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What We Wore | Jim Rosenfield

Jim Rosenfield is the owner of the Brentwood Country Mart - he is a village maker, an artist, and a remarkable leader. Jim's journey is full of persistence as he passionately pursued his dreams come true from going to college at Berkley to his lifelong goal of owning the Brentwood Country Mart.

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Laura Vinroot Poole:

Jim Rosenfield is the owner of the Brentwood Country Mart. He's a village maker and artist and a remarkable leader, but Jim's most charming quality is the way that he lifts those around him and makes them shine. Remind me, when we first met.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I was asking around, where do you shop or what's your favorite multi-branded fashion store, and Irene Neuwirth said to me, and I remember it very clearly, "Actually my favorite multi-branded women's fashion store is Capitol." She said, "Do you know Capitol?" And I said, "No." And she said, "Well, it's in Charlotte, North Carolina." And based on her recommendation, I sent you that note and came to see you. And I'm so glad that I did, and it was such a memorable visit.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

It was, and I took you to all the best places, didn't I? I took you to the biggest dive in Charlotte, because I knew you were cool enough to handle it.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

You showed me all around. That was fun, having a beer. But what was most impressive was seeing your store. I recall being there and seeing all the beautiful dresses and jewelry and shoes and everyone was dressed so beautifully. And at some point I said, "Where is everyone?" 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Like where's the clients?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Yes. Because everyone was dressed- all your sales people and you were all showing me the store, but no one else was there. And you said, "Oh, we're not open today. It's Sunday. We're closed today. We just opened for you." And I just couldn't believe that you would do that, and it was amazing.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, southerners, we have nice manners sometimes. We try to be good hostesses.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Well, and part of that is the magic of having you open in Los Angeles because to bring your beautifully colored clothing and the kind people, good manners. I mean, I always say I only lease to kind people. You can't legislate good customer service, but I find that kind people hire kind people, and there's a trickle down.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

You are a Southern California guy. You grew up in Los Angeles?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I did, in the San Fernando Valley, which is not a bad area, but it was sort of the wrong side of the tracks. I didn't want to be in the San Fernando Valley and I would take the beach bus to the beach. And when it was overcast, I would find my way to the Brentwood Country Mart. My friends and I would have chicken and french fries and I thought, this is the right part of town. This is where you want to be if you can.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Did you know what you wanted to do when you grew up? I mean, did you always have big dreams?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I did have big dreams, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought maybe government or politics. I was not a great student when I was young and I didn't really understand why I wasn't doing better. I'm dyslexic, but I didn't know it at the time. While I didn't do that well at school, I didn't do poorly, but I didn't do great at school, I did very well with my after school jobs and working. And so I had a lot of odd jobs at the shopping mall-

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Like what?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I did everything. I sold yogurt, pretzels, washed cars, took out trash bins, had a bloom bouquet business, a car detailing business and Ocean Picture Studios. I did it all. Every day I wore an Oxford sweatshirt because I thought in my mind I was going to Oxford. But when I applied to colleges, my parents actually sat me down because they were worried about me and they said, "You know, you're not going to go to Oxford. You're probably not going to go to college." And I said, "No, you're wrong. You don't understand I'm going to Oxford." But I didn't get into any colleges. So I went to work in Washington D.C., and that began my sort of young adult life. I was an unpaid intern in Washington, D.C, so I worked nights at a bar in Georgetown and I was checking IDs, making sure people were 18, the legal drinking age at that time, when I was 17. It was the preppiest bar in Georgetown.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What was that like working in D.C.? Did you enjoy it and what did you learn?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Well, it was incredible. Eventually, the Congressmen figured out what I was doing and gave me more responsibility and a little bit of pay. My life started to get better there. I learned a lot about how government works and how slow it works. And I went back [to California], and I got into Berkeley and for political science.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I also think wanting something really badly and not being able to get it and then finally getting it as in getting into Berkeley, you must have had an even bigger love for California.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Definitely. For most people getting into college is not such a big deal, but because I was rejected so many times… I mean, I got every Congressman in the state of California to write a letter. After a while of not getting in I just thought, they may never let me in, but they're going to know who I am. And I really pursued it. Finally, this dean, Robert Brownell, let me in and it was a big deal. I loved it. I did well there because I didn't have to read books the way I had to in high school. And I realized that there are some institutions in California that are really amazing, Berkeley's one of, but there are others and some really special places. And I started to think about those types of special places and certainly I thought the Brentwood Country Mart was one of them.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

