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MEET YOUR MERCHANT: Grass Valley, Auburn instructor Sofia Hotlen has taught more than 60K people how to drive

As a child, Sofia Hotlen never saw either of her parents drive a car — there was always a chauffeur.

Raised in a wealthy family in Santiago, Chile, few could have guessed that Hotlen would go on to own a driving school for more than 30 years in the foothills of Northern California. To date, her school — aptly named Sofia Hotlen Driving School — has taught more than 60,000 new drivers the rules of the road.

With offices in Grass Valley and Auburn, the school is known for taking the extra step of equipping their beginner’s car with both a brake and gas pedal on the passenger’s side of the vehicle. As a result, Hotlen says she’s never had a student collide with another vehicle.

Hotlen’s background is anything but typical. In her teens, her parents sent her to study at the University of Geneva Switzerland, then to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at California State University, San Jose and a master’s degree from California State University, Sacramento. While living in San Francisco, she met her late husband, Albert Hotlen, then moved to the foothills in 1988.

Hotlen says her background in teaching, which includes high school and working as a Spanish instructor to adults, has been an asset when it comes to teaching new drivers, many of whom are extremely anxious.

“In the beginning, I was incredibly nervous about driving, which stopped me from gaining independence,” said Rose Carson, 21, of Nevada City. “Sofia was very patient and understanding. We started out driving around residential areas then worked up to freeways. If my anxiety was really bad, she was always very patient, pulling over and such.”

“Rose had so many fears, now she is happy driving around,” said Hotlen, with a smile. “I love young people — I enjoyed them. Maybe I should have been a psychologist.”


Drivers training is a “behind the wheel” instruction for people who already have a permit to drive, regardless of age. The course of instruction is a complete and thorough set of driving tasks designed to make the learning process both fun and challenging. First time students under 18 years of age will require three two-hour sessions over a minimum of six months.

The Sofia Hotlen Driving School has a very structured approach to driver training, said Hotlen, using the IPDE (Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute) method. In addition to basic maneuvers, carefully-vetted instructors also focus intently on defensive driving.

The first class includes basic handling of the vehicle, including turns, backing up and some traffic — if a student appears ready. After completing roughly 15 to 20 hours of driving experience, the student is then ready for the second lesson, where the student experiences traffic, the freeway, parking up and down hills and parking in a parking lot.

They also learn about the various rights of way when it comes to other drivers. The third lesson takes place in preparation of the test at the DMV, and reviews possible weak points in driving that are specific to each driver.

“We test them thoroughly and tell parents what they need to practice to pass the test and be a good driver,” said Hotlen. “We also sometimes suggest that a student take more lessons if we see they need more practice.”


Separate from driver training, “driver education” is a four day, 28-hour class that meets DMV requirements. Classroom instruction consists of lecture, text book study, video, and written tests. Upon completion of this course, students should be ready to take the DMV written test for a driver’s permit.

“We have a pay-as-you-go method, which is more convenient for parents — they can make the payments at their convenience,” said Hotlen. “Classes are spread out over a six month period, every month or two, until they are ready to take the driving test.”

The school also offers customized instruction for adults and seniors, as well as an online traffic school. After completing the program, participants receive a certificate in the mail.

Clearly Hotlen and her carefully-selected instructors are a rare breed — those who enjoy repeatedly stepping into a car with a new driver behind the wheel.

“It feels good to know I’ve done a good job and taught them well,” said Hotlen. “People at the DMV have told me they know who my students are because they do well on the tests. I love teaching people to drive, especially the teens. If I ever retire, I’m really going to miss them.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet your merchant: Artist creates works to inspire women, promote healing

The year 2010 was hard for artist Marylou Falstreau. Someone close to her was struggling, and she poured her heart and soul into the crisis.

“I was trying to help, fix, and save this person,” she said. “I lost all sense of myself.”

But it was during this dark period that Falstreau had a dream that would change the course of her life.

“I dreamt I was sitting around a big conference table with a group of women and it felt like there was some information there that I needed,” she said. “It was a very serious discussion.”

When she woke up, two words came to her — “women” and “hourglass.” It was at that moment that Falstreau decided her art should become more spiritual and “women-centric,” with a theme of empowerment.

