Exploring the West Lewis Shopping District reveals a collection of San Diego's best-kept retail secrets, but it's the tight-knit community of small business owners, their back-stories, and the history behind this treasured Mission Hills enclave that'll keep you coming back for more.
"We believe in the art of shop keeping," explained Jimmy Ferrari, who along with his wife Valerie, play host to patrons at all four of their businesses in the district. "It really has that small-town Main Street feel to it-we like to keep it that way."
Valerie is equal parts fashion maven and mayoral figure in the neighborhood as one of its founding retailers with Le Bel Age Boutique, now in its 30th year. As a teenager, she first visited the space and envisioned it as the future location of a clothing boutique; many years later, her dream came true and now Le Bel Age is a neighborhood landmark, known for its intimate shopping experience where patrons are invited to play dress up. "I always wanted it to feel like you were shopping in a friend's closet," Valerie said.
The Ferraris even live in the apartment above Le Bel Age - like West Lewis Street vanguards Bob and Louise Harvey who, back in the early 80s, restored the 1908-built mixed-use complex, opened both a tearoom and antique store in it, and lived upstairs.
Though the Harveys have passed away, their old-fashioned sensibilities still permeate the neighborhood, where the art of shop-keeping continues to thrive even among a new generation of business owners.
Kettle & Stone
If you can make it past the tempting cold brew tower on display, more locally roasted coffee drinks await, plus scrumptious confections from three of San Diego's powerhouse bakeries (Le Parfait Paris, Bake Sale and Bread & Cie). This coffee shop and its bright, artful setting is also a daily congregation spot for business owners. "It's a morning ritual," Valerie said, along with the tip - "if you see a sign on any of our doors that says 'at Kettle & Stone,' you'll know where to come find us."
Owned by Rina and Gracie Moceri-who also own next door salon, Studio 25-Kettle & Stone also shares a space with Mod About You, a whimsical lifestyle boutique where you can score everything from purses to plateware and locally made art. 1619 W. Lewis St., (619) 326-8505.
It's Jimmy and Valerie Ferrari behind this uplifting "gift and paperie" shop that's a destination for greeting card shoppers from all over the county. With some 30-brands worth of cards individually selected by the Ferrari's, it's easy to see why this special store-based on the Ferrari's love for life and each other-is such a big hit among those who know about it. Every time you visit, you'll discover something new from its floor-to-ceiling displays of cards, quirky gifts and collection of vintage birdcages. Between all the infectious smiles and random bursts of laughter, mingling with all the jovial shoppers at With Love is a treat in and of itself. 1620 W. Lewis St. (619) 298-7983, withlovegift.com.
Wearable, drool-worthy art is what you'll find at Jane Groover and Joanna Rhoades' contemporary jewelry store featuring the work of over 70 artists from around the world. If only for window shopping purposes and dreamy wish list making, cruise through the long space lined with tall display cases filled with absolute wonders like intricately hand painted earrings; and another unforgettable set that look like venus fly traps with gold-dipped fake eyelashes for protrusions, and a cluster of black diamonds resembling a fly. 1615½ W. Lewis St., (619) 692-0099. Taboostudio.com.
Chateau Bel Age
A more upscale version of Le Bel Age, The Ferrari's latest business - just two years old - is set up inside a converted house, and also doubles as an event space complete with multiple areas to lounge and a fireplace. Among the high-end garments and accessories here is an impressive display of Valerie's mom's artwork; handcrafted sinister dolls, which she calls "couture skeletons." 1578 W. Lewis St., (619) 297-7080.
Speaking of scary beautiful things, don't miss out on the annual Halloween in the Hills, where every Oct. 31, West Lewis Street business owners and patrons go all out in a stylish celebration of the holiday.
More neighborhoods to explore
Anza Borrego, Balboa Park, Coronado, Del Mar, East Village, Encinitas, Fiesta Island, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, La Jolla, Linda Vista, Mission Beach, Mission Hills, North Park: Part 1, North Park: Part 2, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, San Carlos, South Park, University Heights