So, you studied political science and then went back to D.C. And worked with Senator Kennedy.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I did.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What was that like?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

It was good again, it was sort of the realization of a dream and something I wanted to do. My mother who had visited me when I was an intern, physically pushed me into Senator Kennedy when we saw him in the hallways of the Senate once, in the Capitol. And I said something to him like, "I'm going to work for you one day." And he said, "Oh, good, good. Glad to have you aboard."

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

That's hilarious.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I worked with some incredible people. It was just to realize what that world was all about. I was curious about it. Ultimately, I decided L.A. was the last place I could go. I remember running one day around the Capitol saying, "I can go anywhere. I can live anywhere. Just anywhere but L.A. Anywhere but L.A." And then I realized I better go to L.A. otherwise I'll be running from it.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And so how did you know that real estate was next?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

When I came back to Los Angeles, I got a job with Senator John Tunney who had lost his bid for reelection in 1977 and decided to do other things, including build a shopping center. I ended up leasing this shopping center in Koreatown that he had built. Interestingly, the question came up, should the signage be in English or in Korean? I asked the Senator. He said, "Signs need to be in English." It was a big success. They sold the property, but the new Korean owners allowed the signs to be in Korean and the rent nearly doubled because of it. So, I learned this amazing valuable lesson: you don't do this work for yourself, you do it to serve the community. And I thought that was really interesting. I got into real estate with the sole intent of one day owning the Brentwood Country Mart, which is a little unusual, because I wasn't trying to make money. I just really wanted to have control of that property.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Because it was such a positive memory and a nostalgia for you, or was it more preserving old California? I know what it is now, I think, but do you know then what it was?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I remember thinking that there are these special places in America, and this is a uniquely California concept. In fact, I invited Jim Rouse to come visit and he did, and we sat together at the fire pit at the Brentwood Country Mart. He gave me a lot of support and said that my dreams and vision were good and I should stick to it.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What was the first thing you did to get to realize that dream?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Well, it took a long time. It was 15 years of calling the owner and he got to know me after a while. And what's the definition of insanity? Asking the same question, expecting a different response. I realized ultimately I had to change my question which is what sort of unlocked the opportunity for me. But I also used that time to learn the fundamentals of real estate. So I did a lot of other work. I wasn't just pursuing the Country Mart. I was doing work for Sears, Roebuck & Company and buying other buildings and hoping to get control of the Country Mart. And I think about that Langston Hughes poem, What Happens to a Dream Deferred, it was such a long held vision and dream, I was really feeling like this is something I have to do.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And then Jim, you took a sabbatical mid-career before the Country Mart.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I went to England and enrolled in art school and painted and thought, maybe I should just paint. And that would be the most honest thing I could do.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And were you good at it?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I don't know if I was good. I enjoyed it. It was fun. But I also talk about getting perspective. It was wonderful in terms of stepping out of your life and looking back. And I remember I had a business partner who said, "Why'd, you drop out? You're good at what you do. Come back." Nice things like that happened. And I also looked around at real estate and learned that there are other ways of approaching ownership and there're other ways of there are great shopkeepers in England. So I learned a lot about shopkeeping.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I want to share a quote actually from Heather, from your wife. "Jim looks at everything from an artist's perspective. Every single detail at the Country Mart, even the things most people don't notice are the result of his artistic viewpoint. He's more interested in the scale and the very subtle color changes, in the width of the wood and the type of wood than anyone I know." Do you think that your studies at Slade informed the way you looked at your development going forward?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I do. I think, the difference between artists and other people is not the ability to paint well, but it's seeing the world differently. I think for better or worse, we see more. And sometimes it can be a curse, but if you see everything, notice everything, you're often not happy or you're continually working and improving and refining. Heather is a partner in thinking about those things and she doesn't mind the conversation. 70 or 80% of our customers are women, and though most shopping centers are unfortunately owned by men. If you're a man in this business, hopefully you have a woman to help you. I'm incredibly lucky to have my wife, Heather, who helps me tremendously. After all, how does a man decide what a woman wants to wear or where a woman wants to shop?

