Tiny Balboa T-shirt shop folding up after 30 years

Among the boutique shops on Balboa Island's main drag, a small store called Family T's has long offered a tourist basic.

Like an overflowing closet, the tiny space has T-shirts and sweatshirts stamped with local identifiers — "Newport Beach" or "Balboa Island" — stacked from floor to ceiling. They are stuffed into shelves that line the walls and piled high on a counter in the store's center.

The plentiful inventory at 213 1/2 Marine Ave. has accumulated over 30 years, but in only a few months, the store's time will come to an end. The remnant of the island's beachy past is set to close at the end of the year. A sign displayed among even more merchandise in the window tells it all: "Come on in for great deals or to just say goodbye."

Though Family T's has been a constant, the area itself has been through changes. The store's owner, Howard Silver, noted its progression from beach bum beginnings to a place that now displays a more contemporary couture — Beverly Hills with a bay, as he put it.

Where there once were funky trinket stores, local art vendors and six or seven T-shirt shops, his store is now nestled among a string of higher-priced boutiques.

Silver is a self-described "dreamer" who is averse to change, and he sees Family T's as a "relic" — down to the carpet from 30 years ago.

"I'm not good with change. I've never been good with change," said the shop owner, who still uses a calculator to keep his books. "... Life goes too fast, and to have to keep adjusting to the modern world, it's just not for me."

Growing up in Los Angeles, Silver spent time each summer with his family in a rented home on the Balboa Peninsula.

It was a different place then, surrounded by open space.

"It was just like being in heaven," said Silver, 66.

Silver remembers the smell of suntan lotion, the feel of the sand and the fear upon seeing a large marlin hauled up near the Balboa Pavilion.

For $2, which today buys only a piece or two of candy, he could entertain himself for a whole day, buying lunch, renting a surfboard and perhaps playing a game of pinball.

"It's overpowering when you think back to those days," he said. "It's special. It's really special."

Silver became a part of the Newport Beach experience when he opened his store on Jan. 1, 1984, with $8,000. It was just down the street from a T-shirt shop that his brother started in 1979, the Balboa Island T-Shirt Co., and he eventually ran both spots, with help from his mom and his sister. His stepson and daughter also worked for him. A family friend works with him now.

Family T's name hinted not only at the Silver family ties, but also the TV show — "Family Ties" — that was popular at the time.

Over the years, Silver made it a point to keep his prices low while maintaining the best quality possible. His tees range from $11 to $25, while his sweatshirts run from $18 to $48.

The Irvine resident said he offers something for all customers — kids, adults and infants, "from 6 months to triple (XLs)."

He's become intimately aware of the trends in the T-shirt business. Lifeguard shirts have always been popular. When the TV series "The O.C." came out, international tourists wanted a shirt that had the abbreviation on it. Now, for the first time in shop history, he said, the California bear has been a highly coveted design.

The businessman has also met people from all over the country — Minnesotans are the best, he said — who come in looking for a memento by which to remember their experience.

"That's what I'm really selling. I'm selling a memory," he said.

More than anything, Silver aims to please. He remembers the time a 25-year-old came in and said she still treasured the T-shirt from his shop that she has owned since she was a child. He loves it when children decide to spend their own money on a shirt in his shop. And he takes note when people say they want to look around but then return to make a purchase at Family T's nonetheless.

Shoppers have told him his store is always their first stop on the island. A woman from Las Vegas would spend $400 or $500 in one go. A local used to request that Silver tell her any time he received new merchandise.

Another woman, who happened to be connected to the property owner, said she loved the store so much that she would be sure his rent never went up. (That stayed true until the building sold in 2005; Silver said his rent increased by 60% when his lease was renewed in 2010.)

With the goodbye sign up, customer after customer has stopped in to express regret that he is leaving.

He chuckled at this, saying, "It's funny how life is. Nobody really shows you love until it's dead or you're gone."

But it's time for him to move closer to his family, Silver said, though the decision has not come lightly.

"It's been my life. For a lot of me, it's tough to leave," he said.

He also explained, "A store is like a human being. It's a life to itself. You either outlive it, or it outlives you.... I don't want the business to beat me."

Though the island retains longtime businesses, such as the banana stands, customer tastes — as well as the cost of doing business — change.

"Increasing rents are driving out some of the traditional long-term businesses in the community. It's a natural evolution unfortunately," said Steve Rosansky, president of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce. "It's a tough business environment. It's very seasonal there."

Silver plans to sell what he has left, though he may save a few items for himself. When asked how many Balboa Island T-shirts he already owns, Silver simply responded, "From the waist up, I'm pretty well taken care of for the rest of my life."

At the time, he was wearing a brown shirt with the island name arching across.

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