Remembering the Spirit of London Exchange, Orange County's First Punk Store
Most people spend their entire lives in search of their dream job. Craig McGahey found it at age 16. Punk-rock apparel turned a hapless high schooler into a bona-fide businessman. The store he ran for 10 years, London Exchange, was more than just a place to buy buttons and T-shirts; it was a punker's paradise, a fountain in which members of the OC scene could refresh themselves before, during and after shows. When the shop door swung open, it reflected nothing of the Reagan-era suburbia from which customers were trying to escape. Instead, London Exchange was what everyone who flocked there wanted it to be: a limey rat hole that felt like home.
Black leather and punk gear hung from walls coated with band stickers and posters of demonic and dazzling superfreaks. Display cases held studs, pins and patches to be worn like armor plating on denim and leather jackets. Awkward outcasts and cocksure rebels roamed the racks, hunting for bondage pants and Doc Martens and posters of the New York Dolls posing in all their coked-out, transvestite glory.
The site of OC's first punk store is now long gone, cannibalized by commercial redevelopment. But McGahey can still picture everything the way it was as he drives into the parking lot of a remodeled Costa Mesa shopping center on a recent Saturday afternoon. He kills the ignition of his gray Nissan sedan and steps out onto the former location of London Exchange. He's wearing black Converse, gray shorts and a classic Ramone's T-shirt; his Presley-esque pomp is greased and combed into a pristine wave of silver atop his now-burly, 6-foot-3 frame.
Tim Valencia, Craig McGahey and Eric Morely
Thirty-five years ago, the southern tip of the 55 freeway was nothing but a half-dug ditch and rows of shrubs. From this spot on Newport Boulevard and with the help of friends, London Exchange carved a niche into the skin of OC punk. As cars whizz by, McGahey points out the invisible past of a bygone era. "This used to be the only road in and out of the beach," he says. "When people were coming home from the beach, this road was all backed up. So that was kinda good in that sense for us to have that exposure."
"You could say, 'I didn't like this band,' or 'This guy was a dick,' or 'I hated that guy,' or 'That guy was a junkie,' but there's nobody who can say they didn't go to London Exchange—and nobody who can say they don't love Craig McGahey," says his brother Denny, the original guitarist of Shattered Faith. "He could've been the mayor of punk rock."
Before corporations mainstreamed spikes and slam pits, a group of misfits stubbornly kept punk fashion alive in Orange County. London Exchange was a manifestation of DIY spirit that defined McGahey's life, which almost ended during an armed robbery at the store's final location, before it closed for good 25 years ago this month.
McGahey and his band of misfits are now middle-aged, saddled with the responsibilities and bills their musical heroes railed about in their youth. But collected mementos and flashbacks of old times remind them of the impact London Exchange had. "It's cool, especially when someone says how important it was at the time or what it meant to them," McGahey says. "When I first sold you a pair of shoes, I didn't expect that."
Before he dreamed of opening a real store, McGahey was living the punk-rock lifestyle he could later sell you. Since he wasn't old enough to get in, he would hang outside the Cuckoo's Nest (later renamed the Concert Factory), hawking merch for his brother's band. He entered the scene in 1980 in an arm cast after he fractured it during an ill-fated baseball throw. After that healed, a car crash forced him into a leg cast. "I couldn't get a job," Craig says. "I basically gathered disability checks and bought buttons and T-shirts and started doing a little thing off to the side."
When he wasn't selling at shows, the Los Amigos High School student recruited some local middle-school minions to collect product orders on their home campuses with Xeroxed copies of a handmade catalog. McGahey's parents graciously let him use the living room table as his office-cum-warehouse; he promptly covered it with punk paraphernalia. Weekends were spent buying wholesale stock from Melrose stores such as Let It Rock, Poseur, NaNa or Zed Records in Long Beach with money from the disability checks. Word spread throughout OC that McGahey ran his own punk store, even though he didn't yet officially have one.
"We were still both living with my mom and dad, and I'd be wasted, and someone would be knocking on the door at 9 a.m. on a Saturday," Denny says. "I'd open the door, and it'd be two fuckin' punkers I'd never seen before, looking for Craig to buy some creepers."
The first guy to help McGahey turn his side business into an actual brick-and-mortar was his friend, Eric Morely. In addition to driving McGahey around on shopping trips, Morely found the first store location: a shabby, 500-square-foot spot on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa that was said to have housed OC's first barber shop. For $200 per month, the shop sat next to the space of an eccentric Iggy Pop look-alike named Flash who liked to paint cars for a living, enjoyed burning things and occasionally fired his guns in the back alley.
The name London Exchange seemed a natural fit for the store, since McGahey and Morely bought clothing from outlets in London via mail order. Fortunately, U.K. punk was deader by the early 1980s than Sid Vicious, so British stores were happy to unload their backstock—and OC punkers were happy to buy it up. The bulk of their shoe stock—more than 170 styles, ranging from two-tones to high-laced boots to sneakers, steel-toes and more—came from reputable LA shoe store NaNa, the earliest supporters of McGahey and London Exchange. "Everyone supported each other, and I thought, as two young kids down there, what they were doing was great," says NaNa co-owner Nancy Kaufman. "It was a great way for us to get our stuff down to OC and see what people liked."
