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Like the phoenix, Obelisk rises from the ashes

SAN DIEGO -- Obelisk, the iconic Hillcrest store, is back after being closed due to a major fire for nearly two years, and its owner Brett Serwalt has created a unique shopping experience that he is convinced that the community will love.

Community members and customers are invited to the store for a grand opening party tonight at 7 pm to see everything the store has to offer.

Originally founded in 1993, Obelisk was the spot where many LGBT San Diegans came to find books, magazines and other information about the community. It was THE "local gay bookstore" and its prominent location along one of Hillcrest's main thoroughfares made the store one of the community's treasures.

As the Internet changed the landscape for many bookstores, Serwalt said he realized that the business could not survive forever with its primary focus being on the sale of books, videos and CDs. After purchasing the business from its original owners in 2010, Serwalt was slowly beginning to transform the store, then located at 1029 University Ave., to have a wider selection of apparel, personal care and unique gift items.

"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," Serwalt told the now defunct The BottomLine magazine in a 2010 interview. "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."

But a major fire in summer 2011 changed nearly everything for the business. SDGLN was one of the first media to report on the massive blaze, which broke out on the afternoon of July 6, 2011, from a roof repair happening on the restaurant next door to the building Obelisk was in at the time.

In the more than two years that has passed since the fire closed Obelisk, Serwalt has been through numerous challenges to bring the business back to the community, mostly related to city permitting issues. Serwalt's plan was to reopen in Obelisk's original location at 1029 University Ave. - which is now home to Establish., a home decor and gift boutique. Because of the challenges in getting the original space permitted, Serwalt took advantage of a vacant space two doors down, which most recently was home to Pomegranate Home.

Lease negotiations took some time, and Serwalt signed his first contract to lease the new space at 1037 University Ave. on Jan. 1, 2013. The city required all sorts of modifications and upgrades to the store, so this pushed Serwalt's lease to May 1. After an extensive remodel of the space, the new Obelisk Mercantile opened (only stocked with apparel items) in time for San Diego Pride weekend last month.

With the reopening of Obelisk, the entire south side of the 1000 block of University Ave. is thriving again, with all of the ground floor storefronts occupied.

"This block is amazing again," Serwalt said. "It's the new centerpoint of Hillcrest."

What to expect in the new store

The new Obelisk looks nothing like the former store. The interior is sleek, modern and hip, with a comfortable non-pretentious feel. The focal point of the space is the 1984 Hillcrest sign that hangs on the wall behind the cashwrap. Serwalt bought the sign an auction after a new one was installed over University Avenue in August 2011.

Serwalt says the store is designed to be the kind of store that he would shop at. While there are products of interested for everyone such as greeting cards and gifts, the target is to reach gay men, ages 25 to 55, with some disposable income.

"It's like the general store for this demographic," Serwalt said. "Customers can find their underwear, apparel, skin care, lube, gifts, birthday cards, all sorts of things here."

To make the Obelisk shopping experience unique, Serwalt has worked hard to source brands that are not carried by others in Hillcrest. Walking through the store, customers may be surprised to find a large selection of high quality merchandise including urban apparel, designer colognes, skin care, unique gifts, premium sunglasses, footwear and more.

While the store does not carry as big of a selection of LGBT-theme items, Obelisk still carries HRC-branded apparel, some rainbow items, and Hillcrest and Black's Beach merchandise.

Serwalt wants the store to have an international feel, and he carries brands from around the world, including London and Australia.

As the seasons change, customers will find the apparel and items change too, with more collared shirts, pants, and other fall items.

Serwalt describes the store and its merchandise as classy, stylish and at a reasonable price point.

"We want to be an upscale shopping experience, but without the premium prices and pretense."

Still a community hub

The old Obelisk was a place where community members came to find information and connect with the LGBT community. While most of these connections are now available via Social Media and other online outlets, Obelisk still strives to be a comfortable place for customers to come and enjoy their experience in the neighborhood.

Serwalt has worked hard to design a store that is comfortable, accessible and attractive to the eye.

There is furniture throughout the store, including a couch and seating area in the center, right next to the "Living Green wall." The wall is 8 feet tall by 9 feet wide and is covered with individual planters that are for sale. Serwalt said he was inspired to install the wall by the giant skylight in the middle of the store.

Serwalt also bought a bunch of vintage marine wood that was pulled from off the coast of San Diego, and has used the wood to create some of the fixtures in the store.

The store is laid out in a way where customers can spend time browsing and finding the items they are looking for.

Is the store's change good?

Serwalt admits he has had numerous inquiries about the books since he reopened. People remember Obelisk as the place where they would go to browse LGBT-themed books and magazines and some wonder why that experience is no longer available in the store.

Most of the customers who have approached Serwalt about the books, however, admit that they hadn't purchased books at Obelisk in recent years - many buying their merchandise through online services like Amazon.com. While Serwalt understands the connection and "romantic place" that LGBT bookstores have in many people's hearts, he can't financially survive if no one is purchasing books.

He was planning on selling some gay-themed DVDs at the new store but the distributor actually recommended against it as the industry is changing and sale of DVDs will soon be a thing of the past.

Serwalt says most people have responded positively to the changes and he is hopeful that people will come in and support the new store.

"As a business owner, I have the legacy of the Obelisk brand as a community resource to carry on, while having to do what is financially right for the business," Serwalt said. "As the LGBT community continues to win battles in its struggle for equality, the need for places like what Obelisk was is not as great anymore."

Serwalt is, however, just as committed to being a part of the community and is pleased to open his doors and be back in the center of Hillcrest.

Grand opening celebration

Everyone is welcome to tonight's celebration, which will include champagne, gift bags, give-aways and a chance to win one of five STORM brand watches. The celebration begins at 7 pm and store will remain open until midnight.

Serwalt invites the entire community to come check out his store, and hopes people will like what they see.

Additional information

Obelisk Mercantile is located at 1037 University Ave. in the heart of the east end of Hillcrest.

The store is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 9 pm, and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 am to midnight, and Sundays from noon to 9 pm.

Obelisk can be found on Facebook HERE.