Sheila Struckmeyer

sheila5Sheila was raised on an organic farm in Fort Bragg and learned to make soaps, facial scrubs, and lip balms. She never imagined this knowledge would allow her to earn a living. As so often happens in life, one thing led to another and here she is—the owner of Bella Mia, a petite treasure tucked into the back room of Understuff on Main Street.

***

Born in 1976, Sheila grew up with a large extended family on the same property where her mother was raised. In addition to farming, her dad was a woodworker. “My family was self-sufficient. The attitude was if you want to do something, just do it. There were few limitations.”

Her mother had a passion for growing the unusual—like kohlrabi and currants. “In the early eighties these were novelties. Margaret Fox and Chris Kump (then owners of Café Beaujolais) were on the culinary edge and used uncommon ingredients in their dishes. Whenever I’d go on a delivery with my mom, Margaret would feed us something yummy.”

sheila7

The effervescent Sheila welcomes visitors to her beautiful store.

Sheila’s formal education was a mixture of private, public and home schooling. “For a while I went to a Hippie school where no outdoor shoes were allowed inside. We had to change into Chinese slippers, and call teachers by their first names.” As a teenager in the early nineties, she wanted to go to “normal” school and wear designer jeans. She went to Mendocino High for a year before enrolling herself in Fort Bragg High. “They asked, ‘Where are your parents?’ I said, ‘Why do they need to be here?’” She laughs. “I was taught to take charge of things on my own. I never asked them to come with me.”

After graduating from high school at age 16, Sheila drove to Washington State with a boyfriend and lived in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

Sixteen?

She laughs. “My parents felt if that’s what I wanted, I should do it.”

After a year, the boyfriend and island living lost their appeal. She drove back to Fort Bragg.

Alone? At seventeen? Before cell phones?

Sheila employs a local soap maker to create these fabulous bars.

She laughs. “I never felt unsafe. There were plenty of rest stops along Interstate 5 that were clean and well-lit at night. When I got tired, I’d pull into one and sleep in my car. At each stop, there was a group of women volunteers—I think they were nuns— who handed out cookies.”

After a year of waitressing, she worked for the Village Toy Store in Mendocino. “The owners, Bill and Susie Carr, changed my life. They encouraged me to have a career, taught me bookkeeping, and how to run a business. I started saving for retirement at the age of 18. I consider them family and we remain close.”

The toy store job sparked a love of working retail. After the Carr’s sold their business, Sheila worked for a number of stores. A job at Sallie Mac nudged her to open her own business. “She carried an exclusive line of skin care products from a French company that required all sales people to go through extensive training in order to present them properly. I learned a lot about how these are made and why certain ingredients are chosen.”

Sheila combined her knowledge of organic skin care products with that of aromatherapist friend Melanie Knox and made gifts for friends and family. They eventually expanded their operation to sell at craft fairs.

“Our first craft fair was the opening day of the 2008 Whale Festival—the one that had the worst weather ever on that Saturday morning. There was thunder, lightning, hail, and torrential rain. We set up in the Company Store and I worried we wouldn’t sell a thing. But we sold out in five hours and made $1,000. We were so excited.”

sheilaWhile traveling the craft fair circuit and working for her mother (who owned a nursery), Sheila contemplated opening a store. Her husband Michael wasn’t sure it could be successful. They’ve been married 10 years and come from very different backgrounds. “I have a sense of no limitations while he’s more conservative.”

They met at the Tip Top one night when she was the sober driver for a young friend’s twenty-first birthday. He lived in Sacramento, but his family had a house on the coast that he’d been visiting most of his life. “We dated for a year. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, exactly a year after we met, he proposed to me in the place we had our first kiss—his parents’ house on Todd’s Point.” He moved to Fort Bragg and works for North Coast Plumbing.

Drawing on the can-do spirit in which she was raised, Sheila spotted a “For Rent” sign on Laurel Street in 2012 and 15 days later opened Bella Mia.

