What The New Yorker got wrong about a California cow town

There was lots of buzz earlier this week among those of us in the Hollister, CA diaspora: The New Yorker had published a long feature, “The Actual Hollister,” on our hometown, the humble farming community 45 miles south of San Jose. My sister Kelli’s email subject line said it all: “Hell freezes over.”

Now having read the piece, I wish Dave Eggers, a writer I greatly admire, had asked me along for the ride.

His premise was solid: An exploration of how Abercrombie & Fitch, through its now comically ubiquitous Hollister brand of clothing, had both appropriated and misappropriated the identity of a town that is approaching its sesquicentennial. “Hollister is an unglamorous town,” Eggers writes, “but its name is now associated with some degree of taste and status all over the world.” There is a delicious irony in people sporting the name of a cow town across their chest in the deluded hope that this will help make them cool.

In the first year or two after the brand launched, I would stop people on the street who were wearing Hollister apparel and ask them if they were a Haybaler (our high school mascot). These poor people were just as confused as I was.

But why does Eggers care about this collision of real life and marketing? It turns out that he is the great-great-grandson of T.S. Hawkins, one of the town’s founding fathers.

Eggers starts his one-day visit to Hollister by going to the old Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital on Monterey Street. The hospital was founded by T.S. Hawkins in honor of his granddaughter, who died of appendicitis when she was 9. My three siblings and I were born in that hospital.

But the article ultimately unravels, pulled apart by missed opportunities and thin reporting. Eggers does not seek out any of the Hawkinses or other Hawkins descendants who still live in San Benito County and who could have provided him some perspective about how the town has changed, why its struggles, and what distinguishes it from other small towns (hint: location, location, location—it is a short drive from Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Jose). He doesn’t talk to any longtime local businesspeople, like Bob Tiffany, who runs the Ford auto dealership that has been in his family for more than 100 years. Or to Frank Guerra, my high school classmate, who heads Guerra Nut Shelling and is one of the town’s largest employers.

Despite the sterling reputation of The New Yorker fact-checking department, the story gets a number of things wrong, most prominently the location of Hollister. It is not in the Central Valley; it is, hold on to your hats, in the Hollister Valley. There are also some observations that will have people in the area chuckling: neighboring Salinas and Gilroy as tourist destinations. Everyone in town being excited about the opening of a Walgreens.

Eggers nicely details the fictional backstory of the Hollister brand, which Abercrombie & Fitch says was created by John Hollister Jr. in his Southern California surf shop. Eggers also passes along a claim from Mike Jeffries, the former Abercrombie CEO, that the “company pulled the name Hollister out of thin air.”

Common sense says otherwise. In his story, Eggers tells of how his great-great-grandfather and a band of local farmers bought 21,000 acres from W.W. Hollister for $370,000 in 1868 and then founded the town. Hollister took his cash and moved to Santa Barbara, where he helped finance and develop Stearns Wharf, the Santa Barbara News-Press, and the Arlington Hotel, according to Wikipedia.

Today, his name looms large in the Santa Barbara–Goleta area. There’s Hollister Avenue, which runs east-west for miles, just south of Highway 101; Hollister Elementary School; Hollister Brewing Company; Hollister Ranch . . . You get the idea. It’s a very small leap to conclude that, when he created the Hollister brand, Jeffries hoped to capture the beachfront cachet of Santa Barbara.

A few years back, I spoke to a class at San Francisco State. I told them I had grown up in Hollister and appreciated the fact that the student body, in a warm and well-coordinated welcome, had all donned Hollister gear in my honor.

No one got it.

An “actual” Hollister?

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