Josh Morsell

Josh3When Josh’s girlfriend Lia Wilson told me what he does for a living, I simply had to meet him.

He happens to be . . . are you ready . . . ?

A private investigator!

As in Magnum PI—only in his case it’s Morsell PI.

For the past five years, Josh has done his PI work through the San Francisco office of the Mintz Group, a New York-based firm with offices around the world. In April 2016, he chose to return to the Mendocino Coast and work for the Mintz Group remotely. “I feel like I’m part of a group of people who grew up here and seem tied to this area by a rubber band. We go far away into the world and come back to bring energy to the place we love.”

Josh graduated from Mendocino Community High School in 1994 and went to Brown University in Rhode Island where he majored in Art and Semiotics (I had to ask him how to spell this). “Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and is really a combination of critical theory, art history, media studies and philosophy, directed toward understanding how meaning is produced in a society. Half my major was making art—experimental video and film—and the other half was exploring how art functions in cultures.” He grew up without a television and wanted to explore a medium he was unfamiliar with in a part of the country he was unfamiliar with. “I wanted a challenge.”

After college ended in 1998, he and longtime friend John Bacon took to the road to find a place to live. “We drove up the coast to Seattle and then to Montana. We turned around and settled in Seattle. It was during the summer and the weather was gorgeous and beguiling. Then, our first winter, it rained 93 straight days.” They established a collective, a house where residents not only shared the rent and utilities, but also the domestic chores. “People took turns cooking dinner and we’d all sit down and share the meal.”

Josh1Josh worked three part-time internships. He monitored the news and developed press kits for Environmental Media Services, a non-profit environmental public relations firm. He worked for filmmaker John de Graaf in coordinating the first Equinox Environmental Film Festival (later named for Hazel Wolf), soliciting in-kind donations and arranging other details. At Grist Magazine, which was just launching for the first time, he recruited cartoonists. Then he took a full-time job as an environmental organizer with Save Our Wild Salmon, advocating for the removal of the Snake River dams.

The dismal Seattle weather took its toll and he left in January 2000 to travel with friends for three months through Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. He returned to Mendocino in the spring. He planned to stay a short time and work to save money to travel. He ended up staying three years.

“It was really lively in Mendocino. A lot of my friends were living here at that time. It was boisterous and fun.”

Josh learned web design from Tai Leventhal and helped people design websites. He also worked for the filmmaker Oleg Harencar, who had formerly run the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) video program. He helped Harencar make the feature film Bloodlines.

“I had a good time in Mendocino, but by 2004 I needed to expand my horizons.” He moved to the Bay Area where he worked as a researcher and paralegal for Dennis Cunningham, a civil rights attorney who specialized in police misconduct cases. “Dennis was like a superhero—he could bring these righteous cases against very long odds and win.”

Josh loved this job. “It was exciting and interesting. I felt I was helping a vulnerable population. We brought pressure to help the law enforcement system to function better, to be more humane.”

Josh also assisted Cunningham with the case of Judi Bari—an environmental activist from Mendocino County whose car was blown up by a pipe bomb (with her in it). She was accused by the FBI of transporting explosives. Bari hired Cunningham to file a federal civil rights suit claiming the FBI and police officers falsely arrested her and partner Darryl Cherney and attempted to frame them as terrorists. “By the time this went to trial,” he said, “I was writing a book about the case.” He has worked hard on the book ever since, and today has an agent who is shopping the book for publication.

In 2008, Josh enrolled in an MFA Creative Non-Fiction program at the University of Minneapolis Twin Cities. He chose the program because of the quality of the instructors, the length (three years as opposed to two), and receipt of full funding. He loved the writing community he found there, and he enjoyed Minneapolis despite the extreme winter weather. “It’s a very livable city, but I always knew I’d come back to Northern California.”