In 2013 her mom was diagnosed with ALS and died two years later. Helping her mom through her illness and mourning her death took a tremendous emotional toll on Sheila. “Creativity and grieving don’t go hand in hand. I felt like I couldn’t make anything or go to my shop and make chit chat. I had lost my mom, so what else mattered? My lease was coming up in April of this year. I wanted to close the store. Hilary [White] had lost her father six months before my mom died and knew how I felt, but was concerned that I’d regret that decision. She had an empty room in the back of Understuff and convinced me to move in. I’m so grateful to her.”

sheila2Like other business owners, Sheila works long hours, but enjoys being her own boss. “If I decide to do something, I do it. I don’t have to discuss it with anybody.” She makes her products daily. My personal favorite is her Mendo Rain soap. Imagine standing on the Mendocino Headlands on a crisp, clear morning after a storm. Take a deep breath. Sheila has captured this pure, clean aroma in her liquid soap. (If you live out of the area and can’t get to the headlands, order it and you’ll see what I mean.)

“I like the creative process of making things. I can be focused and completely present in the task—Zen.” This Zen quality is manifested in her store—it feels harmonious and, even though well stocked, has a minimalist feeling, allowing for a relaxed shopping experience. She’s proud that most of her customers are locals.

Sheila hopes someday Fort Bragg’s economy returns to a balance between business and tourism—where businesses are created to help young people stay here. In the meantime, she continues to do what she can to add to the economy while generously sharing her joyful spirit.sheila3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part II

spartan5It was a cool gray morning at Giants Stadium by the Bay. I shivered not from the cold, but from utter terror as I watched Spartan participants run up to the very top deck of seats. I’m terrified of heights to the point where I start to hyperventilate. I could not do this. What was I doing here?

My brain ping-ponged for a solution. I stood behind my teammates, hiding my anxiety. Yvette had the logo “Bald Hill Cattle Company” printed on the back of her shirt. I did something I rarely do—asked for help. She agreed to stay directly in front of me while we traversed the stairs. I would focus on that logo, not on the vast distance between the elevation, the playing field, and the endless stretch of water beyond.

In that moment, I surrendered. I accepted that it was okay to be the laggard of the pack. Others could take the lead. I was content to follow.

spartan2It was time for Team Mendo to queue up. Bethany (who had finished her competitive race in under 40 minutes) announced she would run the course again with us. She had been the key force behind getting us to this place. She was going to see us through to the end. We walked around a corner to encounter our first obstacle—a four-foot fence to scale before we got in line.

I chuckled. Here we go.

Participants were released every minute or so in sets of 20. As each set waited, an emcee got the group jacked up by yelling, “WHO ARE YOU?” to which the group responded, “WE ARE SPARTANS!” My mind whispered, “I’m a scared little wieny.”

We were off and running down the lower deck of stadium stairs, into the basement to the Giants’ locker room where we were to perform 20 pushups. Halfway through my set I noticed the room smelled like years of embedded sweat. I found it funny that this place belonging to a major league baseball team smelled like any high school boys’ locker room.

The obstacles blur in my memory, but a few stand out. The first wall we encountered was eight feet tall. As I contemplated failure, Bethany rushed up and hunkered down with her fingers laced. “Put your foot in here,” she commanded. She boosted me up and I lurched over. Some obstacles later, we repeated the same move. Near the end was a six-foot wall. I turned to Bethany, like a child to her mother, and said, “Help me.” She said, “You can do it.” And by God I did—with a running leap I was up and over.

It was thrilling to accomplish obstacles I didn’t think I could do—like pick up a 50-pound concrete cylinder, carry it 20 feet, put it down, do five burpees, pick it up, carry it back, and do five more burpees. A shot of adrenaline propelled me onward where I got another shot and another until I was halfway through the race, shouting, “This is fun!” and meaning it.

