If you’re looking for parking along Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan’s hip arts-and-eats district south of Chicano Park, there’s a good chance you’ll give up and park a block east or west. I wound up leaving my car on National Avenue recently. Taking a shortcut on foot back toward Logan for a meeting over tacos at Salud, I got sidetracked in an alley that runs between and parallel to those Avenues.
Halfway down the tidy, block-long alley between Evans Street and Sampson Street, a small wooden building peeked out from a line of back doors and dumpsters. Blacked out in coal-toned paint with hot-pink accents, it was an unexpected storefront. But what really caught my eye was a small but steady stream of people flowing in and out of the back-alley business.
Inside, I uncovered a boundaries-blurring gaggle of San Diegans. A conservatively stylish woman, wife of a cleric, was there doing business. So was a beautiful young burlesque artist whose apparent modesty I later learn belies a fiery stage persona. Also among the clientele was a guy from North Park whose reason for being there had something to do with handmade jockstraps.
This place was a story, but my stomach gurgled remembering it had been promised potato tacos. The guy waiting for me at Salud texted, “are you coming?” I had to go, but not without asking the business owner if she’d be willing to do an interview about her colorful enterprise and its unlikely assortment of customers.
I wasn’t surprised she agreed. Few small business owners decline publicity. Yet I noticed she wasn’t exactly surprised I’d showed up to invite her to tell her story.
A week later, I walk up the same wooden steps and reintroduce myself to Sew Loka’s proprietor, Claudia Rodriguez Biezunski, 35. She’s a tailor, a seamstress and costume designer to whom other tailors send customers whose requests leave them scratching their heads.
While her affability is sincere, I suspect the meekness she conveys may only be surface-deep. A couple of tells hint at what I’ll soon learn is her punk-rock past. Clue one: Catwomanesque eyeliner. It terminates in thick points near the outer edges of her eyes.
The other is audible, though just barely. Listening with ears that relish accents and dialects, I detect a note of defiance beneath Rodriguez’s classically Southern Californian-Latina up-note word endings.
“Welcome back to Sew Loka,” she says. “I’m just finishing up here.”
I’ve caught the tailor in mid-conversation with a customer. I chat with her other clients. The studio is naturally lit by an open door and a window. One of the folks who was here last time is back, now occupied with a piece of cloth, some leather and a paper pattern at an adjacent table.
The other is customer Neddy Campos, a burlesque artist who was dropping off her first-ever order at Sew Loka the other day. Today she’s picking up a gown of forest-green satin that Rodriguez has customized, making a segment removable with snaps. Campos agrees to tell me about her order after trying it on.
“I had a vision and she made it happen,” Campos says, appearing from the fitting room almost teary-eyed. “Pretty much, it’s a long gown. It has a ruffled mermaid tail. For my show on Friday, Claudia removed part of the fabric of the butt area and put on some snaps. So, as I’m dancing, I’m going to be able to remove the back part and still have my gown on. It will be a peek-a-boo for the show.”
Campos says her tailoring needs not only call for a special kind of artistry, but for someone she can trust to not judge her. “I normally just buy my outfits and try adjusting them myself; but it’s hard because I don’t know anything about sewing. That’s why I keep my outfits pretty simple.”
Campos says she’s never seen a tailor’s shop like Rodriguez’s. It’s part neighborhood hangout, part United Nations, even a little bit community center. Of course, it’s a sewing studio, too. But as I learn from her intern working at a nearby cutting table, Sew Loka is also a classroom that has hosted family members of terminally ill children.
I ask Rodriguez about those classes.
“An organization gave me the opportunity to donate four sewing lessons to a woman and her daughter,” Rodriguez says, blushing a little. “Do I have to talk about this? I don’t like doing charitable things and then bragging about it.”
I tell her she has to talk about it.
“What happened is that the family had to basically neglect the older sibling, the daughter, in order to focus on the boy who was ill. They were just trying to keep him alive,” she recalls. “In fact, the daughter had to go and stay with her grandparents for six months while all of this was happening.”
Recalls Rodriguez, “They just got to be together making something. They would come in — oh, it gives me chills — they were so sweet with each other during that time together. The girl made shorts; the mom made a skirt.”
Everything at Sew Loka unfolds in a space that’s barely 500 square feet. Although she loves her little workshop, she says it not the building that’s magical; it’s the alley.
Just four months at her current location, Rodriguez says her five-year-old business has been transformed since moving from Fifth Avenue in tonier Bankers Hill to el barrio.
She feared that operating a small business from an alley would mean losing foot traffic due to lack of visibility from passing cars and pedestrians. “Instead, being in the alley means that we are a little off the beaten path and when people do find us, they always feel like they have discovered a hidden oasis, or stumbled upon a secret creative wonderland.”
She adds, “Coming to this neighborhood was a risk. But the last four months have been so crazy — in a positive way. There’s magic in this alley.”