Sonoma Stories: For 50 years, Western Farm Center has been a good neighbor

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Brisk-stepping Bob Bertolini strode, for the umpteenth time of the day, across the parking lot at Western Farm Center in the heart of Santa Rosa. He had plenty of work to do.

But spotting a shopper loading the last of her purchases into her car, the 72-year-old Bertolini channeled his deceased big brothers. Adjusting his trajectory, he stepped to the woman to ask if he might return her empty cart to the store.

Such acts of retail neighborliness have been routine at the Bertolini family’s ranch-and-feed store since the late Larry Bertolini founded it 50 years ago with a partner, the late Bill Paganetti, and it became integral to the West End/Railroad Square district and a fountainhead of community philanthropy.

Bob Bertolini many times heard Larry, his eldest brother, say, and then second-eldest brother Lou repeat, “Take care of the customers and they’ll come back.”

Among the most notable aspects of Western Farm Center as it marks its first half-century are the green-shirted employees often posted at the door to offer shoppers a hand lugging items to their vehicles, and the caring the Bertolinis have extended to many who’ve never stepped foot into the emporium that long specialized in ranch-and-farm supplies and now sells mostly food and paraphernalia for dogs and suburban backyard chickens.

Larry Bertolini, the public face of the operation until his death in 2012 at age 85, invested WFC profits in a range of community endeavors and causes.

Most visible was his support of the Sonoma County Fair and Santa Rosa Junior College. He served for 17 years on the JC’s board of trustees and for the entire second half of the 20th century was the primary announcer of the school’s football and basketball games.

The $40 million Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center stands as a tribute to his decades of contributions to the college. Its annual open house, which he co-founded, is called the Larry Bertolini Day Under the Oaks.

“Western Farm Center and the Bertolinis represent the core goodness of this community,” said Frank Chong, president of SRJC since early 2012. “I never had the pleasure of meeting Larry, but felt a kinship to him because of our shared love of SRJC and Bear Cub athletes.”

Chong added that Lou Bertolini, who became a partner in the store, took the helm after Larry died and ran it until his own death in March 2016 at age 84, “also was an ardent supporter of SRJC.”

When Lou ran the store, he donated to a number of agencies that serve children, among them Chop’s Teen Club, located a block from the business, plus the 6th Street Playhouse and former Childrens’ Village.

As had been the case with his older brother, Lou also was a loyal advocate and supporter of community-building efforts within the West End/Railroad Square neighborhood. He and his six brothers and sisters grew up there when it was Santa Rosa’s Italian district.

West End advocate and co-creator of its Sunday farm market, Allen Thomas, said “Western Farm has always been an ally and a source of stability in our neighborhood.”

Consistently, Thomas said, the Bertolinis have taken good care of their property and their employees, and never sought recognition for their contributions to the neighborhood and wider community.

“They just quietly go about their business,” he said.

Railroad Square property owner Linda Angell, who has deep roots in that part of town, calls Western Farm Center “the best thing that ever happened to Santa Rosa and Railroad Square.”

“It’s our little farm in the city,” she said.

Lou Bertolini died as the sole owner of Western Farm Center, having purchased brother Larry’s interest from his estate. Lou left the business to his daughter, Maria Bertolini Frampton, and her husband, Trevor. Several heirs of Larry and Lou own the property the store occupies.

Trevor Frampton now manages the store. He said he values the philanthropy of his late father-in-law and uncle-in-law, and as he becomes more comfortable as their successor he’s investigating community efforts to which he might offer support.

Already under Frampton, Western Farm has become a larger benefactor of animal-protection endeavors that include the Green Dog Rescue Project and the Field of Dreams, a major upgrading of the play area at the Sonoma County animal shelter.

Less than four years ago, Frampton was sitting at a computer screen, helping credit-card issuers avoid being ripped off, when Lou invited him to help manage Western Farm Center.

Frampton had been working at the store only about 18 months when Lou became ill. “It was almost like he had a plan,” said daughter Maria.

Trevor said he has come to love working with Bob and Western Farm’s other nearly 50 employees, some of whom have worked there for decades. He relishes, too, meeting customers and selling 21st century suburban agricultural supplies such as harnesses for walking one’s chickens.

Unlike his previous work with security software, Tervor said, what he does at the store is tangible.

“It’s so much better, seeing a dog wagging its tail when you gave him a cookie.”

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