OJAI, Calif. — On a recent Sunday morning the sidewalk in front of Porch Gallery Ojai buzzed with shoppers toting organic grocery bags to and from the nearby farmers’ market. Every now and then someone — a surfer dude with a blond topknot, a couple pushing a tricycle stroller — peeled off to snap a picture of “Before I Die,” an interactive installation outside the gallery in which viewers are invited to complete the sentence “Before I die I want to ….” on a large chalkboard mounted under an incense cedar. (One not atypical contribution: “Sound my barbaric yawp.”)
Others joined the crowd mingling over prosecco and sticky buns inside, where a jazz pianist in a gray hoodie riffed on “My Favorite Things.” “We get musicians and chefs and poets,” said Lisa Casoni, one of Porch Gallery’s directors, surveying the crowd with her co-director and wife, Heather Stobo. “It’s a different way of having a gallery, but people respond to it.”
People, particularly people belonging to Generations X or Y, are responding to Ojai as a whole with a collective barbaric yawp. The idyllic valley town, about 90 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles (and picturesque enough to play the role, for a few seconds, of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s film version of “Lost Horizon”), has long drawn seekers, including the Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. But the last few years have seen a sharp uptick in pilgrims who favor Hal Hartley movies and fixed-gear bicycles.
Among the newcomers are millennial movie stars (Emily Blunt, Channing Tatum), offbeat heiresses (Aileen Getty, Anna Getty) and hippie-chic designers (Ramin Shamshiri, Channon Roe). They come from as near as Silver Lake, in Los Angeles, and from as far as Sweden. They are rehabbing crumbling storefronts and repurposing overgrown lots. And they are converging on Ojai because — well, that would depend on whom you ask.
Chris Sewell, a self-described “motelier” with a copper-colored beard, runs the Ojai Rancho Inn, a 1950s-era roadhouse recycled to scenester specifications with faux-rustic rooms and a tepee and an Airstream trailer out by the pool. (Tepees and trailers may be supplanting citrus groves and stone walls as Ojai’s official totems.) Since its opening two years ago, the inn has served as a local hub, offering artisanal brews in an oak-paneled bar, live folk music and workshops on macramé and pompom making.
“I think it mainly has to do with the boho craft movement that existed in Ojai and California in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Mr. Sewell said, keeping an eye on a carpenter mounting a sculpture inside Chief’s Peak, the inn’s bar. “I think there’s a resurgence of that.”
Channon and Bianca Roe, an actor/designer and model/actress, respectively, moved here two years ago with their son, Marlon, and recently opened In the Field, a store specializing in handcrafted, locally sourced wares — including tepees. Ms. Roe believes the migration relates to parenting trends. “The schools are phenomenal,” she said, singling out Oak Grove, the vegetarian boarding academy founded by Krishnamurti, where Marlon is in preschool.
The interior designer Paul Fortune and his husband, Chris Brock, a ceramist, who are from Los Angeles, have taken to country life somewhat in the manner of Lisa Douglas adapting to Hooterville in “Green Acres.” (They tool around town in a 1967 Rolls-Royce, painted brown, Mr. Brock said, “to fit in with the valley.”) But the pair fully embrace Ojai’s more ethereal offerings, like qigong classes and chakra cleanses.
Mr. Fortune thinks Ojai’s “electromagnetic vortex,” a supposed force field generated by plate tectonics, may be a part of its popularity. “What if it’s just one of those places that people are literally drawn to?” he said. “Wouldn’t that be kind of great?”
Certainly, the Chumash people, who gave Ojai its name, felt the pull of what they believed were the valley’s healing properties. So did Krishnamurti and his disciples, the Theosophists, who settled here in the 1920s. Edward D. Libbey, a glass manufacturer from Ohio, who in the same decade rebuilt downtown Ojai in the Spanish colonial style, was lured primarily by the mild winters.
A transcendent strain survives in everything from the local “shoppes” proffering crystals and incense to the hushed tones with which residents speak of the valley’s cinematic “pink moment” sunsets against the Topa Topa mountains.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘spiritual,’ but there’s definitely something magical about those mountains,” said Eric Goode, a New York hotel and restaurant mogul. Mr. Goode, whose father taught at the Thacher School in the 1960s, remembers hunting for reptiles in the Topa Topas as a child and visiting the pottery studio of Beatrice Wood, the so-called Mama of Dada and Ojai’s most famous resident artist.
In 1989 Mr. Goode bought his own place, a Spanish-style house in the still-bucolic East End, where he runs the Turtle Conservancy, a sanctuary for rare and endangered chelonians. “One of the lovely things about Ojai is it hasn’t changed a lot,” he said. For decades the city has successfully battled efforts to run a freeway through the valley. There are no billboards, and the only franchise in sight is Jersey Mike’s, the sandwich purveyor, which slipped through the cracks of a chain-store ban Ojai passed in 2007.