London Exchange announced its opening by spray-painting the store's name on the side of the building, something Costa Mesa officials didn't take kindly to. "They said I had to get a permit for that. And I'm like, 'Permit? Why do I need a permit to write my own name?'"
Soon after, London Exchange was forced to make a traditional sign.
Amid the maze of clothing racks and shoe piles inside, a beat-up TV looped video cassettes of classics such as The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle. The store attracted the founding fathers of OC punk, including Social Distortion's Mike Ness, who was practically part of the furniture since he was there so often. One year around Christmas, Ness came into the store with his mom, who wanted to buy her son, who plopped on the store's couch in a stupor, a pair of Doc Martens. Mama Ness soon realized she couldn't afford them, but McGahey gave her the shoes for free, telling her, "That kid's gonna be a rock star someday." Even when she tried to pay the store back, McGahey refused her money.
McGahey was good at recognizing talent, as so much of it passed through the store. Every week, London Exchange hosted in-store appearances from punk legends such as Henry Rollins, GBH, Exploited and Dead Kennedys, courtesy of concert promoters Goldenvoice. Founded in Huntington Beach, the company used London Exchange not only as a place to sell concert tickets for shows all over SoCal prior to the creation of Ticketmaster, but also as a spot to feature its bands. A Goldenvoice-sponsored group would fly in for a tour date, and McGahey, Morely or one of their employees would pick them up at the airport and drive them straight to the store.
"Even if the shows weren't in Orange County, we needed Orange County," says Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar. "We needed them to drive; we needed them to get in their car and drive 30 miles. We would not have made it without Orange County."
Tim Valencia saw the expansion of the first store, as it transformed from a 500-square-foot box to a mini-compound that took over several units in the shopping complex, including a back area that MIA used as a rehearsal space. "As a little grommet at age 16 to 17, the whole experience of being there was epic," Valencia recalls. "We got to party, get high with all my favorite rock stars. And my favorite rock stars weren't AC/DC or Led Zeppelin; my rock stars were MIA and GBH and stuff like that. And I got to meet everybody. . . . You never knew who was gonna walk through the front door."
The clerks at London Exchange—Chris Mann, Lee Stewart, Renee Salvati and Dave Caldwell, among others—became noted sons and daughters in Southern California's punk-rock ecosystem. "If you're from Orange County, you knew me and I knew you 'cuz I sold you your stuff," Valencia says. "And it was tight. We were all friends; we all got along. We were in the pit together, jumping offstage together. It was a punk-star lifestyle."
Those glory days ended fast, though. In 1983, the city made plans to raze the building housing London Exchange as part of the completion of the 55 freeway. While Morely left to pursue college in San Diego, McGahey decided to find the store a new home.
By 1984, McGahey moved London Exchange into another Costa Mesa shopping center, on Harbor and 19th Street, which still stands. Driving up to the aging storefront (it's now a bike shop) for the first time in years, McGahey says it's still in pretty much the same condition as the day he moved in.
He spots the retractable security gate that was installed back in the day. It was the only thing standing between his store and total destruction one spring night in 1986 when a drunk driver came crashing through the window. McGahey was in London, purchasing more stock, when he got the call from his dad about the accident.
At the time, the store had just barely survived being crushed by financial debt thanks to poor financial management by a former business partner McGahey hired after Morely left for college. After parting ways, McGahey dug his way out of debt; the business trip was supposed to be a chance to re-evaluate where he was going with the store he'd almost lost.
Courtesy of Eric Morely
Even through the ups and downs, most of his crew remained loyal. Scott Parker, one of the youngest clerks at London Exchange, remembers some of its greatest hits, including a Motörhead in-store appearance, crowded parking-lot sales and the time Nick Cash of 999 played a set of fiery punk songs while standing on the hood of a car outside the store. "For me, personally, it changed my fucking life," Parker says. "I was never in a fraternity when I went to college, but the London Exchange people, those are my frat brothers—those are the guys I still talk to. That place was a huge part of my life. . . . I found my people."
After repairing the damage from the car crash, McGahey remained at the second location for another two years—until the landlord drastically raised the rent. By then, he'd also become a club promoter at various spots such as Sargenti's (later known as the Rat Trap, then Detroit Bar and now the Wayfarer) and the Tiki Bar (formerly Newport Roadhouse), throwing shows for future legends including Tool, Queens of the Stone Age and Turbonegro. But more and more profitable punk stores such as Electric Chair in Huntington Beach, Cash for Chaos in Laguna Beach, Erazzmatazz in Orange, and London Calling popped up with wealthy investors backing them, something McGahey never had.
The third incarnation of London Exchange opened in 1990, also in Costa Mesa, in a quiet, pea-green business complex tucked away on Placentia Avenue. When McGahey pulls into the parking lot of this location, it feels as if he's visiting a cemetery. As the sky grows darker, a winter chill settles in and McGahey, standing in the parking lot, begins rehashing the day five assailants robbed him at gunpoint.