“When you’re struggling you don’t generally get pats on the back from others,” she said. “Too often you find yourself feeling shame and isolation. I realized that I was the one who needed to give myself a pat on the back. The dream reminded me to come back to myself. It launched a new mission of discovery for me — a journey of healing and awakening.”

The shape of the hourglass has nothing to do with the shape of a woman, said Falstreau. Instead, it represents something that can be turned over at any time — an opportunity to start again. One always has the freedom to choose a different direction or perspective. Life, she said, is an “inside job.”

“The neck of the hourglass represents the present moment,” she continued. “If you blow it, just turn it over — giving yourself permission to begin again. It’s not about the shape, it’s about it’s about time and your relationship with the hourglass.”

That first week after the dream Falstreau began creating inspirational messages with accompanying images, such as, “One day she woke up and discovered she’d grown wings,” “One day she woke up and decided to love herself more than she ever thought possible” and “One day her desire for peace became so great … that she became peace.”

How it started

It’s been nine years since Falstreau created the “Women and the Hourglass series” of inspirational art for women. She has since used her own life experiences and challenges to create 67 images that “speak to the heart.” From her studio in downtown Grass Valley, Falstreau’s images using collage and acrylic paints can now be found in the form of two affirmation card decks, fine art prints, greeting cards, magnets, a coloring book, a story book and more. Many of these are now also sold in stores. Falstreau and her husband, Alan, now manage a wholesale business that connects with clients throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Between 2012 and 2015, Falstreau and her husband lived in La Quinta, Calif. It was there that Falstreau had a chance meeting with a spiritual counselor who worked for the nonprofit Betty Ford Center, an alcohol and drug addiction treatment hospital. The counselor was so taken with Falstreau’s images of affirmation that she asked to take one as a way to start one of her counseling sessions. Today the card series has become part of the Betty Ford program, as well as a part of other nonprofit organizations’ self help programs, such as those helping people heal from cancer, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

“They’ve taken my work and added their own message based on their mission,” said Falstreau. “I’m not a trained therapist — I’m just a human being who wakes up and discovers that another layer has peeled away and needs to be addressed. So be it if it helps other people. Ultimately it’s not about me — it’s about you and what you see. But I can’t be a brand — that’s like stepping into a box and staying there.”

“Through the vehicle of my art I say things ‘out loud’ that others are thinking and feeling. I am a truth teller. (My work) even speaks to women who are learning to love and forgive themselves, to be happy and have fun,” wrote Falstreau in a guest column for The Union in 2017. “Some of us are actually learning to say no.”

Despite being a self-professed introvert, Falstreau said she may soon shift her open studio hours from appointment-only to a couple of days a week, but the schedule is yet to be finalized.

“The biggest surprise was that in creating art based on a message to myself I’ve influenced and helped others,” she said. “My work has become a tool for transformation — one card can be a changing moment in someone’s life history. People have told me that. The more I show up for myself, the more I help others.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet Your Merchant: Salon de Soleil tanning salon now in its 12th year

Jane Liron grew up in northern England — the land of fog and drizzle. So perhaps it’s no wonder she would be drawn to the world of tanning salons, where on any given day, year-round, one can seek out that bronzed, sun-kissed glow.

When she first arrived in the U.S., Liron spent several years in New Jersey and San Diego before moving to Grass Valley, thinking she and her young family would only be here for a “short stint.”

That was 32 years ago.

Liron spent about six years learning everything she could about the tanning industry before opening her own Grass Valley business, Salon de Soleil Tans, Etc. in 2006.

“I had dreamed of owning my own salon and doing things differently,” she said. “I wanted the focus to be on customer service, with more of a spa-like atmosphere. While the industry at the time seemed to be geared more toward young people, I wanted a salon where women and men of all ages and walks of life felt comfortable and pampered. That’s been my objective all along and I think I’ve achieved that.”

Today, it’s clear Liron has long since obtained her goal, as her large data base of loyal customers includes people ranging in age from 18 to 89. One third of her customers are men.

