Life in the Santa Ynez Valley hums along happily, decade after decade, fueled by glorious weather, steady commerce, and equally steady people who call this paradise home. Among those who have helped to make the Valley special, Gary and Judeen Esau exemplify the concept that a person’s first duty is to forge a positive relationship with society, or as novelist Charlotte P. Gilman said, “to find your real job, and do it.”
Since 1971, Gary Esau has chosen to apply his entrepreneurial skills locally, founding successful businesses in the Valley and cashing in on creative sidelines. An idea man with formidable follow-up skills, he continues to contribute to the fiscal health (and interior décor) of this mostly rural area.
Raised in Santa Barbara, Gary experienced Valley life early, during regular rambles with fellow members of Future Farmers of America. “In high school, I used to buy steers in the Valley,” Gary says. “We’d come over as a club, hang out, and chase the 4-H girls. I finally moved here in 1969, because I wanted some elbow room. I bought a place with an acre for $37,000!
“It was pretty quiet here,” he continues. “There were a lot more open fields and you were lucky to find a restaurant open after five. There was more night life, though, places to go dancing, like the Belle Terrasse, Yellow Jacket, Mollekroen. All the places had live music.”
At the time, Gary was working for a small manufacturing company in Santa Barbara, hoping to use the experience he had garnered while handling resins for a boat builder.
“They made all kinds of light fixtures,” he says, “and were still in the garage stage, so they kicked me out on the road. I covered 38 states in a Volkswagen.”
When dissension broke out among the company’s owners, Gary teamed up with the production manager to make a line of Tiffany-style lamps. In 1971, the pair set up shop in a garage on the west end of Solvang’s Copenhagen Drive, and proceeded to build a booming business.
“I knew the kinds of lamps I wanted,” he explains, “and I got local people to design them. We did work for companies like Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, and supplied mom-and-pop stores across the country, too.
“We also made pool table lamps,” he continues. “One of our most popular styles was designed by a friend on a napkin. All it cost me was lunch and a couple of beers!”
Four years after its founding, Gary’s business was doing so well that he needed to find a bigger work space.
“I bought the castle in ’75,” he says, referring to an exotic structure still located near Nielsen’s Building Supply. “Business was great. At one point, we had 40 employees and at least that many on the road selling. But then the price of oil and resins went up, and in 1977, my partners bought me out.
“I run into a fixture around town every so often,” he adds with a chuckle, “still hanging there.”
Judeen Esau, a dance teacher, retailer, and the Valley’s star belly dancer, arrived in the region in 1980. “Where I came from in Walnut Creek used to be country,” Judeen says, “and I fell in love with the Valley, because it was country.
“I’ve always been crazy for dancing,” she continues, “and when I got here, there was a group of belly dancers who had just lost their teacher. I figured if I started teaching, I’d have some belly dancing friends.”
Nearly 30 years later, Judeen is still teaching and winning dance awards for her bare-footed grace. She travels across the country to perform in festival showcases, sell costume elements, and teach both belly dancing and exercise classes she calls “belly-robics.”
Judeen and Gary met, in 1984, at a party held by a mutual friend. Gary remembers noticing Judeen immediately and not wasting any time asking her out.
“Our first date was fishing,” he smiles. “We went out on a half-day boat. On our second date, we went fishing again and actually barbecued our catch right on the beach in Santa Barbara.”
About a year before meeting Judeen, Gary founded Esau Company, a comprehensive emporium for upholstery, blinds, sheers, and window accessories, located in Santa Ynez.
Today, it reigns as the oldest window treatments store in the Valley. Nearby, Judeen maintains her studio, Judeen’s School of Middle Eastern Dance, as well as Esau’s Middle Eastern Dance Boutique, a one-stop shop brimming with costumes, headpieces, and tempting accessories.
Twice a year, she travels to Turkey to buy fabrics and notions for dance costumes, as well as to keep Esau Company’s shelves stocked with colorful material.
Judeen does most of the traveling these days, but Gary has logged his fair share of miles as a salesman. He fondly remembers the deals he got on vintage cars that he’d buy on the road and haul home with a tow-bar packed for the purpose.
“I’ve had 128 vehicles,” Gary says, “T-Birds, Corvettes, classy cars. I just liked to play with them, so I’d buy them, do a little work, and sell them. I lived on the highway by El Rancho and I’d park them on the road, one at a time.
“I even had the Hansen’s Meat Market ’31 pickup,” he adds. “The phone number on the side was 230. Of course the truck was older than the phone number.”
Long after quitting the road, Gary has found his creative interests drifting into the more spontaneous form of transforming trees into fanciful figures. Besides affixing eyes and noses to a backyard grove, he finds himself drawn to enhance unusual woody shapes.
“There’s a tree on Ballard Canyon that looked like a dragon,” he admits, “so I finished it off with a red reflector eye and white PVC cut to look like teeth. It’s mostly wackiness on my part.”
“I can see him as an old man,” Judeen smiles, “going around town decorating people’s trees.”
The Esaus live in Ballard Canyon with an assortment of pets. They treasure the peace and quiet of their five-acre, oak-clad retreat. They still make regular fishing trips to Mexico and the Channel Islands but mostly content themselves with visiting friends and family, and running their businesses with a steady hand.
“We’re still here,” Gary muses, proud of his current company’s long run. “It’s been 25 years, so something must be going right. I still install small jobs myself, as long as they don’t eat into my fishing time.
“I really like dealing with the people in the Valley,” he declares, revealing a key to his enduring success. “I like the little challenges of getting them what they need, solving whatever problem they have, and filling whatever niche needs to be filled. Just trying to be of service.”