True Grit Closes Its Doors
by Shannon Kelley Gould
Yet another Santa Barbara institution has closed its doors for the last time. True Grit, that longtime bastion of style, called it quits on May 31. But don’t cry for former owners Jill and Wally, Santa Barbara; the two are happy to be moving on. After 15 years, they’ve begun pursuing other things, and feel the time had simply come. “It’s like our kid grew up and went to college,” said Wally.
But, oh, what a run it was. The two started out dealing denim — mostly vintage Levi’s — out of their apartment. They painstakingly built their collection, and were always on the prowl for another shrewd addition. “Once during Fiesta,” recalled Jill, “I went up to this girl who was wearing a jean jacket, and told her I’d give her 50 bucks for it. She told me no, then went and told her boyfriend, who was like, ‘Take it!’” Jean-jacket girl did take it, as did many others. Initially, Jill and Wally were wholesaling denim to Pure Gold, “but the buyer would always [keep] all the good ones,” said Jill. They started selling to shoppers or State Street wanderers they’d approach with a covert whisper — “It was like dealing drugs,” said Wally — and one such shopper eventually funded their first store, buying $4,500 worth of vintage denim in one shot, after claiming he didn’t have much money to spend.
With that cash infusion, the two secured their first digs, a 400-square-foot spot on the corner of Ortega and Anacapa, across from Paradise Café. True Grit opened on August 12, 1991, and was a near-overnight success. “The first Saturday we were open, we made enough money to pay for the month’s rent,” said Jill. That shop focused on vintage denim, jewelry, boots, and signs, as well as denim sporting Wally’s popular graffiti designs, and quickly gained a huge following. After three years there, True Grit was bursting at the seams, and Jill and Wally set their sights on a bigger space.
They found it at 407 State Street. The new shop offered more than three times the space, which created an entirely new problem — namely, how to fill it. They didn’t have nearly enough inventory, so, said Jill, “it was like display, display, display.” But the masses didn’t care. They loved True Grit just as they always had.
An old bar served as the counter, and Wally eventually moved his Haley Street record shop Choice Cuts upstairs. Jill began making clothes — her line, called Grit Girl, featured dresses and bandana skirts — and Wally began doing graphics. They also started carrying some up-and-coming lines, like a little label called Juicy Couture.
“We had the very first Juicy T-shirt,” said Jill, “back in ’94.” But Wally was not impressed with Jill’s decision to invest in the pricey tees. “He was pissed,” she said; Wally laughed, adding, “I was like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous; no one’s going to pay $24 for a T-shirt!’” Needless to say, he was wrong.
In 2002, True Grit made its final move, to 625 State Street, which was twice the size of the previous space. At that point, they’d stopped carrying the vintage stuff, and Wally had some big ideas: He envisioned an art gallery downstairs and a DJ booth in the corner, but that didn’t work out. “The guys upstairs were wankers,” he said. Alas.
And then, they began thinking about moving on. Jill partnered up with Eric Jones and Matt Hunter to launch an online store, Couture Candy, which carries, among other things, designs from her newish line, Plenty Jackson. Wally opened Particle on Ortega Street, and started a line with partner Leanna Bortolazzo, called Urban Decay.
Unlike so many other dearly departed businesses, their decision to jump ship was not entirely due to the ever-skyrocketing costs of renting space in State Street, although that played a part. It was more that they both felt the time was right. They had so many irons in their respective fires, “at one point, something was going to give,” said Jill.
Ultimately, “It was a fucking blast,” said Wally. Jill agreed, saying, “We really had a great time.” In their tenure, they touched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, and established True Grit as an undeniable Santa Barbara institution. But don’t bother offering condolences; they’re not interested. On its last day, the two closed up the shop for the last time, took the sign down together … and then, they threw it away.