Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best David (and Mark) vs. Goliath story
Fircrest Market is an independent family-run grocery store, owned for 14 years by the Hoffmans: twin brothers David (he runs the floor) and Mark (he runs the office), and their mother, Marge (she does the books). The prices are very often lower than other markets, the service is friendly, the owners are onsite (David is the one at the register; Mark is upstairs hunting for good deals), and they're committed to old-school ways, like unloading your cart and carrying your bags to your car. Customer requests are heeded, there's parking galore and when the whole town was out of power last winter, who had lights? Fircrest!
How do they compete with the corporates and keep their prices so low? It's a real David (and Mark) vs. Goliath situation. "The way we keep our prices down is I'm constantly watching pricing, constantly watching the market," Mark says. "The last thing we do is raise prices; the first thing we do is buy it right. I buy more, I buy when items are on special, I bridge buy. I pay attention." All of Fircrest's buyers and department heads keep an eye on prices, too. "It's like a family," Mark says. "Everyone gets involved."
The Hoffman brothers explain that they are in a unique position—they're small so they have the flexibility the corporates don't to react quickly to opportunities, and they don't have a big profit margin because they're not greedy. "We've got a nice little income," David says. "But we're never going to get rich here."
As an independent, however, they do pay higher wages to their staff, a group of dedicated employees that almost never changes. Why is this? "Because we take care of them," David explains, "and they take care of us. And we're fair." Employees have health and retirement benefits. All of this probably adds up to why the staff treats customers so well. They're friendly, but not that weird, corporate, I'm-looking-you-in-the-eye-right-now kind of friendly; it's bona fide.
The Hoffman's father ran a grocery store in Marin where the brothers worked summers and after school. "The way we were brought up," Mark explains, "we always have a low profit margin on the things people need: milk, eggs, butter. We'll never mark that up." When the price of wheat and so the price of bread skyrocketed, Fircrest was the last market to raise prices. According to David, "We don't mark it up because we're in it for the long haul."
Fircrest Market, 998 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol. 707.823.9171. —M.T.J.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Place to connect with the poetry of spring
We all journey our own short path called life. Some choose to play by the rules, joining ranks with growing numbers in the corporate arena. Others pursue professions requiring diplomas or toil the service sector. Not a few aim for freedom as outlaws, outcasts or searchers. But even among the rarified caste of working artists, none lays claim to the sort of creative niche Fran Fleet has sewn up for herself.
Fran Fleet's Sandalady Glove Repair in downtown Cotati takes the notion of creative endeavor to a place only true sandlotters, effusive romantics with but peanuts and crackerjack to sustain them can appreciate. Fleet repairs dreams for players living for that crack of the bat on spring's first day, when most of this country's still hip-deep in snow or slogging through puddles and mud. Fresh-cut grass, chalked lines, a fat-assed ump and you and your buddies another year older, but out on the field for another first game of yet another season. Kids swarm the refreshment stand while the sun's heading down. You dive at a sharp-hit line drive, leap for a high bouncer, signal for a popup fly or take a short hopper and flip it to second for a chance to double 'em up.
Fleet began repairing and reconditioning baseball gloves in the mid-1970s. In 1980, she pitched the sandals out and has repaired only baseball gloves ever since. Drop into Fleet's store, all 100 square feet of it, to recondition an old mitt, or to reconcile with life's true meaning.
The Sandalady Glove Repair, 820-A Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. 707.795.3895.—P.J.P.
Best Way to Pretend You're in Bangkok
Now you see him, now you don't. Was that a guy pedaling a rickshaw down the street? Wait, he's turning around. Here he comes again. He's riding a one-wheeled mountain bike geared to a black two-seater carriage, and he's pulled up to the curb, waiting for a fare. It's 11pm on a Saturday night, and Santa Rosa's take on the ecological taxi has arrived. Bicycle-powered rickshaws have plied the teaming streets of Asia and, more recently, major European cities for decades. In California, they're associated with touristy locales like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But the entrepreneur who started Rickshaw Rudy's Pedal Cab Service is betting that people like us just want to get from the pub to the bar. It's a great solution to the obstacle course between downtown Santa Rosa and Railroad Square. Deftly, the driver ferries us under the hulking concrete freeway, at a slow, steady pace. At $5 per person to cross town in upholstered comfort, it's comparable to a gas guzzling taxi—a deal, really, considering that we feel almost bad for the poor driver, breaking a sweat in the crisp winter night. Rickshaw Rudy's Pedal Cab Service. Friday and Saturday nights, 8pm–2am. Rain cancels; see schedule at www.rickshawrudys.com.—J.K.
