Couple operate Public Land as homage to culture of West

Public Land at 21st Street and First Avenue is not just a plant store. It is “the culmination of a lot of life lived,” said owners Austin McManus and Mel Eligon.

Established in 2018, Public Land sells an eclectic mix of flora – specializing in cactuses and tropical plants – and sundry household items. There is a strong stylistic theme of the Southwest running throughout, inspired by the owners’ travels.

“We are city kids who just ended up going to nature way too much at some point because we got sick of the cities,” McManus said. “I think natural progression of camping and hiking is that you’re going to start getting interested in the fauna and flora … maybe not everybody, but we did.”

Over the years, the married couple found themselves avoiding national parks, which they felt were becoming too crowded, opting instead to spend time in remote areas under the control of the Bureau of Land Management otherwise known as “public lands.” They decided to name their shop Public Land as an homage to the West and the extensive open lands that have thus far avoided privatization.

McManus and Eligon met in San Francisco, and spent time in the art scenes in Los Angeles and New York. McManus was photography director and editor for Juxtapoz, an art and culture magazine. Eligon worked as a freelance fashion editor. Sacramento, though, was where they wanted to open Public Land.

They found what they considered the perfect location in Curtis Park – a large, bright space where plants, and especially cactuses, could thrive. McManus happened upon the vacant space while walking their dog, Yuca. He jumped on it, contacting the owner immediately. The owner was skeptical about the business model at first, but decided to give McManus and Eligon a chance. After the couple fitted out the building and repainted, the owner came around, complimenting them on how nice the space looked.

Public Land is also an art gallery, exhibiting works from California artists. Before the pandemic, Public Land hosted art openings. On those evenings, the wrap-around windows would steam with the heat of the socializing crowd indoors. From the outside, the space looked like a giant greenhouse.

For McManus, the art gallery and the openings are the heart of Public Land and the most enjoyable part of the business. “The art openings, when people would spend time here, the array of characters who would show up, that to me was when I was happiest,” he said. “It’s what we were working for, involving a ton of different people from different backgrounds in one space and getting people who were never really into art into art.”

The pandemic has put an end to packed, indoor showings for now. With vaccinations becoming widely available, and the worst of the pandemic seemingly in the past, the not-too-distant future may see their return. In the meantime, Public Land is still showing art, which customers can view in the back gallery during store hours.

Public Land is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Although McManus and Eligon do not live in Curtis Park – “We wish, we wish,” he said – their shop has become a 21st Street fixture. The couple can often be found there, along with their dog, Yuca.

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