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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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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Stevie Drake-Scudder

stevie2Roundman’s Smoke House (motto: “We’ll Smoke Anything”) is the highlight of my weekly shopping routine. The aroma of wood smoke evokes the feel of autumn when fallen tree branches and leaves are raked into piles and reduced to ash before the winter rains. The store is packed with an array of smoked meats, cheeses, all-natural meats, and best of all, their fabulous bacon. (When my son left for college 12 years ago, he claimed the only thing he’d miss about Fort Bragg was Roundman’s bacon.) The employees are friendly, helpful and have great senses of humor. I always enter and leave the shop with a smile.

Roundman’s has been part of Stevie’s life since her father Steve Scudder became co-owner with Steve Rasmussen in 1995. It employed her during high school, college, and in lean times during her film production and massage therapy careers.

stevie4Stevie has lived in Portland, San Francisco, and Vermont. The bonds of family, friends, and the beauty of the Mendocino Coast (along with the family business) have brought her home time and time again.

She was raised on a “commune” in Albion—a collection of her dad and his friends who bought land in the seventies and built houses where they still live nearly forty years later. Throughout her childhood, her parents said, “You can do anything you want, you just gotta do it.”

She worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to Pacific University outside of Portland, Oregon. “It was just far enough away that my parents couldn’t pop in for a weekend visit.” She laughs.

Her dream to become a doctor was squelched when she struggled through organic chemistry and calculus. “In my senior year in high school, I was told I had dyslexia. It’s no wonder I had problems with those courses.” She discovered a love of photography and film. A professor convinced her to major in film production.

With her lovable three-legged dog Sailor.

“After graduation in 2001, I worked as a film editor in Portland for six months before moving to the Bay Area.” She worked for post-production houses in San Francisco before landing a job in the equipment department at the Academy of Arts College. “One of the perks of that job was free use of the film equipment. I worked with others to make short, silly pieces and low budget features. It was a great time, but eventually the combination of the job, film making and the go-go-go of city life stressed me out. I was raised to be more chill. After seven years, I knew it wasn’t for me in the long term, forever way of thinking.

“I did a one-eighty and enrolled in massage therapy school. When I was a kid, I don’t remember going to a doctor very often. Instead, my parents took me to Faith Graham, a gifted, spiritual massage therapist. She was my inspiration.”

Stevie returned to the Mendocino Coast in 2007, worked a bit with Faith and at Roundman’s while building her own massage practice.

stevie6A few years later, she met boyfriend James Todd. “He was born in Mendocino on July 4, 1979. Many people remember the date because it was the only year his parents weren’t at the parade.” When he was two, his family moved to Vermont.

“A friend from high school Josh Tsujimara moved to Vermont and happened to meet James. In 2009, James decided to explore his birthplace (he had not been back since he was a toddler). James wandered into the Tip Top and there was Josh working as a bartender.” A short time later, Josh introduced Stevie to James.

By 2011, James missed his hometown of Middlebury, Vermont, and Stevie agreed to move. “The small town feel is similar to here, but there’s no ocean and the weather can be harsh.” She worked as a massage therapist and an assistant manager at a natural food co-op. “The cost of living was high, but the wages were low. We both had to work two jobs to make ends meet. In August 2014, the family business called us home. After 20 years, Ma was retiring and it was time to come back.

“It was an adjustment. I wondered: What am I doing here? What’s my role? Everyone fully embraced us. I realized how much a part of me this business is—it’s truly my family.”

Her dad still works 12-hour days, James is a butcher, and two friends from Vermont were recently hired. “Roundman’s has an amazing crew, provides a livable wage, and treats everyone like family. We’ve grown from four employees to seventeen. We encourage everyone to create their own flavors—like Jasper’s Famous Bacon Sticks and Jessie’s Famous Corned Beef Bangers—and continue to learn about flavor profiles from our younger employees.”

stevie5What Stevie loves most about her job is working with her dad Steve. “He’s the best man I know. He and Steve Rasmussen found this little gem at the right time in their lives and at the right time for the coast. They’ve created an environment where everyone supports each other and plays on their strengths.”

What she likes least: “Meat is a male dominated business. I sometimes feel a lack of respect from customers who insist on getting their questions answered by one of the guys. I know as much as the guys about most things meat. When I don’t, I ask.”

As the Owner In Training (or OIT as Steve Rasmussen calls her), Stevie carries a lot of responsibility for running the business and has a hard time turning her brain off. A year after her return, she started dabbling in massage again, mostly with friends and family, on a very part-time basis. “I realized how much I missed it. Body work allows me to do something I love while helping people. I feel the same way about bacon.” She laughs.

Stevie imagines a bright future as co-owner of Roundman’s. “The coast has grown and there are a lot of people I don’t know, but nothing compares to waking up to the beauty of our surroundings. I hope the area doesn’t grow too big, that we stay rooted in the small town feel, to honor the way of life that brought a lot of us back.”

Stevie is happy to have returned to the loving arms of family, friends, coworkers, supportive customers, and fellow business owners. She envisions continuing to sign her Roundman’s emails for years to come: “Stevie and the Steves.”

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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.”

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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

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.”