My fear of heights was put to the test early. I kept my focus on Yvette’s “Bald Hill Cattle Company” logo and used a hand as a blinder to block out the scenery far below. Up to the top deck of seats and over, down and over, up and over again, I refused to let my gaze waiver, concentrating only on taking the next step. I nearly cried with relief when it was over.

spartanraceAbout ten obstacles later, we were told to pick up a 20-pound beanbag and go out to the stands. I’ll be damned if on the other side of the stadium—the side I hadn’t seen earlier—we didn’t have to repeat a mirror trek to the upper deck. By then I was a full on adrenaline junkie. I’d done it before, I could do it again. This time I didn’t have to rely on “Bald Hill Cattle Company.” Instead, it was “Hell yeah, bitch—I got this!”

Spartan rules dictate that when you fail an obstacle you must do 30 burpees. I only missed two—the rope climb and the spear throw. I didn’t even attempt the rope climb—in training for it, I’d hurt my back. I missed the spear throw by an inch.

The last obstacle was the monkey bars. I’d tried it a couple of times in training, barely able to hold myself stationary for more than a few seconds before feeling my arms were going to rip from my shoulder sockets. I headed toward the burpee area when Yvette said, “I’ll help you.” I jumped up and grabbed the first bar. She clutched my legs and literally carried me across. Between her and Bethany, our other two team mates also got across.

spartan8When it was Yvette’s turn, Bethany tried to assist. A Spartan monitor appeared, yelling, “You can’t help her.” Bethany said we were a team and we’d been helping each other all the way. He barked, “You can’t help her on this one.” Bethany countered, “We just helped three of our teammates with this one.” He stood firm.

In retrospect, we should have jumped him and beat the crap out of him. Instead, we watched as poor Yvette struggled halfway through before dropping. Disappointed, she prepared to do her burpees. The team told her to stand aside—we’d each do eight for her.

spartan7I rose from my final burpee and looked into the stands to find my son Harrison, daughter Laine, and her boyfriend Jeff smiling at me. (My husband Gary and daughter-in-law Kasi couldn’t be there.) I raised my arms and jumped up and down. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our team ran through a series of punching bags to the finish line. We linked arms and crossed together. On the other side, our necks were draped with a ribbon holding the heaviest medal we’d ever received. We laughed and hugged and posed for pictures.

We are now part of that crazy cult called Spartans.spartan3

The Reluctant Spartan – Part I

I’ve never considered myself a competitive person—unless you count growing up with four siblings and competing for the attention of my overwhelmed parents. During my first five decades on the planet, I also never considered myself an athlete or remotely fond of physical activity.

earth dayOn Earth Day 1971, I was a junior in high school. My sister (a sophomore) and I decided to honor the day by walking instead of driving the five miles to school. We stopped for three cigarette breaks and once to smoke a joint. At the end of the day, we walked eight blocks, decided the trek home would be too arduous, and stuck out our thumbs to hitch a ride. Our Spanish teacher picked us up and gave a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking until he deposited us on the curb outside our house. We crept to the backyard to enjoy a smoke before going inside.

I smoked off and on for the next 30 years, entertaining myself during the off years with Dance Aerobics in the eighties and walking my dogs in the nineties. At the age of 50, my teenage son needed me to sign consent for him to join a gym. Before I knew it, I’d also signed up. I’ll admit I fell for the sales pitch of the family discount, but also hoped that exercise classes might help shed the 15 pounds menopause had piled on and make me feel less like a sausage packed into my clothing.

photo(1)My friend Kathleen and I took classes, worked out on our own, and eventually, with a personal trainer. We grew stronger and, I dare say, a little cocky. Six years into this regimen, she suggested we do a triathlon. I agreed before I fully knew what it meant (or how to spell it)—a half-mile swim, 22-mile bike ride, and 5k run. We worked out six days a week, and created a motto: To finish is to win.

We finished.

