Moving On

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.

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