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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

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.

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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.

Brittney Tuomala Harris

brittney4The first time I walked into A Sweet Affair, I clutched my chest and swooned. It’s like entering an art gallery, each pastry crafted by a master. You hesitate to destroy the creation, but after the first bite, you learn that the visual is only part of the divine feast. Hopefully, you’re sitting down because as you eat you will drift into semi-conscious nirvana.

***

In fourth grade at Dana Gray Elementary, Brittney’s research for a report on the human heart influenced her decision to become a cardiovascular surgeon. By fifth grade, she developed a chronic childhood illness that caused her to spend nearly a decade in and out of hospitals. “The thought of working in one for the rest of my life sickened me.”

By high school, she struggled with where to go to college. “I had a hard time justifying going to a standard four year school. What was I supposed to major in?”

Her decision to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, was prompted by years spent in the kitchen baking with her mother. “As kids, my sister and I had a business called ‘The Sisters Cookie Company’ where we would sit outside our house and sell homemade cookies.”

brittney8By December 2010, she had an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management. Her future husband Beau also attended the school, but majored in Culinary. They met while working at the same restaurant.

Beau graduated in 2009 and took a chef’s job in New York City. On weekends, Brittney commuted from Hyde Park to work as a server at Brasserie 8 1/2. “In a few short months, I moved to the back of the house as a pastry cook. Immediately, the executive chef went on vacation. She left me in charge during New York Restaurant Week. I worked over 160 hours during the two weeks she was gone.”

brittney6In June, Brittney discovered she was pregnant. Her executive chef quit in July, and she ran the kitchen until two weeks before son Avery was born in January 2012. She left on maternity leave and never went back.

Life in New York City was exciting, but expensive. Beau worked long hours to support the family. Brittney longed to return to California where she’s a fifth generation Fort Bragg native. In the spring of 2012, Beau was hired by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello to work at Bottega in Yountville.

“I worked for Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bakery as a pastry commis [a fancy French term for cook].” But the prestige of the job was in name only. “I was like a robot, making the same stuff every day. When chefs work in a restaurant, they want to learn new techniques. I learned nothing there.”

Nine months later, they moved to San Francisco to help Chiarello open Coqueta. They were building remarkable resumes, but their lives were consumed by work. Each morning, Brittney took public transportation from Alameda to start her 7:00 shift. In the afternoon, Beau put Avery in the car and drove into the city for his evening shift. At 3:00, he’d get out of the car and Brittney would get in to drive home. “The restaurant is only a couple of blocks from the Bay Bridge but during Giants baseball season, it could take two hours to travel that distance.”

For eight months, they struggled through this schedule and the high cost of living in the Bay Area before deciding to move to Fort Bragg where they could be near her family. Beau was hired by the Heritage House in Little River and Brittney started a home business where—in between keeping up with a toddler—she baked and sold cakes, pastries, and handmade chocolates.

brittney7In July 2014, she opened A Sweet Affair. “I love being my own boss, making whatever my heart desires, and creating specialty orders.” By August, she was pregnant. In April 2015, she gave birth to another son, Addison.

Brittney works insane hours to balance family with running a business. She possesses the face of a Renaissance beauty, a surface serenity that belies her underlying stress.

Time is a precious commodity and Brittney has little to spare. The morning of our interview, she answered questions while putting together a batch of French macarons. I marveled at the confident way she folded Oreo crumbs with buttercream, scooped it into a pastry bag, squeezed a dollop onto several dozen cookie halves, and topped each with a matching half.

Her shop is open 10:00-4:00 Thursday through Sunday, but she spends the early morning hours—often starting at 4:00—either baking or doing paperwork. Monday is her only day off. Her husband has Tuesday and Wednesday off, which allows her to work from early morning until noon to stock the bakery. Those afternoons are spent together as a family. During holiday seasons, she works seven days a week, often 14 hours a day.

brittney5Her grandparents watch her boys two days a week. Mother Ronda staffs the counter at the bakery on the weekends and helps at charity functions. Brittney’s macarons are a favorite among food stations at Winesong, Mendocino Film Festival, Art in the Gardens, and other venues. She estimates she donates about $4,000 a year to these events.

Brittney is passionate about her craft. “I love making beautiful, edible art—to make people happy with dessert. A cake can be the center of someone’s celebration—birthday, wedding, or baby shower. Desserts can create a great memory. I want to be a part of that memory. When I see someone’s face light up at the sight or taste of something I made, it makes all my hard work, sleepless nights, blood, sweat and tears worth it.”

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Brittney created these cakes to help Chriss Zaida celebrate her store’s anniversary and relocation.

Brittney is encouraged by the network of small business owners who support one another. She hopes this support system will inspire others to open businesses. “There are a lot of empty storefronts downtown. This can discourage tourists from coming back. Understandably, a lot of locals can’t afford the high quality items we sell. We depend upon tourists to survive.”

Like many before her, Brittney couldn’t wait to graduate and get far away from this small town. She ventured into the world, gathered what it had to offer, and brought back the gems to a place the years away had taught her to love.

A Brittney creation made this guy happy to turn 30.

A Brittney creation made this guy happy to turn 30.