In a few weeks, Lee and Linda Oppenheim will be settling into retired life — maybe doing some work on their Calabasas home, finding volunteer opportunities or planning a trip.
But until then, you can find them most days at their shop on Main Street that they’ve owned for nearly 20 years: Arts and Letters.
The married couple announced earlier this year that they would be closing down the legacy stationary and curio shop to enjoy retirement. The decision came two or three years earlier than planned, Lee said, due to the challenging retail environment amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Main Street — it just seems like retail in general — it’s going to take years and years to come back, if at all, for small businesses,” Lee said. “Between ecommerce, COVID, and then, even vendors being our competitors online, taking a piece of the pie. It makes it harder and harder to own a store, we feel.”
The Oppenheims first came to Santa Monica as vendors doing consignment in numerous stores throughout Southern California. They were vendors at Arts and Letters for years and fell in love with the shop, so in 2003 when previous owners Marilyn and Jerry Golin, who had owned the store since 1992, reached out to offer them the business, they jumped at the opportunity.
“I just love the store,” Linda said. “I’ve always loved paper, always loved cards. It’s just a quaint little place, and I just really wanted the store.”
So the couple, who were raising their two young boys at the time, bought the business and made it their own. For two decades, the Oppenheims have commuted 45 minutes or more each way from Calabasas to work at the shop, where they said they’ve made many friends in the community.
“I love the relationships that I’ve built with the customers,” Linda said. “Being a mom and pop shop, people come in. They feel like family, and we’re always welcoming them here. One of my favorite things to do is find greeting cards and wrapping paper. I love helping customers pick out the ideal gift [and] wrapping their gift.”
In the past, Linda and Lee used to work with a lot of customers who were getting married and throwing baby showers, helping them select stationary for invitations. Nowadays, most people just go online.
“Unfortunately, the internet has taken that away,” Linda said.
That’s meant a loss of income for Arts and Letters, but Linda said it’s also a loss for the customers.
“I think it’s important for people to touch and feel products,” Linda said. “Nowadays, everything’s done online, and you don’t always know what you’re getting. And it’s certainly not the [same level of] customer service.”
With nearly 45 years’ experience as business owners (having started out with a pet shop before getting into greeting cards), Lee and Linda passed on lessons to their sons, Brian, now 34, and Jason, 30, although neither is following in their parents’ footsteps.
“We’re a close family,” Linda said. “They’ve been a help to us.”
The Oppenheims shared advice for new business owners hoping to find success in retail operations.
“Don’t be an absentee owner — that’s the first thing,” Lee said. “Definitely have an online presence along with your store. Have unique items that you don’t find everywhere at the big box stores.”
“And customer service,” Leslie added.
“Yes, that’s number one,” Lee agreed.
“Our philosophy is to help people,” Lee added. “Be nice to people. You would hope that other people continue to do that.”
Arts and Letters is located at 2665 Main St C, Santa Monica, CA 90405. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, until Feb. 28 or earlier if inventory sells out.