This race taught me: (1) I’m more physically capable than I think I am; and (2) I will never do it again (the open water swim was terrifying). But the experience was a tipping point—it made me yearn to challenge my body and expand my capabilities.

I started entering local 5k races. The year I turned 60, I won first place in my age category in two races—not because I’m fast, but because I was either the only woman in that category or the few others were a lot older. The year I turned 61, I ran five races, motivated by the fact that my friend Sandy would turn 60 the next year and she’s much faster than I am. That would be my last year to collect ribbons and medals. (I got four.)

spartan1This past January, a group of fellow gym rats—Beth, Yvette, and Jan—invited me to join their Spartan team for the May race at AT&T Park. My personal trainer Bethany had done a number of these and always came back battered and bruised, but high on accomplishment. I watched a YouTube video and told the group, “What kind of crazy would do such a thing? I’m 62 years old for God’s sake. I work out four times a week and run 5k races. Leave me alone.”

They kept me on their email thread. A few weeks later, I asked Bethany if she thought, with proper training, I was capable of the challenge. “You could do it today,” she said.

I signed up.

Fear of failure and letting my teammates down became major motivators. I was two, eight, and thirteen years older than the other three members of my group. I pushed myself—strength training and running six times a week. I won’t lie, training wasn’t easy. For example, I’d never run more than 3.10 miles (5k) in my life. Each quarter mile beyond that was exhausting, but I kept at it until four, four and a half, and five miles wasn’t so bad. Six point two miles (10k) was—and still is—a bitch, but I know I can do it and I’ll do it again.

I grew stronger, but no matter how hard I trained, I was the slowest and weakest of the team. In many areas of my life, I’ve excelled or been at least average. It pissed me off that I’d slipped to the lower end of the bell curve. I tried to avoid bitterness and accept my weaknesses. I succeeded about a quarter of the time. Many days I wanted to quit, but kept going. It felt good to be part of a group working toward a common goal.

Panic-in-Needle-Park-WinnI had four months to obsess on the Spartan Race. Each time I thought about it, a bolt of fear struck my heart, ricochet down to my stomach, and left me feeling nauseated.

This held true until the morning of the race as my team and I watched young hard-bodied competitors rush through the course while we waited for our 9:30 start time. We’d arrived early to watch Bethany run the competitive race. (We weren’t considered competitors—we were “fun” runners.)

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK FOR PART IIspartan4

Bethany Brewer

bethany8Like all Warrior Princesses, Bethany came from humble beginnings. Growing up, she had little supervision, which allowed her to roam free, picking up habits hardly recommended for a child. As a teenager, she delved into a world of drug and alcohol abuse. On the outside, she was a swaggering party girl. On the inside, her soul was dying.

***

bethany7By the time she was a freshman in high school, she was plagued by a sense that she didn’t fit into this life. She left home, lived with a revolving door of friends, and only went to school a couple of hours a day. In her sophomore year, she transferred to Mendocino, hoping to do better.

She continued to fail.

“Teachers tried, but nobody knew what to do with me. By my senior year, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate unless I hustled. I went to Noyo High from eight to noon, took a journalism class at Fort Bragg High in the afternoon, and went to the adult school at night. I was able to graduate with my age group in 1998.”

bethany9Bethany immediately moved to Medford, Oregon to care for her ailing father and grandparents. “My dad died in October, my grandpa three weeks later, and my grandma in February. They were the last of my family on that side.” Those losses were devastating. She dealt with her grief in the only way she knew—using her inheritance to douse her feelings with alcohol, drugs and cavort with people who mooched off her.

