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.
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.
By contrast, C28's gear is cutting edge SoCal youth-"real clothes," as one teenage shopper put it-some with Scripture, most without. The company also markets its signature brand, NOTW, or Not of This World, a phrase distilled from Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."
So, how does hawking trendy $50 sweatshirts invite kids to discontinue such deceptive philosophies as materialism? In a March 6 New York Times Magazine article that consisted mainly of straight reporting, writer Rob Walker couldn't resist a wry poke at the apparent contradiction: "To battle the hollow deceptive philosophies that derive from human tradition," Mr. Walker wrote, "C28 sells several brands of apparel and accessories. . . ."
Mr. Barreto said he gets that kind of criticism all the time, especially from Christians, who charge that C28 bankrupts its own message by aping popular culture.
The entrepreneur disagrees. "We provide a positive alternative for a lifestyle that already exists," he said, noting Jesus's habit of consorting with sinners. "To be relevant, we've got to be where the kids are. How do you reach the lost if you're not where the lost are?"
Of those who accuse him of shamelessly hawking God for profit, he says, "I invite them to take a look at our balance sheets. I didn't look at the numbers for four years-I was afraid to. Meanwhile, my board is saying to me, 'This is really honorable, Aurelio, but when are we going to make a profit?' I have put $1.6 million into these stores and have not received a salary yet."
Mr. Villegas fields similar complaints at the store level. "Christians will come in here and say, 'You're merchandising God!' My response is, spend some time here . . . check out the fruit."
As an example, he points out the El Cajon store's "prayer board," papered over with Post-its. "Pray that my dad stops doing drugs and drinking," one girl wrote. Another scribbled, "Pray that my friend's bone marrow transplant would be OK."
It's OK for kids, or adults for that matter, to "hang" at the stores, C28 designers having installed bean bag chairs and touch-screen music players for the purpose. Store workers are trained to talk with customers, ask about their lives, follow up on what they've talked about before-and, when opportunity knocks, share the gospel. More than 700 customers have professed faith in Christ since the first store opened, according to Mr. Barreto. When they do, store personnel make introductions to area churches and also provide a free Bible. Sometimes, with parents' permission, C28 salespeople disciple kids at weekly breakfast meetings.
So, is the whole Jesus-at-the-mall thing too pushy? Ashley, 19, a San Diego State University student who said she doesn't go to church, did not think so. Asked how she liked the store, she shrugged: "It's cool. The people are really nice." And the evangelism? "I don't mind. It gives people a way to represent their beliefs without being obnoxious."
That's music to Aurelio Barreto's ears. "I had Christian friends, but I went 37 years without ever hearing the gospel," he said. "That's why we have these stores. We want to reach people like me."