In Costa Mesa, California, a Shopping Mall That Thinks Small

TIMEApril 4, 2019

COSTA MESA, Calif.—South Coast Plaza has made Costa Mesa an international shopping destination.

The behemoth mall is the largest luxury shopping complex in California and the third largest in the country, counting such luxury icons as Hermes, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton—which boasts a private VIP atelier—among its 250-plus boutiques. Millions of shoppers visit each year.

But just a mile south, down Bristol Street, awaits a different kind of shopping experience.

There lies The LAB, a self-dubbed “anti-mall,” built from a repurposed night goggle factory with recycled and reused materials. No high rises or pristine Italian marble in sight.

Instead, the open outdoor space is dressed in earthy tones and overrun with greenery: vines creep along walls and drape across wooden awnings; great arms of cacti crowd giant terracotta pots; and in one spot, a tangle of twisting branches arches into a leafy tunnel. Some trees sport colorful yarn sweaters around their trunks; matching rainbow-planked benches placed around them complete the whimsical picture. Rocking chairs and swinging benches provide respite for weary feet, an invitation to simply slow down and hang out.

Shoppers relax on cushions and swinging benches at the lab
Rest spaces complete with swinging benches invite shoppers to slow down and hang out. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)

The LAB’s name—it’s an acronym for “Little American Business”—hints at its guiding philosophy. The anti-mall is the brainchild of artist-developer Shaheen Sadeghi, who opened the plaza in 1993. In curating vendors, he turned away from bigger companies and retail chains in favor of highlighting smaller, local entrepreneurs, the forces he saw as the future drivers and shapers of the retail space—and American culture as a whole.

“A lot of the excitement and energy and newness comes from the young entrepreneurs, not the [big] companies,” Sadeghi said. “We thought that if we created an environment to support the smaller businesses, it would be a powerful area.”

the lab anti-mall main walkway
The LAB’s outdoor space is strung with string lights and overrun with greenery. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)

The Shops

And so the biggest store you’ll find at The LAB is Urban Outfitters, one of its few long-term tenants. “They’ve been with us since day one,” Sadeghi explained—before they grew into the international giant they are now.

The rest make up a quirky, rotating cast of small boutiques and eateries, helmed by young business owners mostly based in the surrounding Orange County, if not Costa Mesa itself.  

During an afternoon visit, I thumbed through vinyl records at Creme Tangerine; admired handcrafted jewelry from May Martin; and fawned over corgi-shaped macarons at Honey & Butter. All operate out of cozy Airstream trailers, available through the mall for tenants to rent.

Creme Tangerine Records shop in an Airstream
Creme Tangerine Records, an independent record store, operates out of an Airstream. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)

When it comes to food and drink, locals rave about Habana (another day oner) for Cuban eats, or Bootlegger’s Brewery (a relative newcomer) for local craft beer. Good Town Doughnuts has gained a following for its brioche-style doughnuts, which include vegan options; the owner also runs a vintage shop next door.

Across the street is The CAMP, The LAB’s eco-friendly, health and wellness-focused sister mall, opened in 2002. More perfect hang-out spots beckon—wooden rocking chairs, cushioned benches, and a hammock, all sprinkled among tiny water fountains and yet more copious amounts of greenery—while stores offer up vegan eats, sustainable goods, activewear, and even fitness classes.

I could’ve happily spent my entire afternoon meandering through Seed Peoples Market, a wonderland of treasures from eco-friendly clothing to handcrafted pottery, spotlighting the products of local artists. Or, combing through the endless racks at 2nd Street, the U.S. flagship of the popular Japanese chain of second-hand shops (with over 500 locations in Japan), where the roster of represented brands spanned Japanese streetwear to Coach and Burberry.

Mailboxes with menus at the camp
Food options are plentiful in both plazas. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)

Thinking Smaller

Nearly 26 years after The LAB opened, Sadeghi’s premonitions are ringing ever more true. Across the country, he notes a growing interest in what he calls “localization, personalization, and customization, as opposed to homogenization,” as consumers seek out more closer connections to the products they buy.

That is, they’re thinking smaller—turning to local, small-scale producers and their often handcrafted goods, the kinds of businesses that places like The LAB and The CAMP have celebrated and fostered for years. Similar markets and food halls now abound.

“Creative culture and small business have changed and reshaped America,” Sadeghi said. “Crafting is back in America—we’re knitting again, we’re making things again. We’re seeing this beautiful resurgence.”

Colorful dishware and purses at Seed Peoples Market
Handcrafted goods at Seed Peoples Market. (Crystal Shi/The Epoch Times)
Crystal Shi
Food Editor
Crystal Shi is the food editor for The Epoch Times. She is a journalist based in New York City.