It's a typical Thursday afternoon for store owner, merchandise and book buyer, art curator and all-around legendary L.A. culture purveyor Billy Shire. He just got back from a buying trip in Las Vegas the day before and, as usual, he's jaunting around doing four things at once inside his emporium of cool and kitsch, Soap Plant/Wacko and La Luz de Jesus. In between surveying stock and taking phone calls from suppliers, he and the gallery's director are hanging the latest art show: Day-Glo tiki paintings by Brad "Tiki Shark" Parker and beautiful junk mosaic portraits by Jason Mecier. He also schedules a couple of meetings (a Taschen books rep is slated after our interview), and time to handle some much-needed accounting paperwork stacked near his desk, before he sits down in a corner of his art– and nostalgic treasures–filled office to chat with L.A. Weekly about the magical mecca he created 47 years ago.
It's been a long and nothing-short-of-stupendous trip, thanks to Shire's art-driven vision, obsession with diverse cultures and impeccable taste, but the Echo Park native never could have predicted it would last this long when he decided to sell soap with his mom, Barbara, and brother Peter in Silver Lake back in 1971.
At first, it was simply an extension of an existing family business. "The quick story is my brother and I remodeled my aunt's store up in the Bay Area — in Berkeley — which was then called the Body Shop of Berkeley. And she probably got us up there to convince my mother to open a branch down here," recalls Shire, who says it wasn't the same Body Shop of mall fame, though the chain did have to pay her for the name. "[They] basically copied the format but completely commercialized and dumbed it down."
Back in L.A., the Shires went in another direction. They opened the Soap Plant in the Sunset Junction area with an eye on customization — providing oils that customers could scent and blend into various bath products. They also sold unique gift items, Shire's own leather work (he was known for beautifully intricate custom belts) and the work of Peter, a revered artist in his own right. It wasn't the only funky shop on the boulevard. Retail boutiques, especially indie-owned ones, retained a post-hippie haze about them, attracting street browsers, tchotchke seekers and a lot of people just looking to hang out and soak up a scene. Many stores burned incense, played groovy music and had chill boho types behind the cash register.
The store moved from its first location, at Sanborn and Sunset, to Lucille and Sunset, where it found its groove. By this time, Shire says, they had started selling cards, T-shirts, books, baskets, wooden toys, arty T-shirts, jewelry and handmade items along with bath products and essential oils. The store also took on a more punk-rock aesthetic, with zines, clothing, accessories and housewares. "It was right around '77," Shire recalls. "Gary Panter had little comic books we sold, and I advertised in Slash magazine. I brought in stuff like black jeans from Trash & Vaudeville in New York. We had a lot of stuff upstairs in this little mezzanine, along with my leather work."
Several years passed and Soap Plant became the definitive go-to in L.A. for alternative gifts, a place to get unique goodies before the mall tried to provide and the internet offered them so plentifully. I recount my first time at Soap Plant to Shire during our interview: I grew up in Atwater Village and Silver Lake, but hadn't been into the store until the annual Sunset Junction Street Fair, sometime in the '80s. I was about 8 years old and with my parents. I saw people with purple, pink and blue hair for the first time. Music was blasting and there was an energy in the moment that I remember wanting to capture and take home with me. I begged my folks to buy me something — some colorfully packaged lip balm and a little flipbook or something — and they did. I kept it for years, and wished that I might someday be cool enough to work in a store like that. (When I was 17, I did just that, working for my cousin's shop, Y-Que Trading Post, which was sort of an offshoot of another punky retail pioneer, Nana in Santa Monica, but also took inspiration from Soap Plant's hodge-podge of novelties, fashion and ethnic artifacts, but with a more focused spotlight on Latin culture, selling candles and botanica items alongside rockabilly and cholo garb. Y-Que still exists under different ownership, with a kitschier vibe, on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, a short walk from where Soap Plant stands today.)
The Silver Lake store was seminal but Shire's store enjoyed its most important era on Melrose. "This area kind of died out," Shire says of Silver Lake and Los Feliz and his move west in 1980. "For a while I had both locations open at the same time. I also had Wacko [toy store] next door and Zulu [clothing] a little further down Melrose."
La Luz de Jesus Gallery, which some might say is Shire's most influential venture, came about almost by accident. The store was showcasing a lot of art, and Day of the Dead was always huge. When Shire brought in large papier-mâché skeleton sculptures from Mexico, there wasn't much room to display them, so he used the upstairs storage space. It became a popular part of the store and, since he always wanted to do art shows (a lucha libre–inspired theme was a big one), it made sense to turn the second level into a proper gallery.