Broke by 21, she returned to Fort Bragg and worked at Laurel Deli. By 24, she was married and moved to Yuma, Arizona. “I was a bartender at an Indian Casino and loved it. I learned how to stand up for and defend myself.” The marriage was tumultuous and broke up after four years. “I lived alone for the first time in my life. I really liked being independent and having responsibilities.”

bethany6In 2010, she learned her maternal grandmother had dementia. Bethany moved back to Fort Bragg to help care for her, and worked again at Laurel Deli. “I continued to party and be irresponsible. I eventually left Grandma’s house and isolated myself from my family. At one point, I lived in my truck for three months. I felt like I had a big hole”—she makes a circle with the fingers of both hands and places it over her heart—“that I tried to fill up with drugs, alcohol, and violence.”

Bethany’s mother had moved to Willits and encouraged her to live with her. “On November 3, 2012, I started detoxing on her couch. I was really sick, but managed to go to a twelve-step meeting every day. Everything seemed less, less, less. Little did I know my life would change to more, more, more.”

bethany5Two weeks later, her friend Amie McGee encouraged her to apply for work at the Mendocino Sports Club. Bethany didn’t feel strong enough to hold a job, and was relieved when it took a month before she was invited for an interview. In January 2013, she moved back to Fort Bragg and started working at the club. A trainer approached her and said, “There’s an athlete inside you and if you want to see her, I’ll train you.”

She worked out with him six days a week for six months. The gym owner gave her a personal trainer’s manual and encouraged her to study for the certification exam. On November 2, 2013, she passed the test.

The Warrior Princess was born.bethany1

Two and a half years later, her business has grown from five clients to 40. She continues to study and receive certifications. “I love the process of learning.”

***

Bethany spends a few hours a week at Noyo High School “just chillin’” with the kids. “By the time kids get to Noyo, a lot of people have given up on them. I want them to know they can be there and be someone of worth.” She shares the story of her stormy teenage years, her recovery, and hands out gym passes. It was through this outreach that she met a teenager who would have a major impact on her life.

“She called one night [in February 2015] to say she’d been locked out of her house. I let her spend the night on my sofa. Before I knew it, I had bunkbeds with Ninja Turtle sheets in my spare bedroom. I became the mother of a 15-year old kid.” The girl had quietly struggled with her gender identity most of her life. “I know what’s it’s like to feel alone,” Bethany said. “When she told me she wanted to dress like a boy, I took her to a thrift shop and bought her clothes.”

kellenWith the support of Bethany, the staff at Noyo, and a tribe of fairy Godmothers, the girl continued her journey, embracing her male identity. Her grades improved and in the fall of 2015, she enrolled in Fort Bragg High. By this time, the girly clothes had been discarded and a masculine name chosen. Life was not without its challenges (imagine being a transgender teen in a small town) but he thrived academically and socially.

It was difficult for Bethany to be an instant mother and tough for the kid to refrain from being a mildly rebellious teen. In January 2016, he moved in with his girlfriend’s family. He and Bethany maintain a close, heartwarming bond.

***

Bethany2The hole that once scarred Bethany’s soul has healed. “I’m so lucky to wake up every morning and spend the day doing what I love. My goal is to help people realize their strength. It’s payback for all that’s been given to me.”

Bethany’s most recent project is training people to participate in Spartan Races. Some, like me, start out believing we aren’t capable of such physical demands. Over time, the Warrior Princess shakes that doubt out, turning it around until, before we know it, we’re crossing the finish line and accepting medals.

Thank you, Warrior Princess for your willingness to grab hold of life, seek challenges and share your experiences. The lives you touch are forever changed for the better.bethany4bethany11

Maureen Leahy Koller—the bookstore & vinyl café

maureen3As a teenager, Maureen was beset by restlessness. She wanted to get out of Fort Bragg, experience the world, and seek adventure. After graduating from high school, she seized the opportunity to go to Venezuela. The problem was that this ticket out of town meant becoming an exchange student—a uniform-wearing Catholic school student.

“It wasn’t the freedom I expected,” she said. “I lived in Valencia, a dangerous city, and couldn’t go anywhere unchaperoned.” (I imagine schoolgirls in two straight lines, ala “Madeline,” under the watchful eyes of a nun as they walk from place to place.)

