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George Nelson: 45 years of Fawn Memories

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

George Nelson learned a valuable lesson the hard way: when the corporation you work for offers you a promotion, you take it, especially when that corporation is Disney. “They wanted to send me to Disney World,” explains Nelson who was working at Disneyland when the offer was made. “But my wife was a California girl who didn’t want to move. I learned you don’t say ‘no’ to the corporate structure.”

Leaving Disney to do his own thing

However, while that “no” may not have been great for Nelson’s upward mobility at Disney, it did provide him with another opportunity, one that has lasted for 45 years. “I went to Beau (Boyd, his boss at Disney and the Director of Merchandise) and said, ‘I’m thinking of doing my own store.’ He said, ‘That’d be a good move for you.’” And he was right. Nelson opened Fawn Memories in Laguna Beach in 1974 and he – and it – are still here. 

George Nelson closeup

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George Nelson of Fawn Memories has been in business in Laguna for 45 years

Keeping a business, any business, thriving for 45 years is impressive. Keeping a retail store going for that long is extraordinary. One invaluable strategy Nelson uses is to change the store as the times change. “You listen to your customers who say, ‘Where can I get ‘this?’” he explains. 

From plant accessories to whatever people want next

When he first opened, Fawn Memories was a plant boutique. “I sold a lot of handmade pots and macramé,” he remembers. “From baskets I got into hats. I have a big clientele with hats, 200-300 styles.”

Nothing proved to be as big, however, as Beanie Babies back in their day. “That was a once in a lifetime run,” he says of the furor created by selling the collectible plush animals. “I was so fortunate to be on the ground floor of that. We had a great following, probably a two to three-year run.” Clearly, those were good years, but when the hype died down, Nelson regrouped and found the next thing his customers wanted. 

Catering to both locals and tourists

“I’m very conscious of selling to locals as well as tourists,” he says. “There’s a fine balance. You need both of them. We’ve achieved that. We have a very good repeat clientele.” As an example, Nelson says he sells a cap with “Laguna” imprinted on it as well as the same style blank. Tourists want the “Laguna,” locals prefer it without. It helps to know your customers.

George Nelson sign

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George Nelson outside his store Fawn Memories located in the Lumberyard Mall on Forest Ave 

Living in Laguna makes that a lot easier. Nelson came to the U.S. in 1969. Born in Australia to an American father and an Australian mother, he decided to come to America after he finished school. “My plan was to import vintage cars,” he remembers. His plans changed. “I ended up having so much fun and not working, that my nest egg disappeared,” he says laughing. He got a job at Disneyland. “It exposed me to souvenirs and the resort business.” These wound up being two very important aspects of his current business, though he did not know that then.

It helps to know your customers

Nelson first landed in Newport but found Laguna more to his liking. “I loved it,” he says. “For merchants, living here is a huge plus. You understand that without the connection to the community, it is hard to succeed.”

One of the things Nelson likes about Laguna is “It’s like a little Mayberry,” he says, comparing it to the idyllic small town from The Andy Griffith Show. “At one point, I had the fire chief’s wife working for me. That was another neat connection.” He still sells the fire department’s T-shirts. 

When Mary Hurlbut shows up to take photos for this story, the two start chatting about how three generations of Hurlbuts have shopped at his store. Over the years, he has developed a relationship with his customers. This is something his biggest competitors can’t touch, and it’s another key to his success. 

George Nelson hats

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Fawn Memories has a huge inventory of hats for when the sun finally comes out

His biggest competition is the same as every other retail store: online shopping. He recognizes the ease and simplicity of it. “To compete, my little niche, a lot of it you can’t find online. It’s a little more specialized,” he says. Plus, online vendors don’t know your grandkids.

Still loving the work

His own kids did not inherit the retail bug from their father. When asked if either his son or daughter have any interest in taking over the store, Nelson says good-naturedly, “None whatsoever.” He does hedge and say if he owned a surf shop his son might get involved, but as it’s not, his kids will continue to do their own things. “I have to say I love it. I have a passion. I’ve always told my kids if you don’t enjoy it, life’s too short.” 

Which is why, after 45 years, he can still be found in the shop. “I’m a working owner,” he says. “10 to 4 are about my hours. I still enjoy it. I get people who want to see me and talk to me. I’m not prepared to give it up just yet. To some extent I’m becoming the Walmart greeter at the store,” he says with a laugh.

A trusted employee fills a lot of roles

The greeter comparison is a joke, of course, but Nelson is lucky in that he has an employee who has worked for him for over 25 years. She now handles a lot of the day-to-day running of things. With his own kids lacking an interest in working at the store, this employee has filled that familial role to a certain extent. “She’s the daughter-type,” he says. “That’s the glue here. It’s almost unheard of in retailing (to have an employee for that long). I may be a bit of a father figure to her. She’s now very involved.” 

George Nelson girl

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Fawn Memories caters to both tourists and locals alike

Having such a trusted employee gives Nelson some freedom to travel (he had recently returned from Australia when we met) as well as indulge in his other passion: classic cars. “It consumes my time,” he says with a smile. Nelson is involved with Woodys and old Porsches and is a member of clubs with those interests. He really likes “the Woody guys.” “They’re my age group, old surfers, SoCal guys. They’re fun to hang around with. I missed that (time here).” 

Things have changed, and stayed the same

From the old days to now, much has changed. However, Nelson says a lot remains the same. “As far as the town, it’s still a lot of small stores. There are different owners, but not that much different than it was then. I appreciate what people have done to keep it cute and quaint.’

And while he has done a great job keeping up with the trends for his store, he has not been quite as proficient keeping up with technological advances. “I’m not really a social media person,” he says as he takes out his flip phone. “I’m really afraid what will happen if I lose the charger.” 

Hoping that crisis can be averted, Nelson suggests I come in and look for a hat, even though the sun has been buried in June gloom. We all know it will come out eventually. But like the hidden sun that will eventually reveal itself, there’s one more question lurking: Fawn Memories? What does that even mean?

Fawn Memories uncovered

The concept, it seems, came from the art department at Disney, the animators of Bambi, perhaps the most famous fawn. “What that name has done, it has allowed me to change merchandise many times,” he says appreciatively. 

He may not have known how helpful that would be when he opened 45 years ago to sell plant accessories, but as he has proved himself to be extremely adept at changing with the times, it was a fortuitous choice. The name doesn’t say much about what’s inside the store, which is a good thing, but it does speak to its longevity.