"Robert Lopez [aka "El Vez"] was working for me and he said, 'I'll run the gallery,'" Shire says. "So we decided to make it a full-on gallery and showcase local artists."
Opened in 1986, La Luz started as a folk art gallery, but soon local artists wanted exhibits and Shire knew some artists starting to making names for themselves, such as Panter and Robert Williams. "Then Coop and Pizz and all those guys were hanging out and saying, 'Give me a show!' But they weren't ready then," he recalls. "Robert Lopez brought me this magazine article. It had Joe Coleman and I said, call him. ... Then there was, you know, people like Mark Mothersbaugh and Neon Park, these local kind of underground artists. And I started bringing in all the Zap Comix guys, S. Clay Wilson and ... you know, we were the only ones really doing it consistently. Zero One [Gallery] were doing some stuff.
"It was kind of a holdover from the punk-rock scene. Lou Beach, Jim Heimann ... ," Shire furrows his face as he tries to think back to the biggies who put La Luz on the map and vice versa. I ask if he had a specific type of art in mind or if he was open. The term "lowbrow art" has been strapped to his gallery and the artists who've emerged from it since he began, and while it encompasses a lot of amazing things (tattoos, comics, religious iconography, hotrod promo, nostalgia), it always sounds sort of dismissive of the skill and depth involved.
"It was very much a kind of self-taught type thing," he explains. "The idea was figurative narrative. We weren't doing abstract art. It was more literal. Figurative art is based on figure and narrative meaning telling a story. It got lumped under 'lowbrow,' but when you look at the breadth and width of the styles, it's so many things. It was just kind of an underground art. 'Pop surrealism' is a little better term, but it's still not covering it all.
"A lot of what I was doing, everything I've done actually, you know from the inception of the Soap Plant, is about pop culture," Shire says. "And visual culture. The art gallery is really based on California pop culture — surfing, hotrodding, tattooing, sign painting, neon, tiki, comic books, cartoons, Hollywood, rock & roll and psychedelia, too." The Belmont High graduate, who is of Russian-Jewish descent but was seen as an "honorary Latino" among his pals in Echo Park, adds: "And of course Mexican culture, which has hugely affected me in my color sense and what I do in the store — the Day of the Dead stuff, the lucha and the religious iconography. "
"When people talk about Los Angeles landmarks (Griffith Observatory, Walk of Fame, Santa Monica Pier) I think Soap Plant/Wacko and La Luz de Jesus Gallery need to be included in the conversation," says La Luz's current director, Matthew Gardocki. "Billy has created something that is unique to Los Angeles. People can try to copy but no one can duplicate what he has done."
There was a time when Melrose was the epicenter of L.A. edginess and expression. Record stores like Aron's and Vinyl Fetish sold the most vital new sounds from around the world while would-be rock stars (from bands like Faster Pussycat and Junkyard) worked in shops hawking the styles of the moment: pointy boots, skinny jeans, bangle bracelets, fishnets, Manic Panic hair dye, etc. Stores like Retail Slut, Flip of Hollywood, Let It Rock, Flash Feet, Aardvark's and many more made it a destination. All of these including Soap Plant and its sister stores placed huge advertisements in L.A. Weekly, and flipping through the paper with newsprint-blackened fingers was a ritual for many young natives like myself. And it was as much about the fun ads as it was the stories. I wanted to frequent Melrose as fervently as I dreamed of going to my first rock club (Scream in downtown), and when I was old enough, I did both, a lot. It was obvious that the businesses on this stretch of sidewalk were forging something fresh and new, a rebellious aspirational mix of music, fashion and lifestyle that everyone wanted to be part of.
La Luz de Jesus' gallery openings, more than anything else on the street, save for Vinyl Fetish's U.K. rock star record signings, were the places to be if you were an L.A. scenester (nobody used the term hipster yet). But alas, the street became too popular, and stores that were anything but indie started moving in. Maybe it was the TV show Melrose Place, or maybe the corporate coffee boom — who knows — but by the early 1990s, Melrose between La Brea and Fairfax avenues had lost its specialness, and when Shire decided to leave and return to the neighborhood where he started in 1995, it was a very big deal.
"Melrose had become the center of the world," Shire says. "I mean it was like Swinging London in the '60s. But by the '90s it sucked. It was like Haight-Ashbury at the end of the Summer of Love. Businesswise, on Saturday we would get 10 times the traffic but only twice as much [revenue] as a regular day. So it was a lot of wear and tear. I do something called a bag count. You stand outside on the street and look at how many bags people are carrying. If there's a lot, the street is doing good."
