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Tween-Focused Salon and Retail Hybrid to Open Downtown

Benni’s, a hair salon and retail shop from a pair of Sausalito residents, is opening in the 23 Throckmorton Ave. space formerly occupied by Tamalpais General Store.

A pair of Sausalito residents are opening a hybrid hair salon and retail shop targeting tweens at 23 Throckmorton Ave., the 2,200-square-foot space the  occupied for years before it closed in 2010.

Former retail exec Paul DeMartini and celebrity hair stylist Christopher Downs, who are life and business partners, received approval from the Mill Valley Planning Commission last week for Benni’s (pronounced “beh-NEES”), “a unique concept that has not been done yet,” Downs said. “It’s not just a hair salon and it’s not just a store. It’s an environment for the tween market – 8-18 year olds. You have your hair done and you shop – it’s the whole experience.”

But although the new business was approved, several commissioners and local residents said they were concerned about the proliferation of hair salons in Mill Valley, though the commissioners quickly realized there wasn’t much they could do about it right now.

The commission had no discretion because there is no policy on the books calling for the city to regulate the proliferation of certain types of businesses. Such a policy would be contained in the General Plan, which the city is .

During that last update, the City Council at the time agreed to study the issue of “developing and implementing anti-proliferation policies and ordinances to maintain the preferred mix of commercial uses.” But the council never implemented any regulations, Planning Director Mike Moore said.

Instead of focusing on a non-proliferation ordinance, Moore said the council instituted a trigger that any new business in a space larger than 1,500 square feet would require a conditional use permit (CUP), which gets approved by the planning commission.

“So (the council) kicked it back to the planning commission,” Planning Commission Chair Heidi Richardson said.

Longtime Mill Valley resident Kathy Cortez lamented the loss of general stores downtown and the increase in certain types of stores.

“We used to have general stores and five-and-dime stores place where kids could go and pick up things,” she said. “(Places like Bennis) are changing the character of Mill Valley.”

Christine Neubert, a local resident who works at Thread Lounge, a clothing shop that currently occupies 23 Throckmorton, said she wasn’t sure Benni’s would have much success.

“I can’t imagine that there is actually a need for a place like this here,” she said.

After Benni’s was approved, owner Jessika Adams said that while her salon has a loyal clientele, particularly given her longstanding contributions to organizations like , she believes there are too many hair salons in town. The Mill Valley Patch business directory lists 35 businesses under hair salons and barbers.

“It would be nice if the planning commission made a conscious effort to help Mill Valley diversify its business community,” Adams said. “Pretty soon we will be full of salons, yogurt shops and Italian/pizza restaurants and coffee shops ... At some point it's going to hurt the community, not help.”

Richardson said she was “very sympathetic” to those who spoke about the over-abundance of hair salons in Mill Valley.

“But I feel my hands are tied,” Richardson said of the commission’s limited discretion on the matter.

“I for one was very sorry to see the creaky floors of Varney’s Hardware disappear, but it’s not our pace to pick and choose what business comes in and rents the space,” Commissioner David Rand added. “The marketplace does that, not the Planning Commission. I don’t see that we have a choice.”

DeMartini, a former head of visual merchandising for West Elm, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, responded to some of those concerns by saying that the store itself will offer unique products not found elsewhere locally.

He said many of those products, including textiles and bracelets, will have a charitable element to them. For example, they are working with an organization called Aid to Artisans, which helps create marketplaces for products created in marginalized or at risk communities in places like central and western Africa.

“I am very sensitive to the amount of other salons in the area,” DeMartini said. “But there’s no way that one salon could service all tweens in Mill Valley. I’m confident that it will add to the other salons and not take away from them.”

The Benni’s concept is a take off from the duo’s Christopher Salon and adjacent Christopher Home store on Tiburon’s Ark Row. Downs opened the salon, with retail mxed throughout, in 2008 after moving with DeMartini from New York City, where he was a stylist well known stylist for his work with celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Candice Bergen, Sally Field and Christy Turlington. They added the adjacent home store two years later.

DeMartini noted that while hair cuts range from $60 to $150 at Christopher, prices will be lower at Benni’s.

He said they plan to open Benni’s in early April, allowing enough time to make minor renovations after Thread Lounge vacates. Owner Colleen Schmidt opened the store 11 months ago as a pop-up shop and hoped to stay in the space but couldn’t come to an agreement with building owner Tom Kostic, she said.

The clothing shop developed a solid following since it opened in March 2011, and Schmidt said she definitely plans to open another store in Mill Valley. She’s in negotiations for a space on Miller Avenue and hopes to bring in additional businesses into the new space, including a coffee company.

The 411: Benni’s will be located at 23 Throckmorton Avenue.

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