Best Use of Rust to Sell WaterAs you leave Calistoga heading south down the Silverado Trail, look off to the right for the Calistoga Beverage Company. There, prominently placed before the neatly housed operation, behold, in all its rusty glory, the famed Calistoga water truck. It's an enormously outsized (as in 35 feet long and 14 feet high), whimsically cockamamie full-on three-dimensional sculptural rendition of the 1926 truck water company owner and operator Guiseppe Musante and his dog, Frankie, hauled nature's carbonated earth juice around in back in those romantic days of grave-deep chuckholes and dust-cloud dirt roads. Musante's first business success was pleasuring locals with heaps of homemade ice cream, frothy phosphates and kaleidoscopic mounds of candies at his Railway Exchange soda fountain. Then, in 1920, while digging a cold water well, it suddenly erupted, blasting him from his scaffolding with scalding-hot torrents of mineral-laden spizz. Guiseppe Musante suffered burns, but had himself a geyser. He capped the well, set up a small bottling line, and Calistoga Sparkling Mineral Water was christened. Calistoga Beverage Company, 865 Silverado Trail, Calistoga. 800.365.4446. —P.J.P.
Best Way to Reduce Your Carbon Hoofprint
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, folks are watching the weeds grow and wringing their hands over the problem of carbon sequestration. How to till the soil without incurring a net carbon deficit when employing an exhaust-belching tractor service? How about one man with two draft horses—the big, heavy kind that could pull the Budweiser wagon—come out and do it Amish-style? Sure, it sounds like a luxury conceit for rural sentimentalists. How are the financials? About $60 per hour, competitive with mechanized services; the horses, of course, are a little slower. UC Santa Cruz agro-ecology graduate Stuart Schroeder says that it's not just a Luddite thing—there's science behind his decision to start Stone Horse Farm. Unlike tractors, horses reproduce themselves, and they fertilize as they go; shucks, they even harvest their own fuel. Schroeder and his horses, Sparky and Ike, cut hay, till the family vegetable farm, haul timber and do custom work for a devoted customer base. Fancy carriage rides for weddings and other events round out the off season. Anachronistic, some may say, but how long before $4 diesel is a throwback to the past? How long, really, before we're all waiting in line at the feed store, grousing about the price of alfalfa? www.stonehorse.biz.—J.K.
Best Person to Teach You How to Get Your Car Off Gas and Running on Coffee Grounds, Sunlight, Poop, Shrimp Shells and Other More Sustainable Alternative Fuels
Mark Armstrong's alternative fuels class at SRJC, Auto 190.1, is more than your average grease-monkey class. Much more. Armstrong, a diesel mechanic by day, educates students about the plethora of innovative and sustainable sources of energy other than oil that can be used not only for powering our beloved cars, but for generating alternative-energy sources in a post-oil world. Even converting 50 percent of the United State's vehicles to diesel—no longer slow and stinky thanks to advancements in diesel technology—would save us 2 million barrels of oil a day. Then there are bio-diesel, electric, solar and hybrid vehicles, slowly replacing the inefficient and unsustainable gasoline car. Rather than waiting for the government to solve our problems, or a mysterious "someone else" to figure out how to ease us off dead dinosaur goo before the supply is exhausted, Armstrong entertains every idea, no matter how seemingly absurd it might seem at first.
Armstrong is an affable, easygoing guy who also runs a lab companion to his lecture class, where students put into action and test various low- and high-tech technologies, trying to work out the downsides and challenges of alternative fuels. He's also the faculty adviser to the 100 Mile Per Gallon Club, which doesn't and never has had any members because none of his students has figured out yet how to achieve that kind of vehicle mileage. But it doesn't stop Armstrong from putting the challenge out there. (After all, Volkswagen achieved 234 mpg with a one-cylinder, three-wheel diesel concept car.) But again, it's about more than just cars: Armstrong is thinking and experimenting big. He says that he shares with his students "alternative energy technologies, and how these technologies are becoming incorporated into the designs of heavy and light duty trucks, equipment, rail systems, power generation, shipping."
"Just because there are problems or challenges with every single alternative fuel," Armstrong repeats to each class like a mantra, "doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything about making the energy transition we need to make." www.mobiletruckmedic.com—M.P.
