A Whole Foods on one end, a Chipotle on the other. But a strip mall (albeit high-end) this is not. Because right smack in the center is, as they say, where the magic happens.
I'm talking about the Flower Hill Promenade, the open-air shopping center just off Interstate 5 in Del Mar, which, if we're being honest here, looks completely unremarkable from the outside. I mean, yes, it's nice. You might stop for a burrito or to pick up a few groceries. You might run to a doctor's appointment at Sharp Rees-Stealy. Or maybe you're not craving a burrito, not sick or injured and you shop at Vons, not Whole Foods. Whatever. Here's why you'd want to stop and take a closer look:
Sam Larson's Lone Flag is a men's and women's lifestyle store offering American- and locally made boots, denim and more. Its No. 1 brand is Rogue Territory, aka the denim gods, and Lone Flag is the only store in San Diego selling Rogue's stuff right now. Try some of the best coffee being made locally by the Poway-based James Coffee Co. Bag your old murse and pick up something amazing from Boutonne, the San Diego-based maker of totes, wallets and dopp kits. Or up your socks game with the pattern-obsessed Richer Poorer. In other words, you could do a lot of damage here.
Julie Ellis' Rais Case recycles and upcycles leather and other fabrics for pillows and purses, keychains and koozies. With a focus on American-made goods (see a trend here?), Rais Case cuts and sews all of its products and sources its materials as close to home as possible. Its latest design is a tote that can go from diaper bag to travel bag to whatever you need it to be. And, if you thought fanny packs were reserved for out-of-towners, then you haven't seen Ellis' take on the travel accessory everyone loves to hate (or the other way around?).
Ellis shares her space with Shem Gott's Mr. B's Luminaries, a candle shop born from what Gott saw as a waste of his son's baby-food jars. Each candle is hand-poured and made from all-natural soy wax. I was especially delighted to see a lemongrass scent, since that one's a lot harder to find than I thought.
Kim Efseaff's Bon Bijoux, whose handmade jewelry—some of which is made with Swarovski stones—beats the chain stores' bling selection any day of the week.
And there are more. Together, the shops call themselves the Row Collective. With the exception of Bon Bijoux (a mainstay since 2009), they've been at Flower Hill for just a year, since it underwent a $30-million renovation in March 2013.
"The main reason we set up shop here was because there really wasn't any other 'good' retail row in North County," Lone Flag's Larson says. "At a certain level, it's almost impossible to find a location that fits up here, so we thought we'd just create that fit and culture instead of trying to find it somewhere already. It's not a perfect fit for Del Mar, either, but that's really the closest thing we could find. Now... it really is the best little retail / art secret in San Diego."
Others, like Ellis, say the renovation and the vision proposed by developer Jeffrey Essakow was what reeled them into the space. And then there's Efseaff, the jewelry maven, who weathered the renovation last year with just a slight disruption to her business. She says she's happy to be joined by more and more artisan shops. In the next few months, Flower Hill will welcome Studio Penny Lane, which has a neat concept that integrates pennies into all of its jewelry and leather goods, and A Ship in the Woods, the nonprofit you may have heard about that transformed a mid-century house into an artists' safe haven back in 2010.
Still, these small retailers aren't getting the foot traffic they deserve—it was fairly quiet on a recent weekend day—because you just don't expect a shopping center like this to have what Flower Hill now has. Hopefully, that will change with time, as more shops are added and more people find themselves looking for artisan products. Then, it won't matter that the promenade looks like every other strip mall in affluent America. You'll know it's the inside that really matters.