Josh2In August 2011, he moved to Berkeley and became a private investigator with the Mintz Group, a multinational firm. A friend referred him, but he got the job because of his law office and writing experience. “We conduct a variety of investigations, none having to do with cheating spouses.” He laughs. “We focus mainly on three areas: due diligence, including extensive background checks on candidates for high level corporate jobs, and background checks prior to business deals; disputes, which means uncovering whatever it is lawyers need to know for a given lawsuit; and anticorruption. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it is illegal for American companies to pay bribes to win job bids in foreign countries. Sometimes companies will contact us to investigate the practices of their employees abroad. We have offices in Asia, Latin America and Africa, as well as the U.S., Canada and London.”

Josh says, “I like that my job allows me to learn about the world each day.” He feels fortunate to be able to do the job from Fort Bragg. “There’s so much pressure in the Bay Area. I started to feel discontented—like a frog in a pot of water that was slowly rising to a boiling point. Living here is much more affordable. I’m close to family and friends. Instead of spending an hour on BART after work, I can go to the beach or plant a garden.”

Josh sees himself and Lia as the start of a movement of people who, given the opportunity to work remotely, will leave big cities in favor of living in our coastal area. “As high-speed internet becomes more accessible in Mendocino County, people will bring big city incomes with them. Remote workers can be one piece of an experiment to bring prosperity to our entire community in the new economy. We need to plan for smart growth. We have wonderful potential here—the combination of wild remoteness with the ability to build the infrastructure of the future.”

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Kerry Hagan

kerryAs a teenager, Kerry devoured Vogue magazine. “Fashion is an art form—not just something to cover your body with,” she said. “From runway couture to black yoga pants, it gives you an opportunity to express your inner self in ways large and small, obvious and subtle.”

Growing up, she loved to dress in quirky outfits and experiment with outrageous hairdos. Her parents were tolerant. “My mom’s only rule was that my hair be dyed a single color for school photos and whenever we visited grandma,” Kerry said with a hearty laugh. “I was labeled a weirdo in high school because of the way I dressed. I hated it here and couldn’t wait to get out.”

kerry2Because of her deep love of fashion, it makes sense that Kerry would eventually own a clothing store. But first she would graduate from high school and tear out of town to travel the country before returning to hold two to three jobs at the same time in order to make a living.

After graduating in 1995, she moved to Seattle and attended an art institute for a couple of years before deciding to take several months off to go “road tripping” with a friend. They traveled through the Southwest and Texas to land in their ultimate destination: New Orleans. “We stayed for a month in a kind of flophouse over a dive bar. The plan was to stay longer, but the living conditions were pretty bleak. It was very tragic, dirty and old-timey—and I suppose very romantic to a 21 year old.” She laughs at the memory.

They moved on to Florida, then headed back west via the upper Midwest and Montana. “We stopped again in Seattle and I really wanted to stay, but I was broke and decided to return to Fort Bragg where I’d work for a while, save some money and move away for good.”

In 1999, Kerry moved to Marin where she worked for a florist. A couple of months later, her grandmother’s health deteriorated and she returned to Fort Bragg to take care of her for the next two years. Since that time, she has been an assistant for two business professionals, a clerk and manager of Tangents, a short order breakfast cook at Dolphin Isle, a wait person at Piaci Pizza, and a clerk at Mendocino Vintage. She also scoured yard sales and sold some of her bounty on eBay. She often did two or more of these jobs at the same time.

“As the manager of Tangents, I learned how buy for the store. I went to trade shows and the garment industry in Los Angeles. It was a very busy store and I loved working there.”

kerry5In 2011, Hilary White asked her to work one day a week at If the Shoe Fits—a consignment clothing shop on Franklin Street. “A year later, Hilary took me to dinner and said she was buying Understuff. She added, ‘I want you to buy If the Shoe Fits.’

“It made perfect sense. Hilary didn’t want to see the store close and I didn’t want to go back to restaurant work.” In October 2012, she bought the store. “I really like clothes. I find the rotations and cycles of fashion interesting and fun. I call myself a clothing hunter-gatherer.” She lets out a hearty laugh. “The back room is filled with vintage clothing I’ve collected over the years.”