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I also find that some of the most creative people that I know are dyslexic and I love that you call it your superpower. Was it recognized as a child? Did you know what it was?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Not at all. And my parents thought I wasn't trying hard. I sort of was in denial about it because I thought, "Well, it'll be fine. I'm going to get to a good college and all of that." That's when it really hit me, this is not going so well. I didn't get into any colleges. I took a test when I was older and I was absolutely completely dyslexic. And to me it was one of those moments where I was like, "Oh, that makes perfect sense." You realize that if you can overcome it, it is a strength, or it has been for me, I should say. Because you maybe do things in an alternative way. You're not doing it the normal way. But oftentimes the normal way is not a way that works.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

How old were you when you realized that it was a positive attribute?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

It was part of the way I did things. I mean, the campaign to get into college, acquiring my first property and leasing it prior to owning. I mean, there're all sorts of crazy things that I was able to do, but I didn't really understand it or think about it seriously until I had children. And you think, "Well, I wonder if they'll be like me?” So, I think I more formally started to understand it after I got married and had children.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

You've developed three different Country Marts in California. Will you talk to me about the history of the Country Mart? It is a California thing, a Country Mart. We don't have them in North Carolina.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Our heritage is linked to the farmer's market at Third and Fairfax, which was built 10 years before the Brentwood Country Mart. They're open air shopping villages. They're actually, I think, reminiscent of an East Coast shopping village. Brentwood Country Mart copied the farmer's market and was built in 1948. Then, Fred Segal with the permission of the Brentwood Country Mart created the Malibu Country Mart in '75. And I sort of got to be a little bit familiar with Fred Segal and with Malibu Country Mart, and just realized that the open air, outdoor environment, and also our buildings they're not as old as other places, like the ones on the East Coast or Europe. But they're our history. If we don't preserve them, they won't be around for hundreds of years. But people didn't come to the West Coast with expensive building materials and so we didn't have ornate elaborate buildings. We just had these shacks, and that's, I think part of the history of the Country Mart is these wooden, primitive barn buildings.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah, barns. Well, and people really rode their horses there. I mean, that was a real thing.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

They did. We have pictures of Gregory Pack on his horse at the Brentwood Country Mart. All the celebrities of the 50s, like Cary Grant, James Dean, Ronald Reagan, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor- it's really an amazing heritage.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What kind community formed around the Country Mart and the 50s? How did it change through the 50s, 60s, and 70s to today?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

It was always people who lived in Brentwood, Civic Palisades, Santa Monica, West L.A., and still is. I mean, it's a village for those local residents. They've always been a pretty prominent group of people. In fact, the early advertisements are amazing and say, "Prominent people everywhere come to the Country Mart, an innovation in modern merchandising."

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

What's the most important thing that you want people to feel when they're at the Mart?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I still think back to my first impressions of the Mart, which is that people were polite and nice. They said please, and thank you. They saw their friends and neighbors and they actually meet people. L.A. can be a very lonely place.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

We're focusing on Brentwood Country Mart, but you have three Country Marts, Marin, and Montecito. And I also think, I don't know that I really understood you. I may not ever fully understand you, but I don't know that I ever really understood you until I visited the other ones. And it made me respect you even more because of the way that you respected the buildings and respected the spaces. You didn't try to make them the Brentwood Country Mart- you allowed them to be of their era, because they're from different time periods, right?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Right. Montecito was built in the 60s and Marin was built in the 70s. So, I feel like I've got this 50s version of a mart, then a 60s village, and then a 70s village. But they're also different places. They're all in California, but Brentwood is a little different than Montecito and Montecito is a little different than Marin. And they've got some real similarities, which is why we chose those locations, and I love all three communities. It's nice when people say nice things about about Marin and Montecito, because I did have a freer hand. I felt like I had a freer hand to do what I wanted to do in Marin and Montecito, because they weren't beloved properties that you just had to preserve. They were places that maybe weren't beloved. And I had to make them more charming, more appealing. And so it's been really fun and hard work to work on those two properties the last 10 plus years.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Tell me, what about fatherhood brings you the most joy?

