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

Advertisements

Welcome Wagon

If I worked for the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce, I’d start a Welcome Wagon. I would design and deliver gift baskets to new residents. Mine wouldn’t be your run of the mill, welcome to our wonderful community, isn’t it beautiful, have a pizza on me type of basket. When someone decides to move here, they already know it’s a great place. My baskets would feature some of the more quirky aspects of our small town.

Let’s say you’ve moved to Fort Bragg. We’ll sit at your kitchen table drinking lattes from the Mendocino Cookie Company and start with the least controversial of topics—global warming. The weather along our coast is fickle. Some whiners complain it’s too windy or rainy or foggy. What sissies. They should not be allowed an opinion until after they’ve spent a winter in the Midwest. In the past few years, the effects of climate change have benefited our area, ushering in increasingly warm, sunny days. This makes it hard to remain a hater of greenhouse gases. To keep you focused, I’ll give you this bumper sticker:

The basket will include a copy of page 31 of the California Driver Handbook which specifies the right of way laws at four-way stops. On second thought, scratch that. Those laws are useless in Fort Bragg. Instead, I’ll add a flashcard printed with the rules of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors. This is how right of way is determined in our town.

If you find yourself at the corner of Franklin and Chestnut (an intersection complicated by left-hand turn lanes), you’ll know it’s your turn to move after you’ve been honked at twice, flipped off once, and rear ended.

DSC02395The highlight of the basket will be my patented Taaka Vodka/M&M candy gift (made for less than ten dollars). As you open the Taaka to take a slug and toss back a couple of M&M’s, I’ll caution that this is a great place to live if you don’t have anything to hide. Similar to high school, gossip is a popular form of spreading “news” in our town.

I’ll tempt you to reveal your secrets by claiming I was once a roadie for Van Halen. If your story isn’t equally as entertaining, I’ll stir in a few spicy details before passing it around. You’ll become an instant celebrity.

Your basket will also contain a coupon for a free Gird Your Loins class at the Mendocino Sports Club. You can cash this in after you’ve made the mistake of opening your mouth to express an opinion and need to learn how to defend yourself from attack. We are a passionate and polarized community when it comes to such issues as the Dollar Tree Store or Taco Bell. Dare to take a side and you will be pummeled by the opposition.

tacobellWhen The Fort Bragg Advocate News asked for comments on their Facebook page regarding the future building of a Taco Bell, one woman innocently posted: “Yuck! We don’t live here, but plan to someday. One of the reasons we love Ft. Bragg is because of so few corporate chains.”

Poor, naive thing—she knew not what she started. The cannonballs fired immediately:

“Ft. Bragg doesn’t need you here.”

“Interesting that most of the ‘anti establishment’ nut jobs are not the people born in Fort Bragg but those who are transplants.”

“There’s enough of these lunatics ruining the town, they don’t need more.”

Her response: “Why are you all being jerks just because I expressed an OPINION?”

One of the greatest gifts of living here is the lack of suburbs. It’s difficult to remain a snob when you can’t huddle within your own socio-economic class.

More than twenty years ago, I took my first trip to The Purity. I stood in line with a man who had a wire coat hanger fashioned as an antennae around his head. He clutched a plastic gallon jug, half filled with red juice, to his chest and spoke lovingly to the box of doughnuts he was purchasing. I avoided going to that store for several months until I learned that trips to Safeway or Harvest put me in line with similar folks.

Like me, you’ll learn to accept people for who they are—not for the status they hold. As a result, you’ll have friends from all walks of life—from the intellectual to the illiterate, the wealthy to the poor, elderly to youngsters. Since this gift is far too large to fit into a basket, I’ll substitute a candy bar purchased to support Little League, a $25 gift certificate from Triangle Tattoo, a dollar gift certificate from the Dollar Tree Store, and a promise from someone to take you on a pub crawl through the Barmuda Triangle (the configuration of three of our oldest downtown bars: Tip Top, Welcome Inn and the Golden West).

Toward the end of our visit, you will question if you made a mistake by moving here. Quite the contrary—four-way stops aside—you are one of the luckiest people on earth.

Giant Bra Ball Revisited

Purity copyYou know how it is—you have a Giant Bra Ball in your garage and don’t know what to do with it. You haven’t been able to park your car inside for years. It’s time to get serious about finding it another home. But where?

This particular Giant Bra Ball was made by San Francisco Bay artist Ron Nicolino in the late 1990’s. He intended it as a whimsical way to bring awareness to the serious issue of breast cancer. When it wasn’t displayed on a flatbed trailer parked outside of the Pier 23 Café in San Francisco, he hauled it behind his pink Cadillac up and down the California coast. In July 2001, it was featured in Mendocino’s Fourth of July parade.

You might think such a ball is unique, but it isn’t. During this same period, another was constructed by San Francisco artist Emily Duffy, thus igniting the infamous Giant Bra Ball War.