The opportunity to lease the building came from a friend whose dad owned the front unit of the complex. The plan was to rent his unit for cheap with the hope of expanding to include the front location. McGahey commissioned a friend, Sean Peterson, to paint murals on the walls featuring the Grim Reaper and flames to help recapture the feel of the original store.
But business wasn't what it used to be. In addition to the aforementioned stores, corporate spots such as Hot Topic were appearing everywhere. Doc Martens were being sold at Journeys and Price Club, and the punk scene had quieted down considerably as Orange County tastes started turning to ska. By the end of his second year there, McGahey was ready to close, liquidate and maybe create an entirely new business plan.
A few days before Christmas in 1991, the doorbell chimed right as he was about to close up for the night. It was a guy asking to buy a pair of shoes. London Exchange wasn't actually open at the time, but McGahey was waiting for two of his friends to come around so they could go shopping for the holiday together.
As McGahey turned his back to the door to help the customer, he heard the doorbell chime again. Two more guys came in, and one asked if the store was still open. Right as McGahey turned to face the customer, another guy pistol-whipped him. Soon, the guy was waving the gun in his face, yelling at McGahey to get on the ground. The robbers duct-taped his arms, legs and face. Then he heard a fourth man saying, "Calm down everybody!"
The man knelt down next to the wounded and restrained shop owner. "Calm down. We're gonna get our job done, and then we'll be outta here," he told McGahey.
A wave of relief quickly melted away as another of the robbers decided to press his shotgun to the back of McGahey's head. "Hey, motherfucker, how's it feel to be dead tonight?" he shouted.
Another guy came over and put a knife to McGahey's throat, pressing the cold steel against his skin, promising to cut him from ear to ear if he made a sound.
For several minutes, the robbers filled up bedsheets with merchandise, tying them up and throwing them in a van. McGahey estimates they stole a few thousand dollars in cash and apparel.
A friend of McGahey's drove into the parking lot after randomly passing by and seeing his car parked outside the building. As she pulled in, one of the robbers tried to convince her the store was closed for construction, then scared her off by hitting her car with the butt of his gun when she failed to leave. The men soon left McGahey alone.
McGahey's friend called the cops and gave them the getaway van's license plate information. The tip led the police to the Santa Ana house of the parents of one of the criminals, and all the men were quickly arrested. They were sentenced to an average of six to 12 months for armed robbery, according to McGahey, who adds that one of the assailants wasn't even 18 years old. "I was told by an officer that if they would've shot me, they coulda gave them more time," he recalls. "I was like, 'Really sorry to disappoint you.'"
Though he recovered most of the stolen merchandise, McGahey never got back the money. Both Costa Mesa and Santa Ana police departments claimed they didn't have it.
"A friend of mine drove with me to the police station to pick up all my merchandise, and I . . . when I got in the store again, it felt colder than ever," McGahey says. "I just didn't want to be there. I told my friend, like, 'Nah, I don't think I'm gonna reopen today.' You just feel violated."
Gradually, McGahey lost interest in reopening London Exchange. He took a 9-to-5 job at a local weatherproofing company and later became the in-house promoter for Club Mesa (now the Wayfarer). Since 2010, he has also worked as a traffic-control officer at the Disneyland Resort. Few cast members suspect he's one of the founding fathers of OC's punk scene, and he's happier that way some days.
Other times, McGahey imagines what might've been had the store reopened. "I wish when I looked after other bands by getting paid, I wish I would've looked after myself and my store better," he says. "Maybe I gave more trust than I should've to some people. But it's all good. Growing up as a kid, did I think I was gonna go to New York and England or meet the Sex Pistols, meet the Clash, hang out with them? No. Never in my life is what I'd say."
From left: Scott Parker, Renee Salvati, Craig McGahey, Tim Valencia and Dave Caldwell
John Gilhooley/original photo courtesy of Craig McGahey
Working at London Exchange, Parker says, "helped me realize that I don't have to sit in an office and [sit] still to make a living and have a family—there's a way to figure this out." He is now the manager of the Foo Fighters' Studio 606 in Northridge. "There's 100 ways to skin a cat. Above and beyond the punk-rock stuff, there's so many ways to live and so many ways to make a living doing your thing."
After attending business school, Morely started the marketing company Blue C, which helps brands find their own voice through video and multimedia ad campaigns. Most of his connections for jobs are made through clients who have a shared love of punk rock—some of whom even visited London Exchange at some point.
Though the store didn't go out the way McGahey had hoped, its legacy continues. People recognize McGahey in public or post old photos or anecdotes on social media. It's those moments that make up for any of the crap he endured to keep London Exchange open.
"I think we inspired some people," McGahey says. "It was a great ride. There are a lot of things I would've done to make it better, business-wise. People ask me would I open the store again, and I say, 'Hey, I got the signs.' So if you wanna do it, I got all the original signs."
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