Walk into one of the growing number of quaint stores in downtown Felton selling local dahlias, crystals or Western-style clothing, and you’re likely to hear a common refrain about how that store came to be: “It’s a long story.”
Candi Lee is one of the people who’ll tell you that. She has watched Felton evolve from a quirky mountain hideaway to an extended suburb of the Bay Area from her perch at the top of the one-road downtown. Since 2010, she’s sold crystals, jewelry and other mystical wares at the shop she and her husband started, Mountain Spirit, after years of selling handmade goods on the road.
“I didn’t think we’d get it,” Lee says of the prime ground-floor storefront in a former B&B at the corner of Highway 9 and Felton Empire Road. “We had dreadlocks down to the ground.”
In the last few years, a small wave of new shops have opened on the main drag of the town, steeped in a unique blend of coastal and redwood lore. The “Peace on Earth” window decals and occasional house with horses in the front yard are still easy to spot, but added to the mix are new offerings like clothing and accessories boutique Tomboy Outpost, flower shop Wild Iris, True North Tattoo, and soon-to-open eco goods purveyor the Source Zero.
“Felton has been so funny,” says Summer Duppen, a 20-year Felton resident who opened her second store, Tomboy Outpost, after five years running the original Tomboy boutique in Santa Cruz next to the Rio Theatre. “There are so few commercial spaces that it’s like gold when you find a shop. You would have to wait years, like I did.”
It took Duppen two years to find her 300-square-foot shop on Highway 9 across from the former New Leaf Market—now operated as Wild Roots. Still, rents at a going rate about half that of neighboring Santa Cruz can make the wait worthwhile. Even though Duppen’s shops are just seven miles apart, she says they often feel like they’re in two different worlds.
“I have so many mountain mama girlfriends saying, ‘Honey I’m sure your store is amazing, but I’m not going to town,’” Duppen says. “In Santa Cruz it’s the same.”
Highway 9-to-Silicon Valley commuters have long bolstered San Lorenzo Valley communities like Felton, Bonny Doon and Boulder Creek. In the last decade, locals like Heidi Hart say they’ve seen the number of transplants accelerate dramatically. Hart, who is president and CEO of downtown Felton’s California Dreaming Real Estate, says costs have risen so fast that she now often sees buyers from next door in Santa Cruz outbid by commuters moving from San Jose or Palo Alto.
“We have a lot of Bay Area people moving in,” Hart says from her cozy wood-paneled office, where visitors are greeted by a toy dog. “Everything’s changing.”
The median home sale price in Felton hit $660,000 this summer, more than double the $315,000 that local houses were commanding five years earlier, according to the real estate data site Trulia.
The trend toward recent growth in unconventional corners of the county is mirrored in communities from Aptos and Watsonville, local development officials say.
“It’s not only in the mountains,” says County Economic Development Coordinator Barbara Mason. “Virtually every single community has something going on.”
Smaller-scale retail footprints like those in Felton are especially in demand among independent and pop-up retailers, Mason says. Plus, there’s still a certain character to Felton, which this weekend will play host to jam-band standy the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol music festival.
For newer shop owners like Felton resident Molly Kavanaugh, who opened botanical and home goods shop Wild Iris two years ago, offering reliable services like wedding floral arrangements and fresh flower deliveries help round out varied foot traffic from redwood hikers, RV campers and Santa Cruz daytrippers.
“There really weren’t too many retail shops,” Kavanaugh says of her patch of Highway 9 just down the block from Tomboy and more utilitarian staples Felton Feed & Pet Supply and True Value Paint & Hardware. Monthly events like Felton’s “Second Saturdays” featuring outdoor music and downtown shopping are also bringing more people to town, she says.
A block away at the Source Zero, which is planning for an October grand opening, workshops on topics like indigo dyeing will complement shopping for zero-waste products such as silk “dental lace,” bamboo sporks and Himalayan salt deodorant. Also downtown is Flynn’s Cabaret, the freshly-painted navy blue building with black trim that until last year housed the uniquely-colorful bar and music venue Don Quixote’s.
Through it all, Lee’s spot on the corner has made her an unofficial bridge between the old and new Felton, chatting with curious new neighbors moving to town.
“A lot of them come in to buy sage for their new houses,” she says from behind the counter at Mountain Spirit. “Sometimes, I’m afraid to tell them how wonderful it is.”