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Four decades ago, T&B Sports supplied game jerseys to the Oakland Raiders and equipment to UC Berkeley’s football program, as well as gear for Sonoma County Little League and school teams.

The Santa Rosa store is closing at the end of the month after 35 years here in three locations. The business on West Steele Lane has been winding down since last fall, but the county’s teams still will be able to order items in the future through the San Rafael store.

Decades of customers thought, incorrectly, that the manager of T&B’s Santa Rosa operation was the owner.

“I was the face of the company up here all those years,” said Mel Arnerich, who retired three weeks ago as manager after working nearly 40 years for the San Rafael-based business.

Customers’ confusion about Arnerich’s status stemmed in part from the fact that T&B’s owners had authorized him to make decisions on donation requests and plenty of other store matters. When customers get instant answers to their queries, he said, “They think you own the place.”

T&B’s story is similar to that of other retail companies.

“What’s changed a lot is now the coaches have chosen to go more online to get their stuff,” said Russ Peterich, the athletic director for Santa Rosa City Schools.

Peterich remembers back before T&B, when the former Mailer-Frey Hardware store downtown ordered athletic gear for the schools. When Arnerich opened the T&B store here 35 years back, he showed he could handle special orders with “Johnny on the spot” efficiency and, over the decades, the retail space became the place where coaches would inevitably bump into others from the county’s sports community.

“T&B Sports had a great reputation because of the relationships Mel had,” said Peterich, who also is a retired teacher and baseball coach for Montgomery High School. When it came to school teams, “I think he knew every coach throughout the years.”

The retailer contributed regularly to school and league fundraisers and advertised in the printed programs of events like the spring baseball tournament that Peterich ran for years.

And for years at the West Steele Lane store, T&B hosted for free the signups of at least five of the community’s Little League programs, Arnerich said.

The store was on Mendocino Avenue across from Santa Rosa High School for 19 years, and it moved to West Steele Lane in 2008. Its first store was in a shopping center at Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road.

Having the general sporting goods business helped the public become aware of T&B, Arnerich said. But the store’s real niche was serving the school and league teams. That accounted for roughly 75 percent of the Santa Rosa business.

Jeffrey Brusati, who owns T&B Sports with two siblings, said in an email that the business is consolidating now into one location in order to “be a more adaptable company to meet the challenges of tomorrow for an ever changing marketplace.”

“While the internet has turned into a major competitor, direct selling from manufacturers has played a big part as well,” said Brusati, whose father, Romolo Brusati, founded the 71-year-old business.

Some team coaches told Peterich they could get goods cheaper online than from Arnerich. He said he doubts whether the teams and the community would really be better off, in part because T&B was regularly donating to school fundraising efforts.

“T&B is where you were putting money into local stores,” Peterich said. “And you know how that’s changed over the years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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