Joann’s Elegant Gifts closes after 30 years

In early 1999, Monica Garcia was on the job at Joann’s Elegant Gifts, the L Street shop where she’s worked since 1996, when a pair of suspicious-looking men came in. They wore dark suits and sunglasses, and each had a wire hanging out of one ear. They looked around the shop for several minutes, and said no when asked if he needed help finding anything.

Then, outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson walked in. The men, it turned out, were just making sure the store was safe.

“He just came to say goodbye,” Garcia said.

Unfortunately, store owner Joann Mizutani was still in Los Angeles celebrating the holidays with family. But Wilson already had a chance to thank her, when he and others presented her with a 1992 Executive Order honoring her for her role in the culture of the Capitol.

The framed order hangs next to three legislative resolutions on the store’s wall.

 “My wife talks about you all the time,” Wilson told her. Gayle Wilson was a customer for years.

But Joann’s goes back even further. Mizutani opened her doors in July 1980, during the first Jerry Brown administration, under the name Morning Star Elegant Gifts.

And now she’s leaving under a Jerry Brown administration. After three decades and owing several months of back rent, Mizutani closes her doors for good on Friday, Jan. 28. But she prefers to look at the bright side.

“I’m so glad Jerry’s back,” Mizutani said. “I’ve been defending his good name for 30 years.”

A signed, framed picture of a 44-year-old Jerry Brown with a full head of dark hair occupies a prime wall spot behind the cash register. Brown himself used to stop by from time to time. Then, as now, he’d walk around with a single CHP officer for protection, often with no entourage at all.

Like Brown, Joann’s is an icon from another time — an era before term limits, when careers were longer, bipartisanship wasn’t a dirty word and relationships mattered more. In fact, Joann’s played a role in a lot of political relationships over the years, as a place where members of the political class bought tokens of affection for each other.

“This was a pleasant place to shop,” said Diane Plescia. “She always had just the thing when you needed a gift.”

Plescia — a cousin to former Assemblyman George Plescia, in case you were wondering — was one of dozens of mostly-female customers coming in and out of Joann’s door during the going-out-of-business sale Mizutani has been holding for the last two weeks.

These days, Plescia works for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer. But 30 years ago, she was an appointments secretary for Brown. Mizutani said that back when she first opened her store, the “Brownies” adopted her.

“When I first started, I didn’t know a soul,” Mizutani said. “I had no friends. They included me.”

Soon she found herself hanging out with them after work at David’s Brass Rail, a since-departed watering hole for Sacramento’s powerful. Soon, her connections began to work in her favor.
“They just drew people in,” Mizutani said. “The lobbyists would come flocking here inviting the Brownies out to lunch. I couldn’t believe I was part of this.”

Joann’s quickly became known for two things: unusual but affordable gifts that you couldn’t find at other shops, and for Mizutani’s famous bows. She didn’t really know how to wrap presents when she started, but came up with the design on her own. It involves layering a ribbon multiple times on top of a present using several pieces of double-sided tape.

Over the years, a lot of powerful people passed through her doors. Former legislative leaders like Speakers Willie Brown and Herb Wesson, Senate Pro Tem David Roberti, Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy and Assembly Republican leader Bob Beverly were all customers, buying small presents for friends and colleagues throughout the years.

Beverly is also one of the guys whose names come up when folks get nostalgic about bygone days of bipartisanship. Though he’s remembered his later days as a gray-haired, stentorian-voiced Republican state Senator straight out of central casting, he was a key GOP vote on the 1989 assault weapons ban — and often came in with Democratic colleagues.

“Everyone reached across the aisle in those days,” Mizutani said.

“Those days” can be seen all over the walls of the store, which are covered with resolutions and signed pictures of political notables. There’s current officeholders like Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, Treasurer Bill Lockyer, local Assemblyman Dave Jones and political power couple Sen. George Runner and wife Sharon, a former Assemblywoman who recently announced her own bid for Senate. Photos from the past include not just governors — Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are there, along with Gray Davis — but former statewide officials like Attorney General (now congressman) Dan Lungren,  Treasurer Phil Angelides, Controller Steve Westly, and Secretary of State March Fong Eu.

But it’s many of the non-elected people Mizutani remembers best. The ’80s and ’90s were still an era of larger-than-life lobbyists, such as California State Employees’ Association lobbyist Michael Douglas. She remembers Douglas coming by many times of the year, a “big, burly Irishman” who seemed like a cop out of an old movie, holding court with various people as he walked the small aisles.

Then there was Nancy Burt. The longtime chief of staff to Roberti, Burt was sometimes seen as having a fierce reputation for her no-nonsense style and the power she could wield. Mizutani said she remembers multiple times overhearing people talking in the store about how they probably wouldn’t get a job because Burt wasn’t supporting them.

But she said she also knew Burt’s softer side. For over a dozen years, Burt bought Christmas gifts for underprivileged school kids through a personal endeavor they called “The Mrs. Klaus Project.” Even after Burt closed The Woolley Group – the lobbying firm named after her dog, which she opened after Roberti termed out in the early ’90s – Burt kept spending $600 or more a year on gifts at Joann’s, often driving down from her new home in Salem, Ore.

“When she first started out, she was all enthusiasm and no skill,” Burt said of Mizutani.

This description also works for many of the inexperienced legislators who come into Sacramento each year. Both women say the era of term limits has changed the culture and lessened personal ties in Sacramento.  

“I don’t agree with term limits,” Mizutani said. “If you don’t like someone, you can vote them out.”

She added, “People are really stressed out,” in the current era of constant budget battles and an environment where there are fewer interpersonal connections to lessen the tension.
But Mizutani didn’t just hobnob with the powerful. She’s said she’s well-known with local homeless people. A devout Christian, she often gives out food, and keeps a stash of Cup O’ Noodles in the back of the store.

“They never pee in front of my doorway,” Mizutani said.

Mizutani said that her next plan is to go to Africa for awhile to work with AIDS orphans with the group WorldVision. But she said she’s going to keep ties with Sacramento. Her husband and UCLA college sweetheart, Charles Mizutani, still works at the California Energy Commission, where he’s been for almost 36 years. And s
he plans to keep feeding the homeless and maintain ties with the many people she knows here.

 “If I was rich, I would still be here,” she said.

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