Sonoma Barracks gift store delights shoppers during the holidays
Visitors strolling Sonoma’s downtown Plaza won’t find a street-front entrance to the Barracks Gift Store, but this hidden spot is worth discovering.
A fundraising project of the nonprofit association Sonoma Petaluma Parks Inc. (SPPARKS), the store is within the historic Sonoma Barracks, tucked down a breezeway where several rooms house artifacts chronicling California history.
“People come in and look around and can’t believe it,” said Yvonne Bowers, the nonprofit’s president and an active volunteer at the gift store.
The carefully selected merchandise is related to historical and cultural aspects of California, including books with titles such as “California Desperadoes,” “California Fruits, Flakes and Nuts - True Tales of California Crazies, Crackpots and Creeps” and “How to Host a Wine Tasting Party.”
Visitors will find everything from $1 souvenir pencils to handsome walking sticks crafted from hickory and sassafras; a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of the 21 California missions to coloring books for children and adults featuring themes from California history.
Seed-packet postcards can be sent across the globe, with recipients encouraged to grow California poppies, giant sequoias and coast redwoods.
T-shirts, tote bags and other gifts such as refrigerator magnets with the popular image of a standing bear hugging a cutout shape of California are among the best-selling items.
“People love him,” said store manager Patrick Kearney, noting the image is replicated from the vintage sheet music for the state song, “I Love You, California.”
Kearney, 57, does the purchasing for the store, relying on his instincts and extensive retail background. The Wisconsin native most recently ran a gift store in Connecticut before relocating to Sonoma 2½ years ago to manage the Barracks Gift Store, after spotting an online job posting.
It was snowing in Connecticut when parks staff in short sleeves interviewed Kearney via Skype. He didn’t hesitate to accept the full-time job.
Kearney was drawn to the fact that everything sold in the store directly benefits the preservation of the Sonoma State Historic Park buildings and the Petaluma Adobe, and the many educational and historical interpretation programs hosted by SPPARKS.
The gift store is a popular stop for scores of fourth-grade students studying California history. Classroom field trips bring students for up-close studies of California’s last and northernmost mission and the other historic sites around the Plaza.
Kearney stocks items specifically of interest to fourth-graders, including books about the missions, a quill pen and inkwell, and bonnets like those worn in early California.
The 1,000-square-foot store also features jewelry, tea towels, coffee mugs, Raku pottery, a selection of Day of the Dead items, giftware showcasing patron saints, a series of Victorian-themed books and Christmas ornaments.
“I try my darnedest to be true to the parks,” Kearney said. “I like a unique gift you’re not going to see everywhere.”
His thoughtful displays include items relating to California from Native American life, the Spanish and Mexican era through the 19th century and early days of the 20th century.
Karen Stanko, who lives in Michigan and has a vacation home near the Plaza, stops by the Barracks shop whenever she’s in town.
“It has really, really good gifts, all sorts of things,” she said. “They’re the nicest-looking souvenirs of the town and county and park for the best price.”
Kearney and part-time assistant manager Janice Oneto are the store’s only paid employees. Nine volunteers help staff the store year-round, welcoming locals and visitors from all points of the globe.
“They’re from all over the world, which is amazing to me,” Kearney said. “Australia, Japan, China. We recently had a young lady from Iran. We have people from every single state.”
On a recent afternoon, Bowers was behind the cash register, ringing up purchases and chatting with guests.
“Where are you ladies from?” she asked a trio of women. “What brings you to Sonoma? Are you enjoying your visit?”
That banter is important, Bowers and Kearney said.
Everyone working at the gift store is an unofficial tourism ambassador, dedicated to sharing local history, answering questions and offering suggestions on where to eat and what to see and do in the Wine Country.
“We want people to know they’re welcome, and that we’re a nonprofit,” Kearney said. “We want them to be happy when they leave Sonoma.”
Bowers, a Sonoma resident and longtime park volunteer, notes that nearly a half-million visitors come through the historic park annually. Those who stop by the gift store and make a purchase - even a handful of postcards - help make a “significant” contribution to the welfare of the park.