‘Little bit of everything’

The Brunswick Plaza salon boasts nine state-of-the-art tanning beds (offering three different levels of intensity), a UV-free, drip-and-streak-free Mystic Tan spray tanning booth, infra red body wraps (one hour sessions), a room solely devoted to cosmetic teeth whitening with Mia Clark and a small boutique that offers a selection of seasonal clothing and accessories, as well as tanning lotions and moisturizers. Inside the large business is also a hair salon with two stylists, which offers haircuts and styling, hair extensions, nails and waxing.

“I like to think of us as a one-stop beauty spa,” said Liron. “We have a little bit of everything.”

According to regular feedback, customers say they appreciate the fact that Liron is a “stickler for cleanliness,” as everything is thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom daily. She and her staff make it a priority to ensure that customers are using safe tanning practices and are aware of the dangers of over-tanning. Additionally, customers like the fact that they can pick and choose between a broad range of tanning prices.

“We offer all different packages, for all pocket books,” said Liron. “My goal has always been to make tanning affordable.”

Customer connections

Tanners tend to fall in several different categories, she said. First, there are those who come in routinely all year long. Then there are those who come in only during the winter to “beat the winter blues.” Some come in solely to develop a base tan in preparation for an upcoming vacation, and others come in during the summer because they work long hours and are unable to get outside.

Regardless, Liron said the best part of her job has been meeting people from all walks of life, with some becoming good friends.

Diane Pile said she spends about six months a year in Grass Valley and has been coming to Salon de Soleil for the past two years.

“I would be very unhappy if Jane ever decided to close her business,” she said. “She runs it wisely and well. She has a beautiful shop with interesting art and a personal connection with all of her customers. I like the fact that she’s an independent business owner, not part of a national franchise. I truly enjoy her company.”

“I’ve got some customers who have been coming since I first opened my doors in 2006,” said Liron. “I love having a business that helps people feel better, and I love it more when they tell me — it’s always nice to hear.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet your merchant: Owner of Joy of Life Events strives to create the perfect day

Donna Nice-Hoekstra was born on Christmas Day, baptized on Easter, and — as she likes to say – has been celebrating ever since.

Growing up in Ventura County, she discovered early on that she loved the process of organizing events. At her high school prom, she was the one making sure every last detail was in place before her classmates arrived. She was barely 20 when she landed her first real job at a steak house, then quickly moved on to oversee banquets at a country club in Thousand Oaks.

“I realized I loved planning large parties — loved the festivities and the celebrations,” she said. “It helps that I’m a details-oriented person.”

After studying business, restaurant and hotel management in college, Nice-Hoekstra launched a small catering and event business, “Creative Parties by Donna,” but soon discovered she was more drawn to the “art of the event” than the cooking.

In 2001, Nice-Hoekstra moved to Penn Valley with her husband, Nick, and their youngest daughter, Savannah. Their oldest daughter, Dahlia, had already graduated from high school and was off to college.

After several years of overseeing special events and banquets at the Lake Wildwood Clubhouse and Alta Sierra Country Club, she was eager to spread her wings and take full creative control of the events she organized. In 2005, she launched her own business, “Joy of Life Events — Wedding & Event Design,” and has never looked back.

Since then, Nice-Hoekstra has planned well over 500 weddings and many more parties, receptions and special events.

“When it comes to weddings, I’ve done the full spectrum,” she said. “From churches to barns to outdoor weddings in Tahoe. I just love the art of each event. I’m very visual, and there’s always an art element to it.”

But Nice-Hoekstra’s carefully orchestrated events entail much more than a visual feast. Always “the first in and the last out” at every event, it’s her job to ensure even the smallest detail is taken care of, not to mention resolving last-minute crises and calming the nerves of anxious brides and mothers-in-law.

“My goal is to get people to trust me, then they can relax and enjoy the event,” she said. “Let us take care of the details. For example, on the morning of the wedding, people need to know everything is under control. I give it my all — we usually do no more than 20 events a year.”

Brenda Fontana of Penn Valley has hired Joy of Life Events for five separate occasions — her daughter’s wedding, a christening, a birthday and a Hawaiian luau. This summer, Nice-Hoekstra and her team will create a “party under the stars” at Fontana’s home in the Tahoe Keys.

