LAB Anti-Mall: Laid Back but Luxurious


Story by Caroline McNally

Furniture made from repurposed materials. Funky art. Cacti. Ironically-named products. Vintage light fixtures. Any respectable hipster establishment has a few of these qualities.

The LAB Antimall in Costa Mesa possesses all these elements, and more, making it a haven for indie kids and pseudo-hipsters alike. While The LAB is popular with college students, adults and middle-aged people frequent the venue just as much. The LAB was founded in 1993 in a former night vision goggle factory and is mostly outdoor. “LAB” stands for “little American business,” which is what the mall supports. Its philosophy is to create a laid-back environment for the “young at heart,” with unique shops and restaurants that can’t be found at your average mall. It serves as an antidote to the stereotypical large and generic malls common throughout Orange County, such as the neighboring South Coast Plaza.

“Customers and the people who work here are looking for a place in Orange County that isn’t commercial and corporate. I think people can appreciate that,” said Ali, a barista at Cafecito Organico. Many of the employees at The LAB’s diverse mix of businesses know that the distinctive retail environment is what draws most customers in. Terese Benzi, an employee at Heirlooms and Hardware and the mother of the store owner, calls the patrons of the LAB’s twenty-one establishments “an eclectic variety,” just like the merchants. 

“I think the people know that they can come to The LAB and encounter a unique place where they can find something special,” said Lily Magaziner, the owner of May Martin, Inc., a jewelry shop.

The entire venue is anything but a traditional commercial space. May Martin, Inc., the record shop Crème Tangerine and the pastry shop Honey & Butter Macaroons are housed in old airstream trailers as opposed to a conventional store space. Magaziner makes the most of her small space by hanging necklaces in the window and displaying the few art pieces she sells on the wall. The airstreams add to the hipster ambiance and relaxed vibe of the mall, taking away from the rigidity of a normal mall. 

Business operations are not typical either. On The LAB website, Creme Tangerine lists their hours as “8ish to 12ish,” and the Honey and Butter trailer opens at noon and stays open until they sell out. Patrons reportedly find this kind of merchant style refreshing, not inconvenient.

Along with the trailers, The LAB features several art installations. There is a fountain made of barrels, a visitor-friendly hopscotch painted on the ground behind the fountain, and many of the trees are covered in colored yarn. The trees were “yarn bombed” in the fall of 2013 by the non-profit organization Knots of Love, which knits blankets and caps for cancer patients. The result was so in keeping with the venue’s aesthetic that mall management kept it in place. There is also a gallery at the mall called the ARTery that the website describes as “dedicated to supporting emerging artists through their exhibitions and installations.”

Art is not only part of the mall’s appearance, but it’s ingrained in the vendors as well. A few of the stores are less personal, like Urban Outfitters, though that is not the norm at The LAB. Rather, merchants bring their own personality and passions to their shops. Magaziner and several other shop owners, for example, make much of their merchandise themselves. Often, Magaziner makes her jewelry in-store during business hours, and patrons can watch.

Joseph Dambra, the owner of the home store Heirlooms and Hardware, builds all of his furniture from repurposed materials. One of the tables in the store is made from recycled gym flooring and the light fixture that hangs in the store is made of vintage Edison bulbs and tile from an old schoolhouse in the South. Dambra has also made tables for The Gypsy Den Cafe, a restaurant at The LAB.

Chapman students enjoy the casual and unconventional atmosphere, although they more commonly use it as a hangout spot due to the expensive prices at the stores. 

The trendiness that The LAB perpetuates does not come cheap. 

“Usually when you’re going into a hipster atmosphere, you expect to pay like 50 cents for something that’s really cool,” said sophomore religious studies major Cassity Brown.

Brown recently got into photography and found that The LAB was a perfect place for photo shoots. When her roommate needed pictures for her blog, Brown immediately thought of the atmosphere and vibrancy of The LAB. Brown also enjoys rummaging through the inventory at Buffalo Exchange and shopping at Urban Outfitters, which she calls a “classic.” If she could change one thing, it would be the selection of shops at The LAB.

“I just wish there were a few less expensive stores,” Brown said. “I can’t afford quite a few of the stores there, so I just stick to the few I’m familiar with. Buffalo is picky about buying stuff, but they have a great inventory because of how selective they are.”

Sophomore computer science major Donovan Matsui echoed Brown’s sentiments on the prices at The LAB.

“At The LAB, people tend to be more focused on being aesthetically up-to-date, no matter the cost,” Matsui said. “A handful of the shops are overpriced and super high-fashion.”

An example would be The Celect, where women’s accessories and jewelry are priced in the hundreds. There is also a men’s store called Blends that sells sneakers for $200-500. Matusi thinks that the LAB is a hub for the “privileged” hipster population and said he could understand the appeal if a customer wants to look cool and has a lot of money to spend.

Sophomore biochemistry major Nicole Choy agreed with Matsui, mentioning that she thinks The LAB plays to the indie crowd, but risks being a little bit pretentious in doing so. 

Perhaps the older crowd that frequents the mall sees the pricing as more feasible and the borderline overly hipster atmosphere as a reminder of when they were younger. Customers also report that the vendors are approachable and kind, so perhaps the pretentiousness felt by college students is primarily about deal-seeking. As a retail venue, capitalism reigns supreme, albeit The LAB approaches it in a more holistic and environmentally conscious way.

At The LAB, there is wonderful art to discover, a friendly vibe, and enough establishments in the college price point that spending time there is worthwhile.

“I love The LAB because of the experience more than anything else,” said sophomore journalism major Rachel Gossen. “Getting a cute dress at Buffalo Exchange is great, but I also love the restaurants and the ambiance provides a great escape from Chapman’s campus.”

Chapman students say an average day at The LAB usually means buying a snack at one of the restaurants, browsing through the selection at the lower-priced stores like Buffalo Exchange and Crème Tangerine, and then soaking up the art installations while snapping an Instagram picture. 

Visitors are sure to slow down – and exhale – once they enter the space, receiving a welcome break from an otherwise busy and crowded daily routine.

The LAB Antimall is located at 2930 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Find out more at

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