After that lackluster adventure, she returned to California in 1997, and attended Mills College in Oakland. This wasn’t enough to satisfy her restlessness. “My boyfriend and I wrote the names of cities on scraps of paper and put them in a hat. We pulled out Madison, Wisconsin. At the end of the school year, we packed up and moved.”

In Madison, she started what would become a career in book selling. “I worked for Canterbury Books, a sweet little independent.” After a year, she and the boyfriend split and she “decided to get in my car and drive around the country until I found somewhere to live.” She landed in North Hampton, Massachusetts, taking another bookstore job. “It felt like home. I loved the beauty of the East Coast and all of the culture Northampton manages to smash into one little town. After a while it felt too far away from home and family.”

maureen1In 2002, Maureen moved to the Bay Area where she worked in bookstores in Berkeley. At Half Price Books she meet fellow co-worker Tony Koller, who would eventually become her husband. They enjoyed living in Oakland for nearly a decade. During this time, she returned to Mills and finished a degree in English Literature.

Her love of the Berkeley/Oakland area shifted when she became pregnant. “I could deal with the high crime rate—the muggings and burglaries—but I couldn’t stand the thought of bringing up a child in that environment.” She was drawn back to her place of birth, to the hub of family.

Like Tom and Karl of Re-Find, Maureen and Tony didn’t have a plan for what they would do once they landed in Fort Bragg.

Maureen6Shortly after baby Carolyn was born in late 2010, they learned that Jennifer Wolfman, the owner of a used bookstore on Redwood Avenue, wanted to retire. “She had liquidated inventory, and by the time we bought it, there wasn’t much left. We scouted estate and library sales to build it back up.”

Six months later, they relocated the store to Franklin Street. In May 2016, they moved to their current location on Laurel. “Fifteen volunteers helped us on a Sunday and we were open for business on Monday.”

Tony works for Thanksgiving Coffee during the day, but enjoys late afternoons and Saturdays at the store. “It’s his passion,” Maureen said. “He loves being surrounded by books and touching everything. It’s his time to relax and ‘play.’ He also likes cleaning, which is good because I’m a slob.”

maureen4

Mom, Patty Leahy Carvet, enjoys reading by the sunlit window.

Maureen doesn’t have any employees, but allows selected people to work in exchange for store credit. “After Margot was born [eight months ago], my mother started mysteriously showing up every day. She works on Sundays so Tony and I can have a family day.”

Maureen has been a voracious reader all her life, reading two to three books a week. Owning the bookstore is a perfect fit. “I tend to be autocratic, and like not having to answer to a boss. I can control what comes in and what goes out. There’s a certain amount of pride that comes with owning a store—it reflects who I am.”

Now that she has two children, she doesn’t have time to scout estate and library sales for inventory and must depend upon what people bring to her. “I’m very picky about the condition of what I buy. I feel bad whenever I have to tell someone I won’t take their books because of poor condition or a musty smell. I try to stock the store with the best that can fit into the space I have.”

After Maureen says this, I notice a lack of basement storage room odor that I associate with used bookstores. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee entices people to pour a cup and browse the store.

maureen5Some of her inventory is new, like North Coast guide books and children’s books. She makes special orders for people who don’t have internet access. Her clientele is mostly tourists, many of whom visit year after year. However, a handful of locals visit the store often.

“I came back to Fort Bragg because I no longer cared about living a glamorous life. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a big city. We could buy a house here—something we couldn’t do in Oakland—and be near family.” A bonus was being able to buy the bookstore and make a go of it. “At the time, Kindle was growing in popularity. Because of this, I thought the store would fail after two or three years. But I’ve never experienced a decline in sales—things just keep getting better.”