“When I was new to the area, I didn’t know who in the world to call, and I knew I didn’t want to plan the wedding myself,” said Fontana. “Donna and I met at a Penn Valley cafe and right away I began to exhale. She is amazing, upbeat and straight forward. It was clear she would have everything 100 percent handled. From the party, to the bride, to the families — I didn’t have one worry from the moment I woke up on the day of the wedding until it was over. My parties have been exactly the same way. I’m not kidding — Nevada County is very lucky to have Donna.”

Years ago, when Nice-Hoekstra was approached about producing a Nevada County wedding show, it made sense. Not only does she have a long history of putting on a broad range of themed weddings, she has also been instrumental in creating a streamlined network of businesses and venues associated with special events (www.ncweds.com), with the sole goal of developing a higher standard of services.

This year, Joy of Life Events will again produce the Grass Valley Wedding Fair, “A Wedding Affair for All Seasons,” from noon to 4 p.m. on Jan. 21 at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Free to the public, the fairgrounds’ Main Street Center will be transformed, showcasing some of the top wedding and event vendors in Nevada County. The event will include live music, more than 50 vendors and over $7,000 in free services given away, such as free ballroom rentals at the Gold Miners Inn, a free engagement photo shoot by Savvy Kay Photography, free photo booth rentals, gift certificates from Foothill Flowers, luxury accommodations at Courtyard Suites and more. “Bridal toss giveaways” will take place every hour.

“It’s free — we want everyone to come,” said Nice-Hoekstra. “Events are a real boost to our local economy, so everyone wins. The most rewarding part of my job is watching people absolutely enjoy their own event. They shouldn’t have to worry about anything. They should just enjoy their celebration and the people around them.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email Cory@theunion.com.

Meet your merchant: Raised on off-roading, Lance and Jennah McIntosh now have their own store catering to dirt bikers and ATVs

It was a perfect first date, but not the kind one would expect.

Jennah and Lance McIntosh had both grown up on dirt bikes, so it only made sense to hit the back roads while getting to know each other. Each was impressed by the other’s riding ability. Fast forward, the couple is now married with two children, ages 3 and 6. But they also have a new baby, their Grass Valley off-roading shop, NorCal Rider’s Choice.

Having spent much of their childhoods in Grass Valley riding dirt bikes and ATVs with their families, Jennah and Lance had both dreamed of one day opening an off-roading shop that would feature a retail store with an adjacent space to provide minor repairs and service. When a longtime Grass Valley motorcycle shop, Moto Elite, closed its doors, the McIntoshes saw the opportunity to pursue their own business.

“Lance was working for a metal fabricator and I was a stay-at-home mom,” said Jennah. “I was ready to go back to work and Lance liked the idea of being his own boss.”

The McIntoshes scoured the area for a space with easy freeway access and zoning that would allow for both retail and bike/ATV repair. They finally found a spacious spot at the end of Olympia Park Road in Grass Valley’s Glenbrook Basin. Friends and family pitched in to help fix up the 2,400 square-foot weathered building that had been sitting empty after serving as home to Airgas for more than 20 years.

“We redid the entire building,” said Jennah. “We used 30 gallons of paint and pulled out the flooring. With the help of friends and family, we worked on it for three whole months before we opened.”

The couple was able to offer an impressive inventory right away, thanks to Jennah’s aunt and uncle, who own a dirt bike store in Lancaster, Calif., where Jennah had worked as a teen.

“They let us carry some of their items on consignment — both new and used,” said Lance. “Today we continue to sell some items on consignment, but we now also have four distributors.”

The showroom floor now carries a broad selection of apparel, helmets, boots, T-shirts, oil, tires, engine parts, accessories and more.

“For some reason our hat sales are huge,” said Jennah. “We didn’t anticipate that. People like our casual wear in general. We try to keep prices fair.”

Lance, whose dad was a mechanic, works on a broad spectrum of dirt bikes, ATVs and more recently “UTVs,” which have exploded in popularity.

A UTV, which stands for Utility Task Vehicle or Utility Terrain Vehicle, is also commonly known as a side by side. Similar to ATVs or All-Terrain Vehicles, UTVS are generally larger and use a steering wheel with pedals for the brake and gas instead of handlebars. Most also have seat belts and “roll over protection.”