The store has evolved into a balance of new and consignment clothing. Her customers are fairly evenly divided between locals and tourists. “Even though the store has been here 10 years, I get at least one person every week or two who walks in and says she didn’t know I was here.” She laughs and rolls her eyes.

Kerry has a demonstrated ability to work hard and be successful. She and her partner Dave Simons have joined forces with others to develop Overtime Brewing, a brewery kerry3and taproom with food currently under construction on Elm Street (north of town near the old bowling alley). They hope to open in early summer 2017. When that happens, she’ll work three to four evenings a week in addition to running her store. When I marvel at her ambition, she says, “I’ve never been afraid of having multiple jobs.”

Kerry acknowledges that Fort Bragg has changed in many ways over the years. “One thing that remains the same is that it’s still economically depressed. I’ve attended City Council and Planning Commission meetings over the past year. I’ve learned that I’m woefully uninformed, as are most people. I want to stay involved and help our city. City officials are doing all they can to improve things. It’s not as fast as some people would like, but change takes time.

“I’d like to see us embrace our quirkiness, our small town-ness. It would be great to have more music and art festivals. I’d love to organize a fashion show on First Fridays and help someone put on a Mermaid Parade like the one they do in Brooklyn.”

In the meantime, Kerry will continue to add to our local economy by bringing affordable fashion to the people of Fort Bragg and adding a hip new place for them to enjoy a brewski, good food, live music, and her generous good humor.

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Laura Lee Celeri

laura5I met Laura Lee 24 years ago when she was 19 years old. I was captivated by her name—one that seems suited to a line of specialty dairy products—perhaps yogurts and cheeses—some type of creamery to reflect her wholesome sweetness. From our very first meeting, I could tell she is a person who leads from the heart.

Similar to my previous interviewees, Laura grew up here, but unlike them she never had the urge to leave. “I’m a small town kid and love it here.”

Our friendship grew along with my son’s obsession with shoes. Laura had recently graduated from high school and worked at Feet First on Main Street. By the age of seven Harrison was a dedicated Nike fan who could spend upwards of a half hour at that store examining the sports shoe inventory.

Whenever a Nike catalog came out, Laura would bring it from the back room. “Look what I have,” she’d say with a delighted grin. Harrison would stretch his arms towards her, hands trembling like a knight being gifted the Holy Grail. With the catalog in his possession, he’d stumble into a chair, savoring each page as if it contained a piece of the puzzle to the meaning of life. Laura stood aside, basking in the joy she bestowed upon him.

I silently groaned, knowing this meant at least an hour in the store. Laura would often encourage me to leave him while I ran a few errands.

Since then, Laura has married, had a son (who will graduate from high school this spring), and in 2007 purchased Feet First.

laura1Laura is sometimes astonished that she’s worked at Feet First for over 20 years. “It’s given me a chance to build cherished friendships. I’ve met a lot of people in our community and returning visitors. One of my favorite parts is watching the kids grow up. There are kids I’ve known since I helped tie their shoes who now bring their own children into the store.”

laura4Like most businesses, Feet First has changed over the years. “I remember when athletic shoes were mostly white with a little color pop. Now it’s all about the colors. Right now, leisure shoes are taking on a look inspired by athletic shoes. When the [Georgia Pacific] mill was open, work boot sales were steady. We still sell them, but hiking boots are more popular among men.”

The growth of internet shopping has affected Feet First, but hasn’t caused a major decline in sales. “I would like to think our personal, friendly service keeps customers coming back. People tend to want to try on shoes before buying. The other day a customer said, ‘I can’t remember the last time a salesperson brought shoes out for me.’ We often have tourists come in and each member of the family will find a shoe they like. You don’t find that in cities where stores tend to focus on a particular customer like women’s shoes or athletic shoes.”

