Valerie Williams and Michael Miller Share Their Pandemic-Hobby-Turned-Business Pursuit: Lifeguard Tower-Themed Birdhouses
By SARAH SHMERLING | Editor-in-Chief
What does a flight attendant do when they are temporarily furloughed due to an ongoing pandemic?
For Michael Miller, the answer was to partner with longtime friend Valerie Williams and hand make batches of lifeguard tower-themed birdhouses at her Pacific Palisades home.
“Valerie and I have been friends for a really long time, probably 20 years at least,” Miller explained. “[I was] just going to come over, hang out in the backyard, and have a glass of wine and reconnect.”
Miller and Williams met two decades ago when they were both working as liquor reps, selling to bars and restaurants. He shared that Williams was the “queen of Sunset.” They were on the same team, but Williams was focused on West Hollywood and Miller was focused on downtown.
They were sitting in Williams’ recently redone garden in summer of last year, listening to the birds, when Miller said an idea dawned on him.
“‘I think I want to do birdhouses,’ which was kind of weird, but I was figuring out my next step because I didn’t know what I was going to do since I was furloughed,” he explained. “We thought, ‘She likes birdhouses,’ and then she said, ‘Why don’t we do lifeguard towers because it’s local?’ It was genius.”
Williams and Miller then went down to the beaches and took pictures of local lifeguard towers, sending them to Miller’s mother, who has a woodshop. His mom built a prototype for them and sent it in the mail.
“It’s been ever since then,” Miller shared, “that’s how it all transpired.”
Though Williams had crafted birdhouses from Michael’s and done other arts and crafts, neither of them had pursued something to this scale—especially given the fact that the birdhouses they create are larger than one that would be found at a craft store.
“My mother taught me a lot,” Miller said. “She sent me a nail gun for Christmas to help me get it done. She’s been a great help as well. Basically, we’ve learned as we’ve gone.”
Williams said she selected the lifeguard tower, as she is “all about the Palisades and Malibu.”
When they went to find items to adorn the towers, like a surfboard and the accessories, they were not able to find anything at the scale they wanted. So instead, they decided to make their own.
“Michael made a mold, and we make our own surfboards so that they’re to scale,” Williams explained.
Miller said that they pour the plastics together, then it cures in about 15 minutes, and then they hand paint them all.
The handrails on the tower are also created by Williams and Miller, who cut them out of dowels so that they can be the proper scale. Then they stencil on the “lifeguard on duty” sign, as well as local numbers found on towers.
“We did research,” Williams shared about selecting the numbers. “We learned about our local numbers—how they work from Malibu all the way down to Santa Monica.”
They even researched towers in Manhattan Beach, which they explained use names of streets and avenues in lieu of numbers.
“We really learned a lot,” Williams said. “Then we adorn it with our flag. We learned if a lifeguard tower has the flag up, then that means they’re on duty.”
They make the birdhouses in batches of about a dozen, which takes about five to seven days to complete, from cutting the lumber, sanding it, painting and adorning with the final molds.
“It takes me three days to paint, probably five hours per day, because each coat of paint has to dry,” Williams explained, adding that it takes Miller two days at about five hours per day to build the birdhouse, followed by painting, and ending with a day spent together adorning them.
To date, the pair has made and sold about 100 birdhouses.
“It was more of a hobby at first,” Miller said. “We just have such an overwhelming response from it that we were like, ‘We’ve got something on our hands here,’ which is great.”
The two recently bought a domain for their website, but they have been so busy keeping up with the demand for birdhouses, they have not been able to set it up.
“When we first started, it was just a couple of friends who said, ‘Oh, my God, we love it, can you build me one?’” Williams explained.
After crafting their first batch, Williams and Miller took them out to Palisades Drive and Sunset Boulevard to sell to passersby. They were sold out within the first two hours.
“We were literally unloading the first two birdhouses out of our trunk … and people pulled over,” Williams said. “We’ve had a couple of people that pulled over and bought two at a time.”
One weekend, when Miller was back to work and out of town, Williams hosted a pop-up sale by posting on Nextdoor. She shared that she sold all 12 of one batch during the course of the sale.
Though many of their clientele are local to the Palisades, the birdhouse sales have gone international.
“We’ve sold them in Canada, we’ve sold them to Sweden,” Miller said. “We’ve been finding a lot of people have memories of California and they want a piece of California with them.”
One of Miller’s friends recently moved from Manhattan Beach to North Carolina. She purchased two birdhouses to place them by her pool and remind her of California.
“We’ve been finding a lot of people have really great memories, and the lifeguard tower brings out a lot of their beach vacations that they may take here in California or Malibu and Pacific Palisades,” Miller added. “So that was really cool to have our first shipments to Canada and Sweden.”
Williams shared that the two had hoped to bring batches to Laguna Niguel or Manhattan Beach to sell there, but they have been focused on keeping up with local demand.
“We can’t make them quick enough,” she shared. “It’s just he and I, we can’t make them quick enough to get over to Manhattan Beach or anything yet.”
Miller explained that they offer custom colors for those who want to personalize the birdhouse. They offer red, rainbow, yellow and hot pink surfboards at the moment, and those who wish to purchase can reach out and request a specific tower number.
In the future, Williams and Miller are gearing up to launch a second birdhouse design: a Nantucket-style house, with a shingled roof, a door and a window. The life ring featured on the home will be different colors, with a white picket fence and a house color of aqua green.
“We’re also going to do a special Christmas edition of the lifeguard tower,” Miller shared. “We’re going to adorn it with a Christmas ornament and Christmas tree.”
Williams, who lived in Sunset Mesa for 15 years before the Highlands for another 15, now lives in Marquez Knolls. She shared that she lived in West LA before she married her husband, and the two moved to Malibu before the Palisades.
She said that she loves “almost everything” about the area, including Will Rogers State Beach, local hiking trails and the clean air.
“I just love the Palisades,” she said. “What I love most is that it’s like a small town.”
Miller, who lives in North Hollywood, shared that he loves coming to the Palisades to work at Williams’ home.
“We build everything in her backyard,” he explained. “It’s always nice for me to come here, it’s just something about when you see the ocean, it’s so calming, and the backyard—the cool breeze—it’s lovely.”
Though Miller is back to work, the two continue to create birdhouses, with a lofty goal in mind.
“It’s kind of my goal to make it an iconic Palisades birdhouse,” Valerie shared. “I’d like to walk down the street and see them every 20 houses.”
For more information or to place an order for a birdhouse, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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