“UTV sales are really growing — people love them because you can go on sand, mud and snow — they’re a step above an ATV,” said Lance. “They’re fast, fun and versatile. The modifications are endless, it just depends on the size of your pocketbook.”

Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki, Polaris, Can-Am — Lance has experience working on a broad variety of models. But he’s also quick to mention that Jennah also has a vast knowledge of bikes and parts.

“We’re both just happy to be here — we’ve got awesome, loyal customers who understand we’re a young family with kids,” said Jenna. “It’s the kind of business where we make a point of knowing our customers by name. Some people just like to drop by and talk about bikes.”

To contact Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet Your Merchant: History helps draw future for Nevada City tattoo artist

Michael Bartkowiak was just 7 years old when his parents told him they were packing up the car and secretly fleeing their native country of Poland, possibly to never return. It was the early 1980s and the government was determined to crush political opposition, threatening martial law. Bartkowiak’s mother told him he would have to pick just one toy to take with him.

“I grabbed my drawing book and pencils,” he said. “I was basically born with a crayon in my hand. I loved to draw from a very early age.”

The family escaped to Austria just two short weeks before Poland’s borders were sealed and an estimated 10,000 activists were rounded up as troops and tanks poured onto Poland’s streets. Bartkowiak remembers sitting in his mother’s lap, making a wish on an eyelash that had fallen out, a family tradition.

“My wish was to meet Mickey Mouse,” he said. “That was the first image I learned to draw in detail — it helped me with my future art and inspiration.”

When the family eventually relocated to Southern California, young Bartkowiak was astounded to learn that California was home to the original Disneyland. The one in Florida, as he had thought, was not the only one. Remarkably, his eyelash wish would soon come true.

Bartkowiak’s art became more sophisticated and continued to evolve as he moved into his teen years. But his biggest inspiration came from attending his first Grateful Dead show at the age of 16. After that, like many of his peers, he made it his mission to go to as many shows as possible.

“I loved the artwork on their albums — I was drawn to their ‘cartoony’ images,” he said. “My mom would always say,‘How many times do you have to see that band?’”

In 2001, after becoming a licensed tattoo artist in his 20s, Bartkowiak developed a reputation for being “the Grateful Dead tattoo artist.” Despite his remarkable versatility when it came to his work, fans of the band, aka Dead Heads, began to travel hundreds of miles to Bartkowiak’s Southern California shop.

Six years ago Bartkowiak and his wife, Danielle, a nurse, fell in love with Nevada City and relocated with their daughter, Maia, now 13. Four and a half years ago Bartkowiak finally realized his dream of opening his own tattoo studio and art gallery, Grateful Ink, in downtown Nevada City. Longtime friends and tattoo artists Daniel and Veronica Morris also relocated from Southern California and the trio now offer a broad range of styles at the Spring Street studio.

“In the old days, tattoo parlors were considered to be places run by the biker 40 miles out of town — there was a stigma attached to them, and the artwork was usually not that interesting,” said Bartkowiak. “Today you’ve got artists with advanced degrees in fine art, and people of all ages and walks of life come in here.”

“Long gone are the days when people would walk into a shop and pick an image off the wall,” he continued. “We wanted a shop that offered custom work. It’s important to us that you get an individualized piece that no one else has. We thrive on that — we hand draw everything. But we don’t like to tattoo anything negative — never hate language. I want to make people shiny.”

John Hurley, who lives in the little town of Washington, was one of Grateful Ink’s first customers more than four years ago, and he still has ongoing appointments.

“I’ve had work done by all three artists — they’re all really good — this is the only place I go now,” he said. “It’s a family friendly shop — good for people who are going in for their first tattoo. It’s a nice, comfortable experience for people of all ages. Mike’s daughter is sometimes in there, helping to answer phones.”

Bartkowiak says he’s grateful that the business community has embraced his vision and passion for a field he loves.

“I feel rooted here — no question, this is home,” he said. “I pinch myself every morning — even if I won the lottery I would tattoo for free. It’s an honor when people want my artwork tattooed on their skin. It’s a nice way to make money, but I see it as sacred. I want people to be happy when they walk out the door.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet Your Merchant: Grass Valley couple takes over Cosmetique Spa and Boutique

Lacey Cuisinot is careful not to leave her purse unattended, even at home. On the rare occasions she has, she’s always come back to a little surprise — four little girls wearing her make-up, applied with varying degrees of expertise.