Central to Laura’s life is sharing. She adores her husband and son and spends as much time with them as possible. She also loves cooking and posting recipes on Facebook. “For the longest time, I’d only share the healthy stuff, but I realized sometimes I don’t want to eat that. Sometimes I want to have cheese stuffed bacon burgers and share that with others.”

laura3Recently, she’s started calling friends and arranging gatherings. “You know how it is when you run into people and say ‘We have to get together soon’ and you never do? Well, I’m telling people, ‘Now’s the time.’ When the weather improves, I’m going to invite people to bonfires at the beach after work.”

Laura makes a conscious effort to create a good, satisfying life for herself and her family. She’s decided to make this the best year yet. “I’m adding healthier changes to my routine, like walking on my treadmill a half hour each day. A few weeks ago, I didn’t feel like doing it. When I got into bed that night, I felt guilty, got up and did it.

“I’ve stopped worrying about my weight—it’s just a number; it doesn’t define me. As a result, I’m enjoying life more. It’s not about what I don’t have, it’s about what I do I have. What do I want to keep? What do I want to get rid of?”

Helping her with this process is “Fly Lady,” an online program that offers tips on how to organize your home. Laura lights up with excitement when talking about this. “Fly Lady helps me realize I can do a little bit every day to organize my life and feel in control. For example, when I recently cleaned out a drawer in my bathroom, I found a bunch of lotion samples. Why was I keeping these when I never used them? Since then I’ve become a daily user of lotions.”

When asked why she’s making these changes now, she said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m 43. I love my life, but know I can do things to enjoy it more.”

Laura and Don work six days a week and make the most of their Sundays off. “We sometimes do short trips, but otherwise spend time with friends and family. We don’t mind only taking one day off each week because we feel our business and customers are part of our family, and we don’t feel the need to get away from them.”

Laura hopes Fort Bragg will continue to encourage and embrace tourism. “I’m proud that tourists choose my hometown as a place to celebrate a special event—to get engaged, married, go on a honeymoon, or take their family vacation.

“I love living here and love my customers. I hope Don and I are able to be part of our downtown business community for many years to come.”

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Son Justin was a member of the Timber Wolves championship team.

Justine Lemos

justine1I sat down with Justine Lemos, owner of at One yOga, intending to talk about how she returned home to open a sweet little yoga studio in Fort Bragg. I quickly learned that the studio is merely one of her many pursuits. As she described her involvement in academia, classical Indian dance, and explained such exotic terms as Ayurveda and Jyotish, I found myself mesmerized by her intelligence and drive.

Twenty-one years ago, this fifth-generation Mendocino native ventured into the world to garner a wealth of knowledge. Eventually, a twist of fate brought her home to share what she’d learned.

Justine was Valedictorian of her 1995 class. Along the way, she became an accomplished ballet artist, which led to a curiosity about the relationship between dance and ritual. She found Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts to be a place that would nurture this study.

“Hampshire College allows students to create their own majors, more along the lines of a graduate program. I met my Indian classical dance Guru Ranjanaa Devi there and continue to work with her.”

During her first year of college, Justine met future husband Grady Gauthier. After graduating in 1999, they stayed in Amherst and she worked at the Asian Art and Culture Program at the University of Massachusetts. Two years later, no longer able to tolerate the harsh winters and feeling the need for more education, she was accepted into a Master’s program in Dance Studies at Mills College in Oakland.

justine4Justine was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in 2003 which allowed her and Grady to live in India for 10 months while she researched ancient forms of Indian dance. “We lived in remote village in the southwestern part of the country. In order to buy anything refrigerated, we had to travel an hour and a half by local bus.”

Despite the hardships, they loved it. “Grady met a young man who wanted to learn English. In India, children either go to English school or local language school. The former get white collar jobs, the latter blue collar jobs. As a result of Grady’s teaching, Shaheem established the ‘Speak Up Speak Out Academy of English’ and has become very successful.”