There wasn't the bag bounty there once was on Melrose at that point. That, coupled with some permit problems he was having with gallery events, encouraged Shire to move to the Hollywood Boulevard location in Los Feliz where his two stores, Soap Plant and Wacko, were melded and art venue La Luz could take up a big chunk in the rear of the building.
The store and the gallery have both been not only chugging along but winning new loyal customers ever since, providing a solid preparty present pit stop for that hard-to-buy-for pal as well as a regular meeting place for L.A.'s creative community when a new art show or book signing takes place. [Disclosure: I've held signings there for two of my books.)
"Working at Wacko is a unique privilege, and the job isn't simply retail," says Tricia Fetters, who does a little bit of everything at the store and gallery. "It's to be part of our city's living history, to have a first glimpse of breaking culture, to daily interact with all stripes. It's a rich — and occasionally exhausting — experience. I often refer to the store as the city's living room — the muster point where the diversity of Los Angeles, tourists of America and the greater world converge to chat, engage curiosity, to shop and unwind. Billy Shire is the dedicated cultivator of this community. He is most genuine, generous and humble — the very best of Los Angeles."
Fetters and I are both part of a group on Facebook for former employees of Soap Plant/Wacko/La Luz de Jesus. Though I never worked there, I've hung out at the store and gallery enough to be included and I've known dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who have been part of the store's family over the years — yes, even some of those purple-, pink- and blue-haired people I used dream of being like as a kid.
A discussion about Shire and the store's significance in the group recently became an epic thread bursting with memories and love. Shire provided a vibrant and accepting home for many young creative people and appreciation and inspiration via the unique, artful items that were constantly being brought in to the store.
Many of his former employees shared and continue to share words of admiration for Shire, but one former employee provided a post for this piece that seemed to best encapsulate what everyone in the group had to say: "Most of us worked there to make money during the day, so we could pursue our dreams," writes Michel Chenele, who worked for Shire from 1985 to 2004, and now teaches eighth to 12th grade. "Billy is unique in that he only [buys] merchandise that he likes. He doesn't buy kooky stuff to be kooky — he gets it because it speaks to him. When he went to trade shows, other businesses would follow him around to see what he would get. His mom taught him the mechanics of retail and he sticks to them. He's a really smart guy, and low-key and doesn't make rash decisions. He's extremely generous — to a fault. If people didn't appreciate his generosity, he never bad-mouths them. I've always respected this about him.
"As far as his influence on culture, he was the first person to bring Day of the Dead artifacts to Los Angeles (masks, figurines, trees of life)," Chenele continues. "I think Billy doesn't get one-tenth of the credit he deserves. This is mostly because of his personality. He doesn't blow his own horn. He just works, makes things happen, enjoys what he accomplished, and works some more."
During my interview with Shire, I see everything stated above in front of my eyes. Shire shares memories and takes credit for what's deserved but never in a braggy way. He just knows what he knows, loves what he loves, and remembers a lot. And yes, the man is nonstop, but after all these years, he still seems to be enjoying what he does. His last gift-show jaunt to Vegas yielded some fun finds and, as has always been the case, he has his hand in every single aspect of the stores and gallery.
I ask him if and when he plans to retire, and he admits he's thought about it, but he also has a lot planned for the store and gallery moving forward; the gallery is already booked through next year and he started ordering for the Christmas rush months ago.
"I hope I've been a positive force in the culture of Los Angeles," Shire says of his influence and legacy on shopping, art and lifestyle. "I'd like to think that I helped shape some of the direction of the culture.
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"I mean, sometimes I have to apologize to people for things, too — like the big-eye art thing. ... I feel partially responsible for that," he says with a laugh.
"But for me, it's always been about California, you know, and 20th-century culture, which California had such a huge effect on," Shire adds, as the Taschen rep waits in the background. "Almost half of all the cultural influences come from right here — Hollywood, surfing, cars, motorcycles, tattoos — all these things make up who we are and what we like."
And Billy Shire knows what we like. He's proven this for almost five decades now, surviving and even thriving in the face of minimalism, trends, gentrification and commercialization in the neighborhoods he helped establish. Even the internet couldn't kill the cultural hub he created. And the internet will never be as cool, either.
Soap Plant/Wacko & La Luz de Jesus, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 663-0122, soapplant.com.