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Retail evangelism

Religion | Aurelio Barreto runs a growing chain of stores that seeks to reach the denizens of Southern California's skateboard culture-body and soul

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

EL CAJON, Calif. - At first glance, the narrow store near the merry-go-round at Parkway Plaza could be any of a dozen Southern California mall-chain clones, the kind that hawk stud-belts and double-entendre T-shirts to skater-punks and posers: Back-alley brick walls, exposed-pipe ceilings, cutting-edge clothing lines, rock music throbbing from the rafters.

But the only double-entendres shoppers will find here are based on Scripture. The store is C28-short for Colossians 2:8-an overtly evangelical mall-based retail chain founded by Aurelio F. Barreto III, a California entrepreneur who made millions, found wealth bankrupt, considered suicide, got saved, then found he wanted to do something with his money besides lounge on exotic beaches sipping umbrella drinks.

Launched in 2001, C28 opens its sixth store this month in Palm Desert, Calif. Each store is aimed at fans of California board-sport couture: long shorts with legs like drainpipes, distressed outerwear, year-round logo-laden ski-caps, flip-flops, and jeans that might have been run over by trucks before being delivered by them.

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But customers will not find at C28 any prototypical SoCal sales-dudes, tanned and ironic, biding shift time until they can hit the beach. Instead, they will find people like store manager Robert Villegas, 27, an Oceanside, Calif., youth pastor who may be the Energizer Bunny of a new kind of retail evangelism.

Between interview questions, he greets customers ("Whassup, ladies? How y'all doin' today?"), hooks up a kid with a new CD ("Check this out-it's awesome!"), and strides to the storefront in his Nike skate shoes to high-five customers as they walk through the door.

"Fridays are 'free high-five' days," he explains with a smile. "The kids expect it."

The kids have also come to expect that C28 employees will be surprisingly-even disconcertingly-interested in them. "Dude! That's a pretty sick board," Mr. Villegas says to R.J., 21, who lopes in bearing a 14-wheeled skateboard the size of a loveseat. "How do you skate with that? That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!"

Mr. Barreto hires people like Robert to sell cool clothes for one reason: to reach people who are like he was for decades-without Christ.

In 1987, at age 27, Mr. Barreto invented the Dogloo, the familiar igloo-shaped, insulated doghouses that keep pets cool in summer and toasty in the snow. By 1997, his company employed 600 and was ringing up $62 million in annual sales in 42 countries.

"But on Feb. 21, 1997, my 37th birthday, I couldn't even get out of bed," he said. "I had worked and worked. I was a good, moral man, but somehow I thought if I died, I wasn't going to heaven."

Mr. Barreto slipped into depression. Six months later, he sold Dogloo and walked away with $21 million in cash. "Everyone congratulated me. It was surreal, because I thought if this is all the world has, there's no purpose for me to be around here anymore."

Soon after, during a family vacation in New Zealand, he toyed with suicide. But back in the states, a Riverside, Calif., Christian school principal told him about Christ. "That day in his office, I started sobbing. I could not believe that this man Jesus had died for my sins," he said. "I was like, 'Are you serious? That's amazing!' In 37 years, I had never heard the gospel."

Days later, as he considered his future, he remembers thinking, "Someone like me probably donates everything he has and moves to Ethiopia or something like that." But one day while pumping gas, "I was gripped with the reality that many of these people around me were going to hell. I didn't need to go thousands of miles away to share the gospel."

That's how C28 was born. But it was a long gestation process. Already a successful businessman, Mr. Barreto knew well the perils of retail. But after an encounter with a former friend who owned a Christian store, followed by reams of research and two years of prayer, a business plan emerged that would become what is now a six-store Southern California mall chain that sells clothes in hopes of saving souls.

If Christian retailing were a herd of ponies, C28 would be a zebra. The $4.2 billion industry is defined almost entirely by shops that sell books, music, and something known technically as "inspirational giftware."

"There are some stores that are certainly a mold apart from traditional Christian retail stores," said Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine. But though they may be edgier and more youth-oriented, he added, they still emphasize the same types of products usually found in Christian stores.

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