After the Fulbright ended, Justine entered the doctoral program in Cultural Anthropology at UC Riverside, and Grady started law school at Whittier College. Her focus was Dance Ethnography, specifically with an emphasis on embodiment in South Asian dance. In 2008, an Institute of India Studies grant paid for both of them to live in India for a year while Justine did research for her dissertation. They returned to Southern California in 2009. She started writing her dissertation and Grady began his last year of law school. During that time, she became pregnant.

“I gave birth to our son Ravel two weeks after I passed my oral exams. Grady had one more year of law school. When Ravel was two weeks old, I strapped him on me and stood in the front of a lecture hall filled with undergraduate students. I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, and World Dance and Cultures.”

Grady worked as a paralegal. When he finished law school and passed the bar, he couldn’t find a job. “This was in 2010, during the economic fallout. No firms were hiring. I had a baby and couldn’t go back on the fulltime job market. I suggested we move to Mendocino temporarily. We could rent a small house on my parents’ property and aggressively apply for jobs.”

justine5Justine taught online classes—Cultural Anthropology, World Dance, Linguistic Anthropology, Anthropology of Art—through colleges in Southern California. She often worked on her laptop at The Company Store. When the flower shop in the building went of business, she thought, “That should be a yoga studio.”

In 2011, with a modest loan from her parents, Justine opened at One yOga. “In yogic subtle anatomy there are two main energy channels termed the ida and pingala—or ‘ha’ and ‘tha’—which are represented by the sun and the moon. We decided to use the two big Os to reflect this yogic principle.”

Grady started an immigration law practice in the back of the yoga studio. “I spent two years working all the time, with very small classes, before the business took off. Today, about 200 students a week pass through the studio. Grady’s business grew to the point where he needed a bigger office, which he found behind Taka’s Grill on Main Street. He’s the only immigration lawyer in Mendocino, Humboldt and Lake Counties.”

The growth of at One yOga allowed Justine to hire instructors to offer more classes. She’s been able to branch out into areas of related interest, such as Ayurveda and Jyotish, private yoga classes, and heart-based meditation. She continues to teach Cultural Anthropology online and write articles in academic journals.

justine3Justine has mixed feelings about being back home. “I was gone for fifteen years and never thought I’d return. But I compared everywhere I lived to here and those places always came up short.” She feels limited career-wise, but grateful to be able to raise her son near her parents. “I had a special relationship with my grandparents, and I’m happy Ravel is having the same experience.”

Justine does, of course, see changes to the Mendocino community. “When I grew up, I knew nearly every person in town. It’s now less a town and more a tourist destination. The people who bought my grandparent’s house live elsewhere and use it as a vacation home.”

On the other hand, Justine sees Fort Bragg at an exciting juncture. “There’s a lot of socioeconomic friction going on. The town doesn’t know what it wants to be. Mendocino is set—it’s a tourist town. What is Fort Bragg? Will we turn it over to corporations or will it be like Healdsburg and Sebastopol, which celebrate local businesses?”

Justine’s business is not tourist dependent. “I found something that fits a local need. I’ve created a community of students who love me and I love them.”

***

For more information on Justine, visit these websites:

at1yoga.com

mendoveda.com

justinelemos.com

natarajdancers.org

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Chicken Soup for My Soul

A year ago, my daughter Jenn suggested I submit a few of my blog posts to Chicken Soup for the Soul. I went to their website and found that they accepted entries in various categories. Without much hope, I submitted three stories about my dog Lucy.

In January, I must have also submitted the post, “The Spirit of Giving,” but truly don’t remember. I blame my lack of memory on the fact that I have a lot going on in January. First of all, I loathe the month: it’s dark, cold, and responsible for the death of the holiday season, which starts with Halloween and ends on New Year’s Day. Second, I’m extremely busy with my day job. The energy it takes to not hate January while fighting melancholy and working long hours leaves me little spare brain power.

Months went by. Spring miraculously returned to the Northern Hemisphere and morphed into summer. Life eased up and my January bitterness disappeared. In late July, I started receiving unsolicited emails from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Ah ha! So that’s the deal. You submit something to this outfit and they put you on their junk mail list. Well I have a delete button and know how to use it. I deleted the email without reading it. A day or so later, I receive another. Delete! I wasn’t about to fall for their devious ploy.

