Shirli McLaughlin
Shirli McLaughlin, who operated the Third Hand Store in Ben Lomond for more than 50 years, is seen here outside the clothing shop in 2022. (Drew Penner/Press Banner File Photo)

When I first stepped foot inside the Third Hand Store in Ben Lomond, a Canadian tasked with covering the quirky and community-oriented Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Valley region for a traditional print newspaper, I was hoping to find some threads to suit the job.

Despite the fact that it was clear I’d wandered into a female-oriented consignment boutique, the warm and helpful shopkeeper, Shirli McLaughlin, immediately directed my attention to a brown bowler hat with a particularly curvaceous brim.

This USA-made wool felt was delightfully unisex and evocative of the hats I remember selling for upwards of $100 at a store I used to pass by the house where I used to live in Toronto’s Chinatown neighborhood.

She let this one go for a song—just $10, I believe.

It was the perfect complement to a uniform for a member of a beleaguered profession that still aims to hold fast to classic principles of objectivity and quality storytelling, in the face of the relentless encroachment of truth-agnostic digital platforms.

I couldn’t help but feel that McLaughlin understood this intuitively and wanted to set me on a course toward reflecting the beating heart of the community in the years to come in the way she knew best, through fashion.

The piece seemed to offer clues into the rustic nature of a place that’s managed to retain a countercultural element in the face of natural disasters, changing demographics and technological advances.

I would don the hat to write about winter storms, bluegrass concerts, railroad industry news and post-wildfire reconstruction efforts.

As a ruggedly-unique and yet somehow understated item of headgear, it was a constant reminder of the idiosyncratic “hidden gem” nature of the San Lorenzo Valley.

Last week, when I heard the sad news of McLaughlin’s death, on Dec. 5 at 77, this first encounter came flooding back into my mind.

And when I, once again, entered the Third Hand Store, undoubtedly for the last time, I heard others tell of how she’d worked her sartorial magic in their lives, too.

Vicki Coffis, 76, was pushing a 2-year-old boy Jamie in a stroller when she arrived at the shop and was greeted by McLaughlin. He’s 37 now—one-half of the Coffis Brothers, a folk and Americana group set to ring in the New Year at Felton Music Hall, before dates in Mexico and Oregon.

“We became friends,” said Coffis, who bought her house in 1979—just six years after the store opened. “She was a unique person. Shirli told the truth. You could try something on and she would tell you, ‘Um, no. This would be better.’”

McLaughlin would set items aside for the people she thought they might suit.

“She knew who her clientele was,” Coffis said. “She had a tremendous smile and an unbelievable eye for quality—and what she thought would sell.”

Over 50 years operating the store, she made a strong impression on countless people. The seemingly-endless Press Banner “Valley Rave” and “Valley Fave” accolades behind the counter attest to this.

And, after her death, her friends gathered to prepare for a fitting send-off—a big “end-of-life” sale, to cover the costs associated with dying in America.

The door swung open and in waltzed Jo Kenny, a Ben Lomond resident who’s been doing haul runs to Goodwill and The Abbot’s Thrift.

“I loved Shirli,” she said. “She was really good at building community…Boy, she said, ‘Hi,’ to everybody that came in.”

McLaughlin was particularly good at remembering details about your life, Coffis confirmed.

“It’s true,” Kenny affirmed. “The fun part of coming here was Shirli was always happy to see you.”

Evander Boyer, 7, was transfixed by a few items, including a Jeff Koons balloon art-shaped toy about to make its way out of the store for good. His mom Pam grew up right down the street.

“I have bought quite a few things from this store,” she said. “It was so much fun to come in here.”

And that’s all down to the way McLaughlin kept shop, she added.

“She was always friendly and welcoming,” she said.

Evander’s grandma, Jeannie Travis, said she was lucky enough to become close with McLaughlin toward the end, as she brought the spinach dip her ailing friend loved to eat with baked potatoes. She’d even hunted down a TV for McLaughlin, but never got the chance to deliver it.

“While we were gone, she passed away,” Travis said.

She’ll never forget the high-quality assortment of “cool” jewelry and purses on offer in the quaint boutique.

