In a town plagued by brick and mortar turnover, longtime, locally owned, community centered stores are a dying breed. Merrihew’s Sunset Gardens is one of them, and fortunately at 75 years old, is continuing to flourish and grow.
Now in its 4th generation of local leadership, the store has a new owner Frank Slamka, who looks forward to celebrating the garden center’s anniversary with a community event on Dec. 15.
From 12 p.m. to close the store will be open for a come as you wish open air celebration featuring Santa Monica BBQ pop-up The Great Outdoor and some neighborhood musicians. Residents are invited to swing by and enjoy wood fired meat and veggie skewers, join in the jam session and pick out some plants.
“I’m going to bring some instruments out, have some musicians come and we will play pretty much as soon as they start cooking until people disperse,” said Slamka. “Anybody can come play or just enjoy it.”
The Great Outdoor currently runs as a pop-up at Pico coffee shop and restaurant Kiff Kafe. It’s one of Slamka’s favorite places to grab a meal, so he invited the team to bring out their grills and cook up their farmers market meat, fish and vegetables at the anniversary.
These casual run-ins are how a lot of local businesses and artisans ended up becoming a part of the offerings at Merrihew’s. A chat with Slamka’s girlfriend’s friend, Lauren Jensen, later yielded a range of colorful hand-dyed Merrihew’s totes, t-shirts and hoodies. A trip to Blossom Vietnamese restaurant resulted in ceramist Shoshi Watanabe’s beautiful pots being featured at the store.
Another artisan featured at the garden center is Magie D’Anjou, a Compton resident who produces all-natural craft soaps under the moniker Magie’s Fine Ugly Soap.
This organic and symbiotic relationship with other small businesses is a natural part of Merrihew’s ethos, which has always sought to be closely integrated with the community.
The garden center was founded in 1947 by Don Merrihew, whose granddaughter, according to Slamka, still swings by the store on occasion. Merrihew was an accountant with a deep love for plants and opened up the business later in life when he decided to make his passion his full-time hustle.
While the store started out on Montana Avenue, it moved to its current location at 1526 Ocean Park Blvd. around 30 years later when Norm Patino took over as owner.
In 2005, Patino passed the baton to long time employee and Santa Monica native Dick Lahey. Lahey was a Vietnam veteran and a loyal customer of Merrihew’s who decided to purchase the store a few years after returning to the states.
Slamka started working under Lahey in 2016 and took over ownership in May 2021. Slamka inherited his green thumb from his father, who was the last in a long line of family farm owners from upstate New York.
“I was the first generation that didn’t grow up on the farm. My dad built the house he grew up in after they got rid of all their land. We always had a veggie garden in the backyard. I just grew up gardening,” said Slamka.
Just as Slamka acquired his love of plants from his parents, so too did many of store’s current customers, who in turn passed down the practice of buying their gardening goods from Merrihew’s.
“There was one time actually where I was ringing a lady up and she happened to run into her son who was also shopping here. I was like ‘oh that’s cool, two generations are here,’ and all of the sudden the guy looks in the seed room and goes ‘dad?’, and all three of them were here shopping at the same time,” said Slamka.
There are also some shoppers who have frequented the store since its Montana Ave days. Slamka said an older woman recently came in wistfully recalling how she would save up her allowance to come buy gumballs from Merrihew’s long gone gumball machine.
All customers, residents and friends are welcome to stop by the 75th anniversary celebration, whether they have been shopping at Merrihew’s for decades or will be walking in for the first time.