Best Place for Budget Tilers with Posh Taste
Of course Heath Ceramic's tile is astronomically expensive; it's hand-made and hand-glazed and entirely made in the U.S.A, fergodssake. And of course it's astronomically cool (Frank Lloyd Wright loved it, as does Alice Waters). But what if you, the average middle-class Joe or Jane who has somehow managed to develop fancy taste without the bank to back it up, wanted to retile a tired bathroom with something perhaps funky, fresh and fly, how could Heath Ceramics possibly fit into this scenario? Wonder no more, ye cheapskate. In a word: overstock. Whee! Heath has a whole room of gorgeous handmade tile, with its signature wiped edge and clean, spare design, in brilliant or subtle colors, wacky mod shapes and up to 80 percent off! Check Heath's website for a partial list of what's in store for you. Plus, the Sausalito factory store sells tableware, including plates, bowls, vases and platters at up to 30 percent off in seconds and overstock of current and discontinued lines, samples and prototypes. But wait, that's not all. Do not miss the free factory tour, which shows the original methods and equipment developed by Edith Heath herself, led Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11am. The Heath Ceramics factory store is open daily. Sunday–Wednesday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday–Saturday, 10am to 6pm. 400 Gate Five Road, Sausalito. 415.332.3732. —M.T.J.
Best Postwar Folk-Art as rain gauge
For years now, the main concern for the owners of Pee Wee Golf in Guerneville hasn't been keeping business up; it's been keeping the water down. Each year, the miniature golf course—built in 1948 by miniature golf pioneer Lee Koplin—goes completely underwater as the nearby Russian River swells. The structures on the golf course itself are a distinct example of midcentury folk art, showcasing large dinosaurs, hungry fish and towering monkeys—one hole even features a couple of cannibals tending to a large cooking pot. Koplin himself went on to design many "goofy golf" courses across America in the 1950s, but he could never have predicted his creation's ulterior usage: as a de facto barometer for local residents to visually estimate flood levels, using the large purple dinosaur out front as a measuring stick. "How's Lily?" can be interpreted from its native Guernevillese into "How high is the water?" Things are bad indeed if the water level is up to the dinosaur's head, and sometimes the poor thing is buried completely under as much as 16 feet of water—as was the case during the famous Valentine's Day flood of 1986. Each year, owners Tom and Vanessa Glover get some friends together to hose, scrape and repaint the fixtures, and the weekend antics of preadolescents making their way around the zany cement statues are restored. Pee Wee Golf & Arcade, 16155 Drake Road, Guerneville. 707.869.9321.—G.M.
Best Place to Get Your Bearings
There is nothing about downtown Windsor that demands a map store. It's not on the way to anywhere in particular, and it doesn't get a lot of lost tourist traffic. But as the Map Store is the only establishment of its kind for many miles in all four directions, it is perhaps the beginning of many journeys. The outward bound can find USGS quad maps, engineers can order surveys, wine geeks may pinpoint favorite estate vineyards and the nostalgic can find old aerial photos of their hometown. Maps not found here can be custom-ordered from the Library of Congress and printed out on the Map Store's HP plotter. The store's most acclaimed project has been its Sonoma County viticultural maps. Vineyard owners contribute their site specifics for the detailed maps, which are drawn up by in-house cartographers. It's been a big hit, and they've gone on to create an appellation series for the state of Oregon. Also find here maps to plan your road trip across the States or through the streets of London, as well as globes, atlases and geography-related learning materials. A selection of heavy, Italian-made wrapping paper printed with historical maps is available for gift wrapping—but customers often request framing for the paper itself. The Map Store, 9091 Windsor Road, Windsor. 707.838.4290.—J.K.
Best bunker gear bastion
It's no surprise, really, that Tiburon, which already has some of the most expensive housing and best views in Marin County, also features the best and most beautiful fire station. Designed by Mahoney Architects of Tiburon, the Craftsman-style building resembles a luxurious mountain chalet, one with giant upstairs windows from which firefighters can keep their eyes on the perfect little houses of Tiburon, while also taking in some awesome views of the Bay. Strikingly designed, the place is easily the most attractive public building in town. Ironically, it could also end up being the only building left in Tiburon should the Big One hit anytime soon, because, according to Mahoney's website, the firehouse is the only public structure in Tiburon that meets all state seismic codes. Tiburon Fire Station, 1679 Tiburon Blvd., Tiburon. 415.435.7200.—D.T.
Best Place to Get Your Buzz On
As grapevines are hermaphrodites, pollinating their flower clusters all by themselves, they have little use for bees. But the pairing of Paul and Mary Sue Smith has brought them together in one quirky shop in Calistoga. Entering Hurd Beeswax Candles, one sees handmade candles, flame-shaped candles, every variety of candle. In the corner, there's a winetasting bar. Paul makes the wine, Mary Sue minds the beeswax. Around the bar, lively conversation buzzes around and briefly alights on such topics as California's ultimate underdog wine, Charbono; whether Calistoga should have its own AVA; and the perils of Yugoslavian queens, for starters. Behind a set of little doors, visitors can view comings and goings at the shop's resident beehive. Paul's On the Edge wines are redolent of chocolate and brandy, wild grape and extra-ripe blackberries; Hurd Beeswax Candles is redolent of . . . scented candles, the only drawback to serious winetasting here. But the overly serious can always just buzz off. On the Edge Winery and Hurd Beeswax Candles, 1255 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 707.942.7410.—J.K.
