It was an empty room with crumbling brick walls the day Barbara Brown moved into the 1,000-square-foot retail space on Commercial Street in downtown Nevada City.
“We probably started the business with 75 bucks,” Brown said. “I didn’t know what Scotch broom was at the time, but when I was filling out the papers to get a business license, they asked me, ‘What is the name of your store, dear?’ I had seen a poster for the Scotch broom breakfast in North San Juan, and I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of a pretty name. Scotch Broom! How about that?’
More than 40 years later the boutique, which has been one of Nevada City’s longest running businesses, will officially close its doors on March 31.
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye,” current owner Justine Jacus said. “So many customers have come through our doors for so many years.”
Scotch Broom opened in June 1971 after Brown and a group of friends decided to move from Fresno to Nevada City in search of a simple life, living on a plot of undeveloped land off Highway 20.
“We lived outside, we didn’t have any buildings or anything and gradually built houses,” Brown said. “We were all sort of borderline hippies, but we were a little more entrepreneurial.”
Brown, who was 29 at the time, remembers that downtown Nevada City was riddled with drug use, and that some members of the community were hesitant to welcome a store run by people from the “new age” culture.
“The day that we rented the store we were sitting in the Crazy Horse, a bar down the street, waiting for the landlord, and the guy that had owned the business looked at us with our long hair and was trying desperately to talk us out of it,” Brown said.
Within a year, Brown’s friends moved away and left her as the sole owner of Scotch Broom. As the hippie stigma passed, Brown’s business became a respected company in the community.
“That was an era where polyester was kind of big because it was a new thing,” Brown said. “Our idea was that people were more healthy if they wore natural fibers, so we concentrated on finding cotton, wool, silk and rayon, and it wasn’t easy to find.”
Brown soon became partners with two local clothes designers, and the team of women ran the boutique together, making and selling their own clothes.
Brown said they paid each other just $5 a week on top of the revenue they received from selling each other’s handmade products.
“In my case, I didn’t have any electricity. So I was sewing on a treadle sewing machine with no electricity,” Brown said.
“The store was a place for people to purchase natural fiber clothing that was not available in the area,” partner Barbara McHugh said. “We featured handmade clothing .… and sold fabric for quilt making, too.”
By the mid-1970s, Scotch Broom had a regular following. In 1976, they helped to organize a national bicentennial event in Nevada City, getting customers from around the county to stitch individual blocks of fabric to seam together into one 11-foot-long quilt that hangs in the foyer of the Eric Rood Center to this day.
“That was one of our big contributions, from our store to the community,” Brown said.
Brown’s partners left the store a few years later, leaving her to run the store with her husband.
The 1980s, Brown says, were a good time for Scotch Broom as they continued to build relationships in the community and sell products, but by the early 1990s, the store began to decline in sales.
Natural fiber clothing was more common than it once was, and Brown looked into selling the boutique.
“I had a couple buyers, but nothing came from them,” Brown said.
“At the end of (1993), I just finally decided that we’ll close the doors, and so we were having a sale right after Christmas, and Justine walked in and said she’d like to buy it.”
Jacus, who is from Lanikai, Hawaii, came to California with her family after running a bikini business on the beaches of Waikiki at the age of 19.
After owning several yogurt shops in San Francisco, Jacus took her funds and headed to Nevada City to start a business.
“I bought Beads Galore in 1993 — it’s a jewelry store in the Brunswick area — and I took over Scotch Broom the following year,” Jacus said. “We continued the tradition of natural fiber clothing, but we changed it up a bit.”
Jacus and her sister, Alesiaia Sampson, began to think of new, creative ways to display their fun and funky clothing and jewelry.
“We did live models in the window,” Jacus said. “Every summer we have what’s called Hot Summer Nights, where all the streets are closed and you have music and food outside. So every summer night we dress the girls up and they stand there like mannequins in the windows.”
Jacus added, “It is kind of a festive way to show the community the kind of clothes we have, and it gets people in the area involved, too.”
Another way to boost the store’s advertising was what Jacus called a “walking silent fashion show.” Models would dress up in Scotch Broom clothes and walk door to door into different businesses in the community.
“They would carry a little sign on a stick that said Scotch Broom, and people would come to our store and ask, ‘Where’s your walking fashion show? I want that skirt.’ That was really fun,” Jacus said.
Business for the boutique, Jacus said, was initially lucrative, but the past five years have been rough.
“We’ve noticed that it’s been a little tougher to keep things going,” Jacus said. “The economy is the reason we are closing, and I think sometimes online (shopping) affects it. People are shopping more online than coming into a store.”
But Sampson, who has managed the store for more than 15 years, said stores like Scotch Broom give customers something that online shopping can’t.
“We’re a brick and mortar, we’re here for the people to come and try things on, get the experience and help them shop,” Sampson said. “It’s a community where customers drop by all the time, not to buy anything but just to say hi and chat for a bit.”
Sampson added, “Being part of the community on a daily basis, making memories, is what I’m going to miss the most.”
Nevada City council member Duane Strawser, whose wife and daughter shop at Scotch Broom, said that the closing of the store is a huge loss for the city.
“Any store that has been a part of the fabric of the community for so long, when they close it’s heartbreaking,” Strawser said.
“It’s not that we’re worried about it being vacant, it’s more so losing that person or that group and their following.”
Jacus says she will continue to sell jewelry from Scotch Broom at Beads Galore.
“I wanted to thank all of the beautiful women of Nevada County for gracing our doors for the past 43 years,” Jacus said.
“It’s been fun, it’s been a really great time.”
For Brown, remembering where Scotch Broom began gives her some symbolic solace.
“The Scotch broom plant, if you look up its qualities, one of the things that they talk about is it has perseverance,” Brown said.
“It’s such a noxious plant with all these seeds that you just can’t eradicate, and I always thought that somehow calling the store that was somewhat auspicious in making it last so long. How’s that for far-fetched?”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye. So many customers have come through our doors for so many years.”
current owner of Scotch Broom