 

Jim Rosenfield:

It's an incredible experience, obviously. I love being a dad and I love all four of them. One thing that's interesting, Winslow, my youngest when he was five he came to me and he said, "Daddy, I heard that you love your work. Is that true?" And it took me a minute, but I realized, what he already knew at five was that most people don't love their work. When I realized that I said, "Oh yeah, Winslow. I don't just love it. I mean, I'm crazy about it. It's incredible. We get to create these environments and we get to help people with their businesses. And it's wonderful." I hope and think that I could be a role model to them of some sort and that they would be positively influenced by what we get to do.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I think that really is the greatest gift to show your children that. I have to think that for myself too, because there's a lot of guilt with being away and how much it takes you away from your children. I think that's a gift to show them that it can be a great love.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Yeah. Joyous labor.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And truly, I mean, very rare, I think. Finding the thing that you really want to do is really the key.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I've never been at a place like the Brentwood Country Mart. And I think every time I get there, I really I'm always like, I wish you could just put a little room for me up above the store. I just need a cot. I would live there if I could. I mean, it's so enchanting.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Well, we'll have to talk about that because we'd love for you to live there. You're incredible and your store is incredible and it's really you and other people like you that give it the magic. I get a lot of credit, but I want it to be about you. And it should be about you and the other wonderful merchants that we have. And the more time that you're there, the better for us. It's incredible what you've done. I hope you're proud of what we've created.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, with your help. But I'm proud of surviving the pandemic. I mean, I think that's the first thing. In Charlotte, we've been here 25 years and I'm proud of surviving the recession here. But this was a hard thing to go through after a year of being in business. But it also, oddly was a really good thing. I think that it allowed us to be closer to our clients, to have more real relationships. It was a great opportunity for us actually. And it took us a minute to realize that and to lean into that, but once we did, it ended up being a really good thing for us. I know that sounds crazy.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

No, I think that's one of the hardest things is to realize the benefits, but it was a crisis for all of us and it was a scary thing to go through, and it's hard to go through something that challenging that you've never experienced before. How to behave, what to do. How to be courageous when you're not really sure how this story's going to end.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Exactly.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

It's faith and I'm grateful that I had mentors and people to help me get through it. And I'm grateful to all the merchants that we had that all kept thinking we have got to get through this and get through it together.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, one thing too, Jim, you mentioned that the store is so bright and colorful. And I think when we first opened there was a little bit of trepidation about that. Maybe there's too much color. Maybe it's too happy. And I think that one of the things that happened post-pandemic was everybody was so wanting to wear a bright pink dress. Everybody was so excited to have something really bright and pretty, and luckily we had a store full of it.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

I remember when I visited you in Charlotte- I thought, all this colorful clothing, kind people- this is what L.A. needs. This is great. And I'm not an expert on fashion, but it seems to me that my job is to lead a little and it would be good if L.A. had you. And thankfully you knew and loved the Mart, which was amazing. Then as you say, the pandemic hit, which none of us could have predicted. But I do think color is a very important part of coming out of this pandemic.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

It is.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

We're grateful those of us who have survived this and been through it for our good fortune. And I know I wore a lot of bright colors myself trying to cheer myself up and my family up. Color was a really useful way of doing that, and probably will continue to be for some time. One thing I didn't say, which I should say is how touched I am by the design of your store that you and Pam and Sheri and Irene Neuwirth and Perry put together a store that is so special, and expresses your love of the Mart with the board and batten on the inside and the jewelry case inside of a horse. I mean, it's incredible, and made me cry when I saw it. It's incredibly special.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Thank you, Jim so much. And thank you so much for the opportunity for us to be there with you at the Country Mart, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

 

Jim Rosenfield:

Thank you, Laura. I can't tell you how touched I am by all of it, your beautiful store, your podcast. You're an amazing person and I hope that everybody gets to visit Capitol at the Brentwood Mart.

 

 

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