If you’ve spent any time in Hillcrest, you’re likely familiar with Obelisk. Located on the same block as Taste of Italy, Ace Hardware and Flicks, the Obelisk storefront has long been a visual staple of those residing in and visiting the 92103.
Once lined with books relating to all things gay (gay authors, gay themes, gay academic studies) and boasting glass casing upon casing of rainbow adorned jewelry- several years ago the then-owner realized that with the changing of the economy, so came the change in customer spending habits.
“I had worked with Obelisk for almost 18 months prior to joining the Peace Corps,” said the store’s new owner Brett Serwalt, who took over completely on January 1. “And while I was away I’d receive occasional emails from the owner telling me he’d become increasingly aware that the store was slowly dying. When I asked what he planned on doing, he told me he felt there were just two options. He could sell it, but because independent book stores were dropping like flies it wouldn’t be worth that much, or he could just ride it out until it died. I disagreed. I thought the best way to move forward would be to reinvent the store.”
Serwalt, originally from New Jersey (“I grew up in South Jersey,” he commented, “which is very different from anything you see in that stupid reality show Jersey Shore”), has been a San Diego resident since 2007. Having worked in a myriad of retail environments including stores such as Babette Schwartz, Diedrich Coffee, and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, he was no stranger to the knowledge relating to what it takes to run a successful business. But at the time he was managing Coffee Bean, he decided to leave the hustle and bustle of day-to-day living and spend two years of his life dedicating his time to the Peace Corps.
“The day I submitted my application is the day I resigned from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf,” he said. “The entire application process is supposed to take six to eight months, so I figured I’d take that time off, live on my savings, and enjoy life. I wound up working with Obelisk because I just wanted a simple part-time job, minimum wage, with no responsibility, that would help me pay rent.”
What Serwalt didn’t know at the time, was that his Peace Corps application would get held up, which turned what was supposed to be a brief stint at the local retailer into one lasting more than a year and a half.
“With my work ethic being what it was, I eventually began seeking out additional responsibilities and wanted to learn more about the business.”
Yet while he was volunteering abroad, during this email exchange, Sweralt was asked if he’d consider returning to the store for several months upon his return to San Diego.
“I was supposed to come on temporarily just to get things back on track, but was offered the opportunity to stay on permanently, run the business, and partner up with the owner.” Over the course of the next 12 months the negotiating began, partnering was removed from the equation, and barely three weeks ago, Serwalt took over the store as his own. Since that time- things have been changing.
“I want people to start thinking of Obelisk as not ‘Obelisk the bookstore’ but more ‘Obelisk the lifestyle store’ that also happens to carry books”, he explained, noting his recent additions to the store’s increasingly diverse merchandise and inventory.
“We’re carrying watches now- not just the rainbow watches people remember from the past, but really cool, funky, trendy accessory watches you won’t find at the mall. We also recently began carrying two lines of men’s grooming products: Zirh and Anthony for men. Until now people had to travel to Fashion Valley to purchase them, but I’m hoping they’ll now instead begin coming here and keeping the money in Hillcrest.”
Additionally, Obelisk also carries a vast selection of greeting cards (gay, lesbian, and all inclusive themes) as well as magazines, best-sellers, and fun, impulse buy titles. In the upcoming weeks and months, Serwalt also intends to begin offering a wide comic book selection.
“We want to carry things that are more relevant to more people,” he concluded.
Obelisk Hillcrest Shop, as it’s now known, has only begun its revitalization, and Serwalt invites those in and about the community to stop back often to see the many exciting changes he has in store.
Obelisk is located at 1029 University Avenue in Hillcrest. For more information call 619.297.4171.