A week later, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the caller ID number and didn’t answer it. An hour or so went by and I retrieved my messages.

“This is D’ette Corona from Chicken Soup for the Soul. I’ve been trying to reach you through email. A piece you submitted is a finalist for our Christmas edition.”

I now know what it feels like to be hit with a stun gun.

I called D’ette back and confessed my stupid assumptions. She was sweet and understanding. “When people don’t respond to emails, I always call.”

After I filled out the form, mailed it, and my blood pressure returned to normal, I re-read her email. I was considered a finalist, not a shoe-in. Oh well. I braced myself against disappointment.

A few weeks later, I received notice that “The Spirit of Giving” had been chosen for publication. I would receive $200 plus ten free copies. I had to review and approve their edited version where they took some liberties and changed the title, but hey this is Chicken Soup for the Soul! They sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Rewrite everything for all I care.chickensoup

I was given the chance to buy 20 more books at cost and of course I took it.

On the fourth of October, I opened the front door to let the cat in and found a large box on the porch. Inside were—yes, you know—copies of the book. I flipped through to find my piece listed as number four out of 101 entries. I read it aloud to my husband Gary who was nearly as thrilled as I was.

I now have 30 copies of a book I never thought I’d be published in, from an offer I dismissed as junk mail. I will give them away, then sit back and wait for the requests for movie rights to start pouring in, hopefully in that darkest of months—January.

Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tour

gwinnThis past Friday, my son Harrison, daughter-in-law Kasi and I went on the Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tour. The inn was built in 1915 as the town’s hospital, retains some of the old time hospital ambiance—wide doorways to accommodate gurneys and steep ramps where staircases might otherwise be—and is rumored to have ghostly visitors.

At the suggestion of daughter Jenn (who lives in the Seattle area), I downloaded an app called Ghost Radar on my phone.

gwinn2Our guide Marnie was delightful, dressed in Victorian garb with her hair pulled up in the fashion of the era. She had not heard of Ghost Radar but was happy to let me run it during the visit.

I’m not going to reveal any spoilers—you need to take the tour yourself and learn about the history of this remarkable building—but I will share a bit of our experience.

About a half hour in, while on the second floor, a young blonde boy appeared from around a corner. It was a scene straight out of “The Shining.” He looked about eight years old, and stood stick straight and mute. Marnie smiled, and asked, “Would you like to join us?”

He said, “Yes, but I need to ask my mom,” and disappeared behind the corner.

A few minutes later, the boy, his mother and slightly older sister caught up with us. Marnie cautioned that if anyone became scared and wanted to leave, they could. As we walked along the hallway, the boy stuck his index fingers in his ears and intermittently squeezed his eyes shut. His mother chuckled. His sister rolled her eyes. Marnie asked if he wanted to leave the tour. Fingers still in ears, he shook his head.

Ten minutes later, he’d had enough. His mom allowed her daughter to stay with us and escorted the boy away. Marnie asked the girl her name.

“Hazel,” she said.

“Hazel!” I said. “Whenever I’m asked my name at Starbucks, I say Hazel.” The girl humored me with a giggle.

The tour continued for several minutes before the boy and his mother reappeared. As frightened as he was, he couldn’t seem to help himself—stories of the inn drew him back. He remained until the end and smiled with relief. We congratulated him on being so brave.

Ghost Radar picked up a number of spirits sprinkled throughout the building, making the experience both satisfying and creepy.

Grey Whale Inn Haunted Tours are available through Halloween: Thursday-Saturday 12:00, 2:00, 4:00 and 6:00pm; Sundays 1:00 and 3:00 and 5:00pm. To reserve a spot, send an email to stay@greywhaleinn.com or call 707-964-0640.

I promise you’ll enjoy it.gwinn6

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.

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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.”

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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