This post was originally published on June 11, 2014.
Welcome back to AfterPartyHeroes, where we take time out to celebrate sober folks who have managed to make a difference as well as those so-called normies who simply help the recovery movement. Today we’re honoring R.J. Holguin, who’s managed to launch several chic (not to mention lucrative) businesses in LA—one of them being the hippest 12-step store in town.
Holguin has been living in LA for 36 years and has been sober for 28 of them. His path to sobriety, like many others, came out of necessity. “It wasn’t a real choice for me,” he says. “I was 24 and I was having financial problems. I’d quit college, so I thought if I did a clean-up on myself, everything would be okay.”
Looking back at 24, Holguin said that the road to recovery was anything but clear at that point. “I did not set out to get sober,” he says. “I set out to get cleaned up.” Now, with many years behind him, his perspective has changed. “Recovery takes different turns sometimes,” he opines. “People don’t realize how much their life can benefit from it.”
The Gifts of Recovery
Sobriety allowed Holguin the clarity of mind to found RJ Design—a design firm that handles high-profile events for celebrities. RJ Design, which offers custom floral arrangements and has been in operation for 20 years now, has been praised as a fresh voice in the world of floristry. But Holguin found his experience with the venture not entirely satisfying. “I enjoyed it, but I found that it wasn’t my passion,” he admits.
Regardless, it was high profile enough to make the Best of LA list in Los Angeles Magazine; in contrast to traditionally bursting-at-the-seams floral arrangements, they described Holguin’s unique design approach as “so minimalist as to be arrogant (in a delicious way).” Holguin himself is the furthest thing from arrogant; his speech is distinctive, a quiet rasp of calm and humility (the raspiness is the result of a slightly botched operation four years ago).
“What happened was I was told I’d had an aneurysm and needed to go in for surgery,” he explains. “Going into the surgery, I bled a lot, and in the process, they cut some of the nerves to my voicebox.”
Still, Holguin’s journey through sobriety (and the wisdom that accompanies age, he notes) has allowed him to reframe the incident as a positive. “My inner life has gradually evolved,” he says. “What it did was help me to focus. I focused on what was most important for me to do.”
A Store is Born
That important project became My 12-Step Store, a boutique recovery store in West Hollywood that puts similar recovery stores to shame. This mecca of books, cards, medallions and chachkies, however, almost never got started. Holguin says the business came as a sudden stroke of inspiration. “I had saved about $80,000 to put down on a house,” he reveals. “I woke up the next day after thinking about it and, I don’t know why, but I decided to put the money into a store. I felt so grateful, and I wanted to give back.”
The business is currently celebrating its 11th year in business. “Today, it’s my passion,” he says. “When I opened it, I was relatively young. Sobriety didn’t feel fun and exciting. Sometimes it felt like a dead-end, like life was over.” Holguin’s philosophy has been to put out the opposite energy—to give back by allowing those in recovery to feel like life is worth living—and worth celebrating. “I opened it to be exciting, colorful, splashy,” he says. “Whether you’re sober or not, you can live every day with a passion for whatever it may be. People are people, we live our lives and we evolve over time. We’re a store that deals with everyday people.”
Holguin’s interest in creating a safe environment has extended to celebrities fleeing paparazzi, as well. “Two weeks ago, Dean McDermott came in and was purchasing books about relationship problems,” he confesses. “We helped him pick out the right books, but the paparazzi were hounding him outside. They took pictures, and it all got caught up in a massive e-mail campaign online.”
The controversy lead to exposure for the store on Entertainment Tonight, and for him, the coverage is still surprising (“This is my fourth interview this month,” he admits). Overall, Holguin says these public controversies take away from the store’s real mission—to create an all-inclusive environment—and bemoans how public these things can become.
“It became a big spin over a book or two,” he says. “We don’t divulge what people buy in store. We believe in confidentiality, we support our customers, but sometimes we still get caught up in ‘Hollywood.’” Still, he says that the incident (and a similar one involving Lindsay Lohan) has made everyone all the more cautious. “We have to watch what we’re saying and doing,” he says.
Forever in the Present
In conversation, Holguin is ever present and grounded, and his optimism seems to flow naturally from these two qualities. It’s hard not to speculate that Holguin’s financial success, in turn, flows directly from his optimism.
His outlook can perhaps best be explained by a recent in-store run-in he had with a young man who was only eight months sober. He asked Holguin how to be a voice of wisdom to others when he had little sober experience to draw upon.
“Whatever the moment is, whatever we’re experiencing, is exactly what we’re supposed to be experiencing,” Holguin told him. “Looking into the future or wanting more time means we’re going to miss out on what’s being put in front of us. AA says, ‘Expect a miracle.’ If you’re busy looking for what’s next, you’re going to miss the miracles.”