Remodeled Plaza Building adds to Guerneville’s downtown transformation
The long-shuttered mercantile in the center of downtown Guerneville is coming back to life after a complete renovation that transformed its once-crammed yet sizable floor space into four shops meant to draw both local residents and tourists.
Two new shops - a natural body care and gift boutique, and a nature store run by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods - opened Friday in the still-faded building off the central plaza, where exterior painting is scheduled to get underway next week.
Still in the works are a wine tasting room for Equality Vines, launched last year as a brand celebrating achievements in social justice, and a packing-shipping store new building owner Keri Yuh and her fiancé plan to run themselves, filling a retail gap in the town of about 4,500.
The newly dubbed Plaza Building is the most recent addition to a changing business district that now combines mid-century standards with hipster eateries, serious art with kitschy trinkets, neighborhood bars and a whimsy-filled 5-and-10 cent store. Rainbow flags, a symbol of the gay pride movement, flutter before a backdrop of forest-covered hills.
For Yuh, 50, the mercantile building represents both an enterprise and a new start after three decades of urban, corporate life that she and her partner, Paul Bydalek, shed when they moved to Sonoma County from Sausalito two years ago in search of a more easy-going community.
“We’re here because we chose it,” said Bydalek, Yuh’s fiancé. “We’re here because we think it’s a special place. It’s a life change that we made.”
Though residents of Healdsburg, they said they want to be part of the lower river community and provide a place that feels welcoming and comfortable to locals, as well as visitors.
The building sits at the town’s main intersection, off the western edge of the town square, near the foot bridge over the lower Russian River, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the community each summer.
The 1950’s-era structure is bordered on three sides by First Street, Main Street and Armstrong Woods Road, and was once home to Lark Rexall Drugs, which has since moved several doors down.
As the Mercantile and General Store, it has been a Main Street fixture known for a cluttered assortment of goods that defy easy classification - beachwear, water toys, makeup, holiday decorations, key chains, greeting cards, garden art, window decals, you name it.
The building renovation included lots of new, large windows that bring in light and open the space up to the outdoors, though initial plans for partitions inspired by open market stalls were scrapped in favor of individual retail units because of issues related to access ramps and hallways.
They chose tenants connected to the community who embrace local ideals.
The nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, headquartered down the road at Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve, hope its new Forest to the Sea Nature Store will offer a downtown presence that bolsters revenue and visibility for its programs, said Michele Luna, the group’s executive director. In addition to educational and interpretive books, toys and other materials, the store will eventually offer gifts like pottery and jewelry, Luna said. The agency may host special events at the storefront, as well.
“It’s exciting,” Luna said.
The small shop next door, Pamper Me, is a long-held dream for Guerneville residents Alisha and Brett O’Loughlin. The couple has been making natural bath and body products for themselves, their family and friends for about 20 years and have long wanted to pursue their craft commercially, Alisha O’Loughlin said. Their store also will carry jewelry, home goods, artisan textiles and other socially and environmentally friendly products, she said.
Alisha O’Loughlin, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, will leave the shop largely in the hands of her husband, Brett, though their 11-year-old daughter has played a role in the rollout, as well.
The Equality Vines brand, still in transition from Equality Wines, its original name, was launched last year with Love Wins Cuvée, a limited release made by Iron Horse Vineyards to commemorate the landmark U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage.
Co-founded by Jim Obergefell, lead plaintiff in the case, the label is the brainchild of Matt Grove, a wine producer who was inspired by his late aunt’s fight for women’s rights. It released a second wine, Stonewall Cabernet, last fall and has two forthcoming wines that will highlight the campaign for women’s equality.
Michael Volpatt, co-owner of Guerneville’s Big Bottom Market, is one of several new partners in the effort and proposed establishing a wine tasting room in the Plaza Building. Later this summer, it will open up in the eastern-most unit, now fitted with full-length windows overlooking the plaza. The brand will headquartered in Guerneville.
Yuh, who was born in South Korea and came to California via Vancouver a few years ago, was driving home from a birthday dinner with Bydalek in Jenner when she noticed the mercantile building was for sale and began to ruminate on its potential. The couple had been looking for a reason to settle in Sonoma County when she purchased the building in 2014. She rented it back to its former owner for a year so they could liquidate their vast inventory.
Though the planning and permitting process lasted a full year longer than Yuh had anticipated, the gleaming new interior is complete, with entrances and wheelchair-accessible ramping that dictated some of the design.
“We thought that location should have something that can attract people,” Yuh said, “and especially for locals to feel like it’s part of their community - not just restaurants or something that just caters to tourists.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.