Best Place to Mitigate a Bad Hair Day
Need a hat or two? A colorful pair of leg warmers? A fly pair of sunglasses? Something cheeky to brighten up the room? Check out the fabulous, affordable fashion accessories at Shiki Monkey boutique on South Main Street in Sebastopol (next to GTOs). It's a local, family-run business in the true sense. Two sisters (Julia and Anne Lyman, born and bred in Sonoma County) and their mom (Donna Clark-Lyman-Nittinger) run the store, do the buying and the displays; their husbands chip in, their stepfather built all the cases and tables, and everyone helped transform it from a carpeted, mirrored, gray sponge-painted nail salon to the groovy space it is today. Julia, who does most of the buying and interior design, was a buyer at Copperfield's Books where she learned a lot about what people buy and about "fluffing" displays. Anne's good eye can be seen in the stunning window boxes outside; she worked at a nursery in Napa before committing whole hog to a partnership with her sister, a partnership they said they knew was bound to happen someday. What prompted these young ladies to start their own business? Neither sister likes to answer to anyone. "We both have independent spirits," Anne says. "We're very stubborn." When asked what they like to sell, Julia says, "Things you just have to have! Fun is the name of the game—colorful, bright, life-loving products that make you feel good." Shiki Monkey, 236 S. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.824.1712.—M.T.J.
Best Education for Your Id
Once when I was making wine in the garage of a rented house, my housemate's girlfriend, a psychology grad, remarked that I must have a really strong ego. Really? Because I can delay gratification for a whole year before the wine is ready to drink, she explained. If this is so, some El Molino High School students are getting an extra-credit lesson in character-building; most of them won't be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor for about four more years, until they turn 21. A unique elective where kids get a head start in the area's leading industry, El Molino's four-year-old, nearly one-of-a-kind Pinot Noir viticulture program (Santa Rosa High has a similar vineyard, planted in Chardonnay) involves students in pruning and caretaking of grapevines. Of course, thanks to the cautious wisdom of the superego, there's no lab course in winemaking. Notable local winemakers take turns donating their expertise when it's time to crush, and proceeds from wine sales benefit the school. The first vintage of "Lion's Pride Pinot," so-called for the El Molino mascot, was bottled in 2007. Heck, if there had been such an option when I was in high school, I might have joined the "aggies."—J.K.
Best hidden jail
Years ago, when the county proposed building a new jail on the knoll near Frank Lloyd Wright's beloved Marin Civic Center—and within plain sight of the motorists passing by on Highway 10—a lot of people freaked. "Relax," the powers that be said. "We'll build it in such a way that no one will see it." Damn if they weren't telling the truth. Though construction on the thing raised more concerns, the builders maintained that once built and landscaped, it would be virtually invisible. Nowadays, should you drive by on 101, all you will see is a pleasantly sloping hill covered in trees, somewhere beneath which the multilevel jail is thrumming with the angsty vibrations of bad guys and ne'er-do-wells that no one even realizes are there. Meanwhile, the old jail at the Civic Center, the one vacated when the detainees were moved to the jail under the knoll, has been gutted and cleared out, and is being converted into offices for use by county workers. There might be a joke in there somewhere, but we leave it to you to find it. Marin County Jail, 13 Peter Bear Drive, San Rafael. 415.499.7316.—D.T.
Best Pomo Monster Legend Come True
Picture this raggedy-ass ogre tall as the Transamerica Building whose notion of fashion is topping his butt-ugly mug with a "sugar-loaf head-dress"—whatever that is—power-walking across North Bay valleys, snot snaking out his schnoz, constantly spewing vile bubbly half-eaten stuff from his acid-reflux guts, and, if that weren't enough, copping this attitude like he just has to scoop little tykes up from schoolyards and parks, gobbling the buggers down like splurty Jelly Bellies. The Pomo called him Shil-la-ba Shil-toats, and thought they'd safely put him down two centuries ago. Our Defense Department calls him Goliath II, General Dynamic's newly patented biological weapons system. The DD has called for his summer Iraq deployment. General Dynamic's stock's shot up 13 percent since last week's announcement.—P.J.P.
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