Maureen’s youthful restlessness is reminiscent of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She left this small town and had her adventures. Substitute the ruby slippers with a new baby, supportive family and a slower pace of life, and you’ll understand how she came to realize “There’s no place like home.”Maureen7

Soul Mate

I guide my grocery cart away from the checkout stand at The Purity. I greet a friend standing at the onion bins. A middle aged woman with dark auburn hair, stylish makeup and a Guatemalan shoulder bag enters the store and collects a cart.

As she passes, she gives me a shining smile and direct eye contact. I smile back, thinking I might know her, but realize I do not. She takes a few steps toward the first aisle before whipping a U-turn and nearly colliding her cart with mine.

She’s excited, like a racehorse anxious to be released from the starting gate. I suspect something interesting is about to happen.

“We were meant to meet,” she says in a conspiratorial tone, her face beaming.

“Really?” I say.

“Yes.” She’s nearly breathless. “I saw you walking your dog yesterday. Then today, my husband drove me to the store and we pulled up next to a car and I saw your dog and I said to him, ‘There’s that woman’s dog! She must be in the store!’ And here you are!”

“Wow.” I feel like a celebrity.

celestine_prophecy_B_ARTWORK.qxd:Layout 1She leans in closer, a little too close. “Have you ever read The Celestine Prophecy?”

I’ve read a lot of stuff over the years. I search my memory banks. “No.”

“It says that if two people continue to encounter one another, they either share a past life or have something in this life they are destined to learn from each other.”

“Wow.”

“Don’t you see? I saw you yesterday and then again today. We were meant to meet.”

No one has ever been so excited to see me. “May I ask your name?”

“Lauren Conroy [not her real name]. I live on the corner of Lincoln and Whipple [not her real address].”

I hold out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”

She shakes my hand. “And what’s your name?”

“Kate.” I deliberately skip my last name and Google Map location.

She looks astonished. “Kate is the name I give when I make orders to go! You know like when you place a sandwich order at a deli counter?”

I nod.

“I give the name Kate!” Her dark brown eyes glisten.

As farfetched as I find this encounter, the fake name for take-out orders doesn’t faze me. For years, my Starbucks name has been Hazel. I receive many compliments on it.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Lauren. Thank you for stopping to introduce yourself.” I walk away, but not before noticing her expression drop into disappointment.

“Hopefully we’ll see each other again,” she calls after me.

I assume she’s a recent transplant. We live in a small town. She hasn’t learned that the chances of repeated people sightings are approximately 99.9%.

Lucy and I will have to start wearing hats and dark glasses on our daily walks.

Despite the potential danger of being stalked, Lucy cannot be talked into wearing a hat and sunglasses.

Tom Butler

Tom tore out of Fort Bragg in 1988, at the age of 17. If anyone had asked if he’d ever move back, he would have said, “Not in a million years!”

I supposed this is an appropriate response from a guy who hated school so much that he spent the first 10 days of his sophomore year at the beach. “I’d ride the bus each morning. The other kids got off and took a right into the school. I veered left and walked away.” When he got caught, he quit Fort Bragg High and enrolled in the alternative school (now known as Noyo High) where he completed the graduation requirements in a little over a year. He wasted no time in heading to Santa Rosa.

tom1

Karl (left) & Tom (right)

Twenty-eight years later, he’s back. He lives with his longtime partner and husband Karl, owns a house, and runs a wildly successful business—Re-Find, which sells high quality used furniture and men’s clothing.

***

After 10 years in Santa Rosa, Tom got disheartened one gloomy January day, went to the internet, and looked up the warmest place in the United States. It was Phoenix. He and Karl spent a week there and liked what they saw—lots of sunshine and a lower cost of living. A year later, they moved.

In Phoenix, Tom held a variety of jobs, mostly in retail. He also sold real estate for a few years and later worked for Wells Fargo as a mortgage underwriter. When he and Karl bought a mid-century ranch house, they decided not to furnish it with their Craftsman-style furniture. They sold everything but a bed and two plastic Adirondack chairs.