Soon enough, however, Cuisinot and her fiance, Jon Paul Mitchell, will have to watch more than her purse, as the couple and soon-to-be business partners have just purchased Cosmetique Spa and Boutique in Grass Valley’s Glenbook Basin.

Cuisinot, a Grass Valley native who grew up loving the atmosphere of spas, worked as the spray tanner at Cosmetique for more than five years and had developed a close relationship with the previous owners, Sharen Deardorff and, more recently, Bridgett Higginbotham.

“I went to cosmetology school when I was 19,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to buy this spa for years.”

When the opportunity to acquire the business finally arose, Cuisinot and Mitchell jumped at the chance to embark on a joint venture. They are currently raising four girls in their blended family — the oldest are 7 and 6 — the youngest are both 3.

Mitchell, who moved to Nevada County 17 years ago from Oceanside, has an extensive background in construction, a far cry from his newest venture.

“I’m excited — I’m looking forward to learning and helping out,” he said. “I think Lacey and I make great business partners — we’re incredibly compatible.”

Located in the Glenbrook Basin, the airy, two-story spa features natural and socially-responsible skin care and make up lines, such as Eminence Organic SkinCare, bareMinerals, doTerra Essential Oils and Hempz herbal body moisturizers.

“We’ll also be providing Sjolie tanning products, which are vegan, organic and 100 percent naturally derived,” said Cuisinot. “They’re a local company based in Roseville. I’ve always done custom spraying.”

As far as the boutique end goes, Mitchell and Cuisinot hope to carry an ever-changing “affordable and chic” selection of clothing and gifts, with an emphasis on products made by local vendors. Her goal, she says, will be to target the “mid generation,” meaning women ranging from their mid 20s to 40s.

Once the hiring is complete, Cuisinot says she hopes she will be able to offer a full-service salon, including hair styling, nail stations, facials, eyebrow waxing, eyelash extensions, massage and more.

“I’ve known Lacy for about seven years — she’s done my hair and has tanned me quite a few times,” said Lake Wildwood resident Hannah Smith. “She’s very professional and goal-oriented. When she takes on something new she takes it very seriously, she’s very dedicated. When sets her mind on something, she makes it happen. She’s always wanted to own her own business. I’m super happy for her.”

“With four girls under the age of 8 in our house, I’m a mom who understands the joy of escaping to a spa,” said Cuisinot. “More than anything, I love helping other women feel their best.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet Your Merchant: Owner of Asylum Down takes over the adjacent business of an old friend

When Peggy Peterson first met Terry Mohr he was sitting on the grass selling crystals off of a blanket in Sonora.

Little did the two know they would go on to forge a friendship that has lasted more than 40 years and own successful Nevada City businesses side-by-side for more than two decades.

Twenty-two years ago, Peterson and Mohr decided to pare down their craft fair circuit and team up to rent a cavernous building — a former Bank of America branch — on the corner of Pine and Broad streets. The retail space had more recently been home to California Buttonworks, a generations-old company that manufactured custom campaign buttons. When the button company opted to move their plant to a cheaper location, Peterson and Mohr jumped at the chance to set up shop in a prime retail spot.

Mohr’s business was “California Gold,’ which sold high end custom gold jewelry. Peterson’s was “Asylum Down,” an import store that sold handmade goods and crafts made by artisans from all over the world.

“We decided to divide the space in half,” said Peterson. “So we just split the building down the middle and built a wall.”

The two shared the space for more than 20 years, until recently when Mohr decided he was ready to relinquish his day-to-day responsibilities and retire. Peterson offered to buy his business and he accepted. Thanks to a family inheritance, she had been able to buy the entire building a year and a half ago. Buying Mohr’s business as well was a natural step for Peterson.

“It just felt right,” she said. “I don’t really want to change much.”

Going forward, Peterson says California Gold will continue to work with the same renowned natural gold and quartz jewelers, Paul Quackenbush and Oly