today. It was over $1300.
Some of his favorite memories of those days back in the late Seventies, after he had opened up on Newport, were working alongside of and mingling with the James brothers – the band of brothers – Rich, Greg, Ron, Mike, and Pat - who swept into Ocean Beach and who were opening their own T-shirt making business. “I loved their energy,” he smiled.
“There was a buzz in the street. Now I had comrades,” Gary said. “There was a camaraderie with other business people … they were encouraging, supportive – there was a lot of give and take.”
At that time, Gary still had longish hair – it had been trimmed, and he had a mustache instead of a beard.
But as one of the first “hippie” businessmen to open a shop on Newport, he now had – with the James brothers – other young merchants, who if not hippies, at least were hip. And funny and energetic. And did I mention young? There was a new feel on the street, changes were occurring.
When I told Gary that we used to call the new hippie merchants on Newport and around OB “the hip-oisie” – he laughed. “I like that,” he said to the play on the old term “the bourgeoisie.” Actually, the petite-bourgeoisie, I added.
A significant milestone in his life, Gary told me, was the day he went to meet the landlady who owned 4919 Newport. He wanted that space so badly, he could taste it. Trouble was, the James brothers had first dibs on it, as they knew the landlady. Rick James was there negotiating for the brothers as they wanted the place – but they weren’t sure they could swing it. They knew Gary and they knew he was was dreaming of it. Then, Rick turns to Gary and tells him he can have it.
“All of a sudden,” Gary told me – remembering that moment – he knew this was it – “it was like moving to the Major Leagues from the Minors” he said.
His other fond memories include being part of the first OB Christmas Tree and the first holiday Parade along with other merchants. He was also involved in ensuring that OB had fireworks for the Fourth of July. “Those were heady times,” somewhere around 1980, 1981 …
About that time, Newport merchants formed an organization for themselves, and Gary was very much part of those efforts. Around 1980 there was the first election to the board of the newly formed Ocean Beach Merchants Association. “Mike James was elected president and I was elected vice-president,” he said. Gary Gilmore has been involved in the merchant group ever since – for 30 years. To this day, he sits on the Board of the now- OB Mainstreet Association. The name was changed a while back in order for the group to form a business improvement district.
Meanwhile, he and Beth had moved to Niagara. Then around 1980 they bought their first house “for a song” over on Rosecrans. He was doing well enough to afford a small down payment. They moved in … but over the next 7 years they were burglarized five times. So, they had to move again.
By then, the Gilmores had two girls – Alex and Vanessa – born in 1983 and 84. They went to all the local schools, Cabrillo, Correia, Point Loma.
Beth and Gary found a place on Tustin Street – just north and down the hill from what’s now Dana Middle School. It had some good views from its second story. And over the years, they built it up, refurbished the kitchen, built on the deck - and they’re still in it. The girls could have gone to Dana but it was closed when they were ready for middle school.
Gary opened his latest shop – where he is now – in 1996. He had a chance to buy it and he went for it. And these last 14 years have been good years, he says. And he runs a family business. Beth has been working with him since 1978, and the girls started working for him when they were 3. I chuckle. Now they all still work together. Gary also has a man who does torch work and repairs. He hired a Malaysian refugee – who is now, Gary says, “the embodiment of the American dream.”
He had moved one block from his other shop – but that move turned out to be a good one – as his shop became more up-scale, and was serving a changed clientele, one that was older and “more into feathering their nests,” he said. He sees a lot of wealthy Pt Loma people, Point Loma high society I added.
Gary loves his trade, his work. He has considered himself a craftsman, an artist. I asked him to describe himself, and he said, “seasoned, knowledgeable,…” – and I also added modest, and generous. “I think I make interesting designs,” he said. The custom work is what consumes most of his time. And he does all of it.
One of the funniest moments that Gary recalls of his days of running a business was in 1990, when he was summoned to the store after hours by the police. They had been notified by the alarm as apparently a guy had tried to burglarize the place – but he got stuck in the vent, and was half in and half out. When Gary came in, the guy was dangling from the ceiling – and screaming his head off.
Gary is Newport Avenue’s biggest cheerleader.
“I don’t foresee any changes on Newport. There will always be mom and pop stores here. You’ll never see the ‘big boys’ here” – meaning the corporate chains. “There’s Starbucks, but that’s about it. It’s the demographics,” he explained, “there’s too much competition (for the big boys) from the Midway – Sports Arena area.”
“Newport Avenue is very healthy right now,” he said. This optimism despite the recession. “The vibe that OB gives off is very positive.”
He summarized: “San Diego is very proud to have Ocean Beach.”