Ojai’s Mayberry flavor — its population is just 7,600 — is catnip to big-city tastemakers, who are buying houses by some of California’s most notable architects. Ramin Shamshiri, a founder of the haute-hippie design collective Commune, and his wife, Donna Langley, the chairman of Universal Pictures, live in Mr. Libbey’s old Craftsman-style hunting lodge, built by Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey in 1908. The designer Barbara Barry is restoring the glass-walled home of the Case Study architect Rodney Walker. And Aileen Getty (granddaughter of J. Paul, aunt of Balthazar) recently acquired the Ford estate, a Paul Williams-designed compound so romantic that it might have sprung from the head of Helen Hunt Jackson.
The cultural opportunities are keeping pace with the influx. Just down the street from Porch Gallery Ojai, the two-year-old galerie102 shows conceptual work by emerging artists. Both galleries host community events ranging from performances to yoga classes. The Roes installed hay bales behind In the Field to accommodate movie screenings, and the same vibey spirit prevails at three recently opened “mindfully curated” boutiques: Modern Folk Living, Summer Camp and Tipple and Ramble.
Yet Mr. Sewell’s Rancho Inn is the epicenter of the youthquake. With its shuffleboard court and rooms decorated with tie-dyed curtains and ceramic pendants, the Rancho would seem to be targeting an Ace Hotel-ish demographic, but Mr. Sewell demurred.
“The Ace is a place where people go to sit by the pool and party,” he said. “Instead of having a D.J. cranking out the xx, we have something called Folk Steady, with musicians coming in and doing, like, Neil Young covers, and families on blankets with their plate of cheese and glass of rosé.”
The 92-year-old Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is still the place to go for golf and a detox body wrap. But there are less corporate options for visitors who are not on a budget. In the lush East End (a vintage-fruit-crate label come to life), an Iraqi-born single father named Calvin Zara has conjured Thacher House, a ranch house and cottages set amid olive groves and lavender fields roamed by goats and chickens. He rents the cottages out to groups eager to “reconnect with the universe” through activities like sheep milking and olive-oil pressing.
Curiously, given its farms and its locavores, Ojai’s restaurant options lag behind its retail offerings. The Farmer and the Cook may be the signature New Ojai eatery, serving up organic Mexican fare to throngs happy to wait half an hour or more for Swiss chard enchiladas or cabbage leaf tacos. There is also the artisan bakery Knead Baking Company and the Hip Vegan Café, with its funky sun-dappled back patio.
“Ojai in general is difficult for us,” said Warner Ebbink, a restaurateur from Los Angeles who hopes to open an outpost of his bistro Little Dom’s here, as well as another dining spot and country mart in an old massage school. “They don’t allow you to increase traffic coming in or out of town. Not by one car. That’s how they keep it small.”
If the city has not made it easy for fledgling businesses, neither have Ojai’s old-timers uniformly embraced the latecomers. The pushback ranges from anonymous Facebook complaints about “the Hollywood crowd” to more public grousing. “People will walk in the door, check out the store, give you their feedback and leave,” Ms. Roe said. Something along the lines of “damn hipsters”? “Pretty much,” she said.
Dave Del Negro, who has lived here over 50 years and has spent much of that time working as a chef at the Ranch House, Ojai’s first farm-to-table restaurant (he made a chocolate cake for Beatrice Wood’s 100th birthday), believes the tensions will work themselves out. “There’s the old guard who doesn’t want any change,” he said. “But Ojai has a long tradition of keeping itself itself. The people who don’t fit in will leave.”
Like the veterans, those who choose to put down roots seem to like the place pretty much the way it is. Yes, there’s a historic drought — Lake Casitas, the city’s primary water source, is just over half full — but Ojaians, however long they’ve been around, are keeping faith with the California dream.
At Edward Libbey’s old estate in the Arbolada, an oak-studded neighborhood near downtown, Mr. Shamshiri has fashioned a bohemian idyll for himself, his wife and their two young sons, Paulo and Adelo. While the house has been given the full Commune treatment (goatskin rugs, Native American textiles, handcrafted furniture), the five acres surrounding it function as a kind of New Age playground for the boys. A “city for kids” designed by Christopher Haskins incorporates a play mound, a mud pit and a treehouse with a zip line. There is also a tepee.
Across town, in the East End, Mr. Goode is living out a childhood fantasy of his own. “I’m a secret turtle lover, or herpetophile, I guess they call us,” he said, explaining how he came to share his succulent gardens with the speckled padloper, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle and 30 other threatened species. Mr. Goode, whose 1928 hacienda is decorated with tortoiseshells and mounted butterflies, recently started putting up guests in the several cottages scattered around his property, but he only takes in fellow herpetophiles.
Farther up the valley, on Sulphur Mountain, Mr. Brock and Mr. Fortune share a bungalow with two trailers out back. One of the vehicles accommodates visiting friends, and in the other one Mr. Brock pursues that definitive Ojai pastime: throwing pots. “You’re driven inward here,” he said, discussing his new, unhurried lifestyle. “You have to be inclined toward such a journey.”
While both men indulge in the sort of gauzy interior excursions that Ojai encourages, they’ve come to appreciate the town’s down-home diversions just as much. “There’s a cute little Fourth of July parade, with Mexican boys on horses doing their lassoes,” Mr. Fortune said. “It’s just sweet. Not ironic sweet. There’s nobody trying to twist it and turn it into something else. Not yet.”