Lonesome Cowboy Ranch is much more than a store

This Boyes Hot Springs 'ranch' is a quirky shop that’s part museum, part cowboy outpost and part paradise for those who fancy the Old West.|

Visitors to Lonesome Cowboy Ranch in Boyes Hot Springs won’t find cowhands or cattle rustling. This “ranch” is a quirky shop that’s part museum, part cowboy outpost and part paradise for those who fancy the Old West.

Located along a busy corridor of Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs - not down some dusty dirt road as its name implies - Lonesome Cowboy Ranch nearly defies description. Where else do hundreds of vintage cowboy boots occupy space next to Converse sneakers with marijuana leaf designs or Goth-inspired platform spikes?

It all makes sense after meeting owner Sandi Miller, 65, whose anything-but-mundane background and numerous interests merge in her unique shop.

She practically grew up in Frontierland in Disneyland, where her mother played violin with a band on Main Street and her father was a Disney animator nearby, working on films like “101 Dalmatians.”

Miller still harbors a love for gunslinging cowboys, like the Disney stuntmen she spent her childhood summers with while her parents were at work. Her store is a tribute to cowboys, from their bootstraps to the tips of their hats.

But, she’s quick to note, it’s not just about cowboys. Fans of Native American arts and Hawaiian aloha attire won’t be disappointed, either.

“People think it’s just Western, but we’re really about fun fashion. Mostly it’s about humor and having fun stuff in the store,” Miller said. “It was modeled after Route 66 rock-shop trading posts. I wanted it to look like an old Route 66 trading post like I used to go to as a kid.”

Those memories of Route 66 and Frontierland make a marriage of contented bliss in the shop, where visitors can spot everything from genuine turquoise and silver jewelry to kachina dolls, Southwestern pottery and Old West landscapes (including two acrylics painted by Miller).

It’s a place to spend time browsing, with the nearly 1,000-square-foot space designed in numerous vignettes featuring antiques, new and vintage merchandise and quirky décor like replica advertising signs distressed to look decades old.

Impossible to miss is a huge pair of wings from a replica totem pole that was a prop in the 1990’s TV show “Northern Exposure,” set in remote Alaska.

Miller spotted the wings at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire and knew she had to have them. Carved from high-density Styrofoam and spanning 9 feet, they aren’t for sale. “Not at this point,” she said.

Once through the wooden front door - no saloon doors here - there’s a decidedly Old West aura.

“It’s an environment more than anything. It’s about being in a nostalgic environment,” said Miller, a strings musician who spent 30 years in Europe performing traditional Irish music and “old-timey” songs.

Her life partner Robert Barnhart, 73, manages the store and greets customers. Most, he said, enjoy the step back in time.

“We get people who come in for the leather smell,” he said. “Everybody’s got some cowpoke in their hearts. And the kids are just loving it. We haven’t had one person who hasn’t had an experience here.”

He repeatedly welcomes passersby who’ve had to pull over when their children spotted the colorful golden yellow and turquoise exterior with the life-sized James Dean cardboard cutout on the sidewalk.

Dean, a longtime fixture, has been missing the past few months, the victim of a tipsy walker who unintentionally knocked him over, causing substantial damage. Miller and Barnhart vow that Dean will return before long, new and improved.

His image isn’t the only notable cowboy at the ranch. Actor John Wayne is among the famous faces in framed photos decorating the walls.

There are rusted horseshoes hung upwards for good luck, old camp lanterns, Stetson hatboxes emblazoned with bucking broncos, prickly cacti growing in coffee cans, weathered fencing panels, antlers and taxidermy wildlife. Miller creates eye-catching displays at every turn, decorating with flea market finds, new merchandise and antiques.

She and Barnhart spent many years selling their goods at antiques shows and flea markets, where they also bought merchandise. Having friends and acquaintances in the trade is a plus.

“We have contacts across the country because we used to do shows,” Barnhart said.

Lonesome Cowboy Ranch got its start in an antiques collective on the Monterey peninsula, moving locations several times before settling into a small space on Broadway, a few miles south of the Sonoma Plaza, in 2008.

It was a tough time for retailers during the economic downturn, but the couple attracted shoppers by setting up outdoors displays of cowhides, cowboy boots, clothing racks and curiosities. Strong winds often topped displays, adding to the couple’s headaches.

“People were not buying anything they didn’t need,” Miller said. “That was a big struggle.”

They moved to their current location seven years ago, gaining square footage and a large display window at a busy intersection. Neighbors include the posh Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.

Customers include celebrities visiting Wine Country - country singer Reba McEntire and Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand among them - and plenty of musicians, like Tommy Thomsen and Tom Waits, who both live in Sonoma County.

Customers are a mix of ages, men and women with equal enthusiasm, “and every walk of life,” including tourists from around the globe, Barnhart said. Locals frequently stop in, particularly when themed fundraisers call for Western wear or Hawaiian outfits.

“We are so grateful for our local clientele,” Miller said. “In winter, they are the ones who keep bread on the table.”

Top-selling items include cowboy boots, cowboy hats (many custom made) and Western and Hawaiian shirts. The couple orders only from three manufacturers, striving to keep prices reasonable and quality high.

“It’s so important to offer quality merchandise for fair prices,” Barnhart said. “It’s really key to us.”

One importer specializes in the cowhides the couple hand-selects from a warehouse.

Miller has spent considerable time traveling around to find unique items and attractive attire, often buying “one piece at a time.”

And just where does she find classic old cowboy boots, hand-loomed rugs, handsome bomber jackets, vintage ethnic jewelry or silver-studded belts?

“That’s my secret. Everywhere,” Miller said. “I’m kind of like a foraging animal. I’m always on the lookout.”

About 30 percent of the store’s merchandise is new, the rest vintage, including hundreds of cowboy boots that look new. Shelves are lined with men’s and women’s cowboy boots in every color and motif, from classic to exotic.

The store carries a small amount of children’s wear, including colorful Hawaiian shirts. A tiny corner is dedicated to “wacky” fashions, another area offers $10 clothing.

Much is at Miller’s discretion. “Sometimes I’ll buy a pair of boots because they’re just fun,” she said. “I just have to have them.”

Red cowboy boots - for men and women - are the most popular, possibly because people “wanted them when they were little,” Barnhart said.

Many boots look unworn, but come with the benefit of being broken in. The couple refurbishes hats, boots, handbags and even saddles, challenging customers to determine what’s new and what’s vintage.

They sanitize, recolor and recondition items, even giving cowboy hats what they call a “character adjustment” with reshaping, refurbishing and adding a worn, weathered look to new hats.

“We can reshape hats to look like ones you see in movies, that have more character,” Miller said.

“It’s like the hat tells you what it wants you to do with it.”

She and Barnhart agree there’s an undeniable something about cowboy hats and cowboy boots that’s transformative for both sexes.

“There’s this heat that starts coming up,” Miller said.

“It’s an image,” Barnhart added.

“And,” Miller said, “our history all rolled into one.”

Lonesome Cowboy Ranch, at 18135 Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs, is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday to Monday and by appointment.

For more information, call 831-262-6976 or visit lonesomecowboyranch.com.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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