The hunt was on to find period pieces to fit their new home. The collection quickly grew larger than they needed, and Tom sold the extras on eBay. He continued to buy and sell, and before long, he and Karl quit their jobs to manage the business fulltime. They enclosed a back patio to hold a growing inventory of sofas, chairs, and tables. They eventually turned their rental house into a warehouse.

By 2004, mid-century furniture became trendy. In 2005, they opened a store—Phoenix Metro Retro. They grew rapidly, moving the store twice and doubling their space each time.

The 2009 recession hit and business slowed dramatically. They relocated to a warehouse and were open only on weekends. “We lowered our prices, and actually made more money because our overhead was less.”

tom3During this time, Tom and Karl had grown weary of the Phoenix heat and discussed their next move. Tom likes big cities, but Karl is partial to small towns, especially Fort Bragg (where they often visited Tom’s family). They both enjoy the ocean and nature. Tom notes that the town has changed since the days of his youth, which helped his decision to move back. “There was a deep divide between us and Mendocino. We were the redneck, working class while Mendocino was the hippy town. That’s not so true anymore. With the influx of new people and businesses, Fort Bragg has a different flavor.”

During a trip to the coast in the summer of 2009, they bought a house on an acre of land (they figured if the economy went bust, they could feed themselves by growing a vegetable garden), sold their Phoenix house and business, and moved.

Looking back, Tom notes the potential folly. “We weren’t sure how we were going to make a living.”  One day, while driving to Mendocino, they stopped at a garage sale at the Prentice Gallery on Highway One. “When I was a kid, this was Hopper’s Market.” They discovered the gallery was leaving that location. They liked the space and thought it would make a great store. “The next day, I called Bud Hopper who said he was planning to convert it to a mini-storage. He rented it to us instead.”

Employee Whitney takes a month off each spring to travel the alpaca shearing circuit.

Employee Whitney takes a month off each spring to travel the alpaca shearing circuit.

Tom designed the logo before he had a name. He liked the idea of the recycling symbol in the shape of a house. His sister Joanie suggested Re-Find.

“We opened with minimal fanfare. I’d missed the deadline for a newspaper ad. As it turned out, we didn’t need one. We sold nearly all our inventory that first weekend.” Two weeks later, Karl quit his job at Suburban Propane to focus on bookkeeping, taxes, payroll, and cleaning furniture as it comes in. They eventually hired three employees.

To keep the store stocked, Tom and Karl make one or two trips a week to the Bay Area. They attend auctions and have a network of contacts who invite them to shop estate sales before they’re open to the public.

“I know what I want in my house, but that’s not necessarily what my customers want. I initially said I’d never put recliners in my store—I think they represent everything that’s wrong with America.” Tom laughs. “After two weeks, the store had recliners. Each year, leading up to the Super Bowl, I stock up, put them out in the parking lot and sell every one.”

tom9Tom loves to shop and loves a deal. This propensity is shared by his loyal customers. Some visit the story daily, many stop by three times a week. On Thursdays—the day new inventory is revealed—people wait outside, clamoring to get in. He takes great delight in offering beautiful items at reasonable prices. “People get joy out of buying something to make their house look nice. They’re proud of their purchases.”

tom4Two years ago, Karl partitioned part of the shop into a men’s used clothing store. “There are few options for men’s clothing on the coast.” Like the furniture business, it’s been a hit.

Tom does what he can to give back to the community. He was on the board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters until the agency left the area. He’d like to join another board, but his busy schedule won’t permit it. He’s generous with fundraisers, donating hundreds of dollars a year in gift certificates.

He describes his return to the coast as awesome. “I was hesitant at first, worried that I’d have to take medication to survive the fog and cold. But my biggest adjustment was having to buy heavy socks to stay warm during that first winter.” Between his business, friends and large extended family, he’s busy and happy.

We’re happy it didn’t take him a million years to come back.

Callie loves to ride in the work truck.

Callie loves to ride in the work truck.