Some individuals in recovery arrive at important crossroads in life with an abiding faith, hardened by what they experienced on their journey to wellness. This clearly had to come into play for R.J. Holguin 11 years ago, when he weighed an opportunity to invest in Southern California real estate but opted instead to ride it all on recovery medallions.
$80,000, one relocation, and a decade-plus of retail experience later, My 12 Step Store in West Hollywood serves as both a celebration of recovery for its community and a consistent affirmation of Holguin's own redemption.
“The store is a constant reminder of the miracles that can take place in recovery,” says the 53-year-old Holguin. “The store had no real future other than an idea.”
Holguin, who has been sober since a 90-day residential treatment stay in the mid-1980s, first thought about the idea of a recovery-focused retail business in his community when he was trying to help a sponsee purchase recovery chips for a 12-Step meeting. At that time more than a decade ago, one gift store in the Los Angeles area carried a limited selection of recovery-oriented merchandise, while another sold products that Holguin says didn't honor a recovery-affirming mindset.
Holguin was operating a design business at the time, and was surprised to hear that his landlord wanted him to lease another available space because he considered Holguin a good tenant—that certainly wasn't something he had heard said about him in the past. When he thought about what he could do with another work space, the retail store idea resurfaced, and he shelved thoughts of buying an investment property with the money he had available. The prevailing opinion at the time was, “I was out of my mind,” he says.
“But I initially felt so enlightened,” Holguin says. “I have always been motivated and excited by big projects that almost seem monumental.”
He started attending gift shows and building relationships with product vendors. The idea was always to establish a business where someone could communicate hope to oneself or to a loved one by purchasing some small token of recovery.
My 12 Step Store relocated from its original site to its present West Hollywood location in 2006. It carries a wide variety of common and unusual recovery-themed gifts available at its store space and on its website. Holguin says the recovery medallions, now available in hundreds of interpretations based on style and time duration in recovery, remain his best seller.
Some low-priced items include magnets that carry slogans such as “Higher Powered” and “Grateful I'm Not Dead,” and popular bottled “Speaker Water” that is labeled with an inspirational message. More offbeat items include a novelty 12-Step 8-ball ($21) and a Bill W. bobblehead ($21.95).
The store is open daily, located in a plaza with several other wellness-themed businesses. A number of part-time workers staff the operation with Holguin. “I have always hired people in recovery,” he says. “I have always had such a team in recovery around me. I really know no other way.”
Holguin started drinking and using marijuana in his teen years, but says his addictive behaviors likely started by managing feelings with food even earlier than that. By his early 20s, he had left two colleges and “nightlife was the forefront of my life,” he recalls.
He had sought help through a number of different faith-based programs, but ultimately found his path through the 12-Step based residential rehab program. 12-Step meetings served an important purpose in his early years of sobriety, and he says he eventually was best served by “living the Steps on a daily basis.”
Holguin still operates a small design business, although he lost a number of clients after suffering an aneurysm in 2009 and losing his voice in surgery (he still speaks in quiet tones). In some respects this forced him to focus more on My 12 Step Store, and that has turned out to be highly rewarding.
“I was 24 when I got sober,” Holguin says. “Nowadays, young people need to feel that the world of recovery is fun, exciting, fresh—not something where your life is over.”
His store offers shipping services, gift cards, and special messages, among the many ways someone can personally reach out through a gift to someone in recovery (Holguin says his customer base is split fairly evenly between individuals in recovery and the friends/family members of a recovering person). He also has become close to some of the other proprietors of similar retail businesses in other parts of the country.
“I needed to step into it and take a bigger role,” Holguin says.