“A Canyon person grooves on nature. These people are not flower children and they’re not hippies. They’re Canyon people. The Canyon scene … will be the big thing in 1968. You can trap your own food here, you can fish …” —Music promoter Kim Fowley, quoted on KNX News Radio, summer 1968
The quiet, secluded town of Sierra Madre, more than a century old and nestled near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just east of Pasadena, is largely a suburb, its streets lined with houses built, in ascending order of charmingness, from the ornate and gingerbread-y 1880s all the way up to the angular and bland 1950s. Driving north toward the mountains, past the suburban monotony of the city’s southern edge, your inner compass (assisted by discreet, 1930s-vintage municipal signs) guides you to the actual town of Sierra Madre: its small, charming and isolated commercial center. Here it feels so remote from anything L.A.-ish that thoughts of the nearby megalopolis almost vanish; the excellent bars, high-toned, burger-centric restaurants and cozy ice cream shops complete the picture very nicely.
This, the historic hub of Sierra Madre, so serene in its isolation, has actually been here forever, in California terms: The town was officially founded in 1907, and the one, single intersection that dominates the town — Sierra Madre Boulevard and Baldwin Avenue — retains many of the same Wild West–y wooden buildings you can see in photos taken here back in the early 1900s. The place feels just like what it is: one of those rare, neatly preserved Western frontier towns that hung on because, well, who would want to leave this bucolic little spot?
If Sierra Madre is a well-kept secret, then Mary’s Market, a century-old cafe hiding up in the mazelike foothills of the San Gabriels, surely qualifies as a secret-within-a-secret. No signs point your way here; you have to know about this 94-year-old oasis, an old clapboard building standing beneath a shady sycamore tree in Sierra Madre Canyon, known informally for decades simply as “the Canyon” (once you get there, you’ll find the cafe hawking T-shirts that say: “MARY’S MARKET — Find Us if You Can”). Since the early 1920s, this cafe/market has served the “general store” needs of the Canyon, a long-established, rustic-bohemian neighborhood with a genuine ’60s counterculture pedigree.
The store opened back in 1922 as Spartan Meats & Groceries, but today’s older Canyonites still remember Mary Perkins, a chain-smoking Irish immigrant who took over the store in 1966 and renamed it the Cottage Market. Mary dispensed coffee and sandwiches and shared gossip and smoked with customers all through the hippie era and after. Over time, Canyon residents simply referred to the place as “Mary’s,” even after she retired and moved up north in 1991. Three years later a new owner, Tom Hammond, renamed the place Mary’s Market (Perkins, the “mother of the Canyon,” a nonjudgmental empath to the end, died in 2002).
According to Sierra Madre historian Michele Zack, in her book Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre, the Canyon was already a shaggy, nonconformist enclave of bohemians and free thinkers as early as the 1950s, but during the hippie era the Canyon was a countercultural epicenter that saw many drug overdoses. She quotes one policeman who remembers, “If you were driving a VW bug with a flower painted on it, you probably got our attention.” One real estate agent was already telling folks back in 1963, “Don’t bother looking in Sierra Madre Canyon. It’s all oddballs and beatniks in old shacks.”
And what goes around comes around: When teenage runaways started to flock to the Canyon in the late ’60s and people like Kim Fowley were telling reporters, “Canyon people [are] the true elite of the flower and love movement,” it wasn’t that much of a stretch from Sierra Madre’s olden days, during the so-called Great Hiking Era of the ’20s, when a wacky assortment of prospectors, hermits, hunters, cabin dwellers and other eccentrics who preferred a life of solitude-in-nature first populated this area.
“From a distance the San Gabriel Mountains sometimes appear drab and uninviting,” writes John W. Robinson, the author of several fascinating books about the mountain range and its history. “But enter one of the canyons that crease the face of the mountains and a whole new world appears.” As you approach the hills and start to ascend (I won’t give the street names here, that’s your homework), you can feel it: This place, with these impossibly narrow, winding old roads snaking their way upward past the suburbs to a higher elevation, breathe history. “A true mountain and canyon environment,” proclaimed one real estate ad back in 1913, “within walking distance of the streetcars and yet absolutely removed from noisy, dusty city conditions.” No cookie-cutter houses up here, only cabins (expensive cabins, mind you), and the lots are tiny. As our mystery road swings sharply to the left and narrows, trees close in overhead. Driving over a small bridge, you are now almost in the Canyon. And the Canyon is uncanny.
Over the years, numerous attempts to describe the neighborhood have appeared in the L.A. Times: The Canyon “has a kind of haphazard kinetic charm. … Narrow streets veer off at odd angles, houses perch in unlikely locations …” “Narrow, winding stairways of river rock climb steeply up to houses hidden in thick vegetation …”
Imagine a slab of rustic Topanga Canyon crossed with a narrow, steep pie slice of Laurel Canyon at its most crafty and bohemian, with generous tree coverage and sitting on a south-facing slope backed by tall mountains with a nice rushing creek running all the way through it. (Yep, I’d love to live here.) The unruly green foliage everywhere is filled this time of year with the chirping of birds and strong mountain breezes.
Carolyn French, the current proprietress of Mary's Market, has been told stories about the Canyon's famous visitors and residents. There are stories of Charles Manson sightings; and apparently Anaïs Nin was once a resident. As for musicians, she says, “Oh my God, everybody. There’s a story that Jimi Hendrix came into the market. Back then, eventually everybody made it out here. … As far as names, well, we need older people to come in here and tell us! But I can tell you it was a big hippie scene here. Runaways. It was Southern California’s [version of] the Haight.”
The screen door jingles when a customer walks into Mary’s Market; very often they’re locals, but a surprising number of out-of-towners here for the first time, too. A low white countertop with ’50s barstools greets you inside, an inviting place to sit and chat over coffee with the friendly waitresses, or you can take a table; the menus above, in colored chalk featuring breakfast and lunch (Mary’s closes at 3 p.m.) also warn you, the customer, against “whining,” which I guess is only right. Some appropriate Beach Boys music is playing on the radio and I see a guy in his 70s with long gray hair, wearing a funky pink vest, plunking accompaniment on the cafe’s upright piano. A collection of knickknacks lines the western half of the interior (for sale, I think) but every wall in this sunny room has framed, fascinating original photos of this canyon during the Great Hiking Era, circa 1905-1930; apparently, during the ’20s there was a swimming pool where my car is parked. Near the cash register (cash only), old wooden and tin signs invite you to “BE NICE.” (Again, who can argue?) Books and paintings and CDs by local creatives (I bought a Janet Klein CD here) are all for sale. It’s a folksy, relaxed juju worth paying for.