I recently found myself stuck in a Marriott Residence Inn in Orange County with a baby and no car. (Don’t ask.) On day one I pushed a stroller to the South Coast Plaza, one of those mega-mall fortresses with identikit department stores for turrets. As a New Yorker, I thought the novelty of the enclosed retail playground would be a welcome way to while away the hot summer days, but in reality I had “done the mall” in half a day and was bored to death before the sun even set. Thankfully it turned out that there was a much better retail experience nearby that I didn’t even have to cross a freeway to get to. It was called The Camp, and was an exceptionally well-executed “eco mall”.
One doesn’t typically think of a strip mall across from an El Pollo Loco as cutting edge, and yet here this was, a ten minute walk from the Residence Inn. The Camp’s sustainable architecture was both beautiful and utilitarian, with green roofs and beach grass growing in the sandy walkways. Patagonia held court over a number of refreshingly unique retailers and restaurants, the most interesting of which was the Seed People’s Market selling an eclectic hodgepodge of well-designed sustainable and socially-conscious wares like “wildcrafted” Juniper Ridge soaps, Kauzbots, Sseko sandals from Uganda and Lunchskins. In short, this place sold cool shit that also happened to be environmentally and socially responsible. Score!
What most impressed me about The Camp was its attention to detail: succulents growing atop garbage bins, crunchy little phrases like “eat tofu” and “say hello to others” written in each parking space, breezy semi-outdoor seating that made the most of minimal air-conditioning. It came as no surprise that the developers behind The Camp are also the same people behind The Lab, its sister strip mall across the street known as “the anti-mall” — the O.C. hipster’s alternative to the South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island. Ultimately I was able to survive a couple more carless (that’s CAR-less, not careless) days in Orange County without losing my mind, thanks to the retail therapy and ghost chili tacos at The Camp. It ain’t Magic Mountain, but these pair-o-malls are definitely worth checking out.