Their afternoons together went far beyond typical owner-customer interactions.

“We’d pray together,” she said, reflecting on the finality of a loved one passing on. “I’m not over it yet. I’m just going to miss her beautiful smile and her genuine love she had for people and the Lord.”

McLaughlin was a beautiful person inside and out, Travis added.

“I had a feeling she was gonna go,” she said. “But I was trying to not realize that.”

Shirli McLaughlin
A photo of Shirli McLaughlin back in the day is displayed inside the Third Hand Store in Ben Lomond. (Drew Penner/Press Banner File Photo)

***

I’m not quite sure what it says about our society that we would allow such a valued member of the community suffer as much as McLaughlin did in her final days.

Over half-a-century, she served local customers and tourists alike diligently and with grace. And yet, in the last years of her life she struggled to keep a roof over her head as health complications continued to mount.

When the house she was living at in Felton was sold from under her, it kicked-off months of hardship.

Yes, as anyone who knew McLaughlin will attest, her stubbornly independent streak made the idea of moving in with roommates an untenable idea. And her pride—and perhaps hidden sullenness—may have kept her from leaping over the odd bureaucratic hurdle or two.

However, McLaughlin’s situation highlights the unseen tragedy of an unfolding crisis across California—seniors who aren’t tech savvy enough to compete for housing with college students on social media marketplaces and can’t afford escalating rents driven up by Silicon Valley telecommuters.

In McLaughlin’s case, it took an army of supporters to keep her from life on the streets—and even then she ended up spending more than a few nights in less-than-ideal circumstances during in-between periods.

They came to be known as Shirli’s Angels, and they tasked themselves with helping McLaughlin navigate the labyrinthine social services system in this county.

A June 2022 Press Banner article told of McLaughlin’s plight, and how a friend had allowed her to stay at a guest cottage in the South County temporarily.

She remained there for several months, until the woman’s husband’s health issues took priority and McLaughlin was once again on the lookout for a new residence.

Coffis said even though there are many different organizations trying to prevent homelessness, it can be difficult to figure out how to access services.

“You have to be savvy enough to apply,” she said. “You have to know how to use a computer. And then you have to wait.”

When friends learned she had begun sleeping at her store, they finally had the ammunition they needed to get Adult Protective Services involved. After months of trying to find a solution, this proved to be the breakthrough the Angels needed to secure housing for McLaughlin.

She was finally offered a place to stay, first at a motel on Ocean Street, and then her own home on Market Street in Santa Cruz.

McLaughlin was living a half-hour drive from where she’d spent so many years and was surrounded by unsavory characters she knew were likely dealing drugs.

Nevertheless, she chatted-up the guests at the motel and befriended her new neighbors after she moved to the new home.

“Everywhere she went she had a knack for drawing people in,” Coffis said. “She was very street-smart.”

As McLaughlin became bedridden with dizziness and a life of cigarette smoking appeared to be catching up with her, friends old and new would ask after her.

As she moved into hospital and then into a post-acute center, the Angels filled the gap left by the county’s lack of a live-in hospice facility, feeding her, running her errands and brightening her mood.

“Our medical system—it’s kind of broke,” said Coffis. “The individuals in healthcare, I just can’t say enough. But the system itself, uh, they did weird things…It came from the top-down.”

At one point, Coffis says, McLaughlin was discharged from the hospital sooner than she thought was appropriate, for example.

Right until the end, McLaughlin maintained her signature wry humor and charm.

“I was with her the day before she died,” Coffis recalled. “She was still sharp.”

The doctor came in to break the news that treatment wasn’t working, and it was likely only hours before Death came knocking. 

He knelt beside McLaughlin and said, “You just rest up,” she remembered.

“‘For what!?’” McLaughlin retorted, according to Coffis, who appreciated the injection of levity into what otherwise would have been a strictly somber episode. “That was Shirli.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. Sorry to hear Shirli has passed, we knew that smoking would get the best of her. Hope the woman who owns “sew Rose” was able to help…She could have stayed with me me but she didn’t think that was a great idea, she had so much stuff! Tried to help with her finances by buying items from her and giving her items to sell. Cannot believe she gone.

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