Forging a Path through the Pandemic: Young Pioneers of the Mendocino Coast

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 


Tom Butler & Karl Reese – Re-find Home Furnishings


Karl with his QuaranTom Coif & Tom sporting a fresh KovidKut by Karl (with dog Callie)

A native son, Tom returned to the coast in 2009 with his husband Karl to open Re-Find, a second hand store that sells gently used furniture. You can read my initial interview with him here: The store became an instant success and over the past decade did very well. Today, however, it is suffering along with other local businesses.

Economic hard times are nothing new to these men. While living in Arizona, they experienced the Great Recession of 2008. “This one is different,” Tom says. “It happened overnight. We didn’t know if we’d be shut down for two weeks or two years. How do you make plans for that?”

A week before the shutdown, Tom had hernia surgery. In anticipation, he had purchased enough inventory to last two weeks while he recovered. When they realized his recovery was going to take longer, Karl took their truck to the Bay Area and loaded up another week’s worth of inventory. “As he drove home, the shelter in place orders went into effect.”

“If I’d known it would be the last time we could go out buying,” Karl says, “I would have packed the truck even tighter before heading home.”

Over the following two weeks, they depleted their inventory through private showings while adhering to the protocols of social distancing. With nothing left to sell, their business came to a standstill. The auctions, estate sales and warehouse sales where they source their products are also closed.

While they wait for their sources to reopen, Tom says they’re devising strategies to move forward. “We promote our business through Facebook, but don’t sell online. We might develop a website that will allow us to sell online and offer curbside pickup. This will be in addition to our physical store. At the end of the day, I’m a brick and mortar guy at heart.

“We’ve also used this time to paint the inside of the store and clean the carpets so when we reopen we’ll have a fresh new look.”

Tom is grateful their store serves the local population and isn’t dependent on tourists. However, he acknowledges the pain suffered by those businesses who are dependent upon this trade. “Our coast is a tourist-based economy and now we’re afraid of them. We’re going to have to figure out how to survive with a reduced tourist base. At this point there are far more questions than answers.”

Before the crisis hit, Karl had been working part-time at the hospital and recently went full time. He splits his time between the surgery department and materials management. “This has been a major benefit to our ability to survive,” Tom says.

According to Karl, “I’ve always been grateful that our community’s support of Re-Find provides us with a decent living here on the coast. Upping my game at the hospital is the least I can do to keep us afloat during these times”

As they await their reopening, Tom encourages local people to contact him if they have gently used furniture they’re willing to donate or sell.

“It’s easy to figure out how to sell stuff. Our challenge now is to figure out how to acquire.” In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, Tom says, “If our old channels of acquiring inventory don’t work out, we’ll find new ones. We’re going to roll with whatever happens.”

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 suppose 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.


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.