It all began after Nicolino was denied his vision of “Bras Across the Grand Canyon.” He searched the artistic community for anyone who might make use of his collection of donated bras. Duffy answered the call. They attempted to collaborate on an artistic piece, but were unable to agree about who should get credit for the original Giant Bra Ball idea. Nicolino ended up keeping his bras and started rolling them while Duffy sent out a plea for donated bras and began rolling her own. Except through their lawyers, they never spoke again.

Duffy’s ball is part of the permanent collection at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

nicolino3But where is Nicolino’s? My July 2014 blog post “A Ballsy Idea” attempted to find the answer.

Nearly eight months later, I received a cryptic electronic message from Nicolino’s daughter Ruby: “I know where it is.”

A tickle ran up my spine. Through email exchanges, Ruby told me that Nicolino took the Giant Bra Ball with him when he moved to Washington State in 2002. After he passed away in 2009, it was transported to a secret location in California.

If Nicolino’s Giant Bra Ball isn’t in your garage (it actually could be in mine—hiding behind a mountain of other stuff), I imagine it somewhere dark and lonely, checked on occasionally by family and friends. Wouldn’t it be great if it could once again see the light of day?

Ruby would love to see it installed in an art gallery or institution for breast cancer awareness. She also suggested that it might be auctioned off on eBay with the proceeds going to charity.

Ruby mentioned Burning Man and this got me thinking. Perhaps the organizers could plop the Giant Bra Ball down in the middle of the event. As they unroll it, they could distribute bras like party favors to people (who I understand are otherwise naked). At the very end, everyone would rip off their bras and toss them on top of a bonfire. Nicolino’s creation would go out in a blaze of glory.

All this thinking has given me a bit of indigestion, but here’s another idea:

Why don’t we buy it? By “we,” I mean Fort Bragg or Mendocino. It’s just the type of quirky, yet socially relevant art that our community embraces. I visualize it attracting attention in a number of locations.

On top of the Tip Top

On top of the Tip Top

An attempt to beautify the ugly AT&T building

An attempt to beautify the ugly AT&T building

 

After 100 years or so, I think it’s time to replace the Time & Maiden statue on the Savings Bank of Mendocino

At the head of the new coastal trail at Glass Beach

At the head of the new coastal trail at Glass Beach

At the home of my friend Marcia

At the home of my friend Marcia

In the parking lot of The Purity

In the parking lot of The Purity

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for this Giant Bra Ball. I really do want to start parking my car in the garage.

(Thanks a bunch to super talented and all around great guy Tony Arguelles for the Photo Shop magic.) (And for the photo of the Savings Bank of Mendocino.)

Tip Top Pick Up

Before I turned 21, taverns were easier places to score a night of drinking with my fake ID than an upscale establishment. But the depressing feng shui always offset the thrill of getting away with breaking the law. After I became of legal drinking age, I avoided taverns.

So it was after much persuasion that I agreed to accompany my underage son to the Tip Top Lounge on a Saturday afternoon a few years ago to buy a tee-shirt for his college girlfriend. My mother came along for the adventure.DSC02597

The bartender told Harrison that he had to stand outside the door. My mother went with him. The bartender disappeared into a back room to fetch a box of shirts.

As I waited, I surveyed the patrons. Sitting about three feet to my right was a gentleman in his sixties who was dapper in the way of someone who frequents a tavern in the middle of the afternoon: Grecian formula hair slicked into a pompadour, his once handsome face creased with wrinkles that only alcohol, cigarettes, and hard living can provide.

He was staring at me, so what was I to do but smile and say, “Hey.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “Your mom and kid dropping you off?”

It had been years since I’d been hit on, but I remembered the difference between a flattering hit and a I’d-better-set-this-guy-straight-that-I’m-not-a-whore hit.

A spit of gagged air escaped my mouth followed by a loud “No!”

What type of woman do you think I am? Oh, yeah, my mom and kid frequently drive me to bars in the middle of the day and drop me off. And after I get drunk enough, I find a nice looking man like you to take me home. Don’t talk to me!

The bartender returned with the tee-shirts. I held up a few for Harrison to inspect. He chose one quickly and handed me the money. I paid the bartender and turned to leave. The pickup artist bid me farewell. I was only too happy to tell him the same.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so offended. The guy thought I was hot—or at least worthy of spending time sitting next to him on a bar stool on a Saturday afternoon at the Tip Top Lounge in Fort Bragg. Granted, he was drinking, but perhaps it was still early enough in the day that he only had a buzz on; he hadn’t hit blind drunk.

I should have been honored. In the past 15 years, I can count on one hand—make that one finger—the number of times a guy has made a pass at me. The only hoots I get on the street are either directed at my dog or my sporty 2010 red Honda Civic.

Maybe I would have felt differently about garnering the gentleman’s attention if it hadn’t happened in a tavern. Maybe I would have felt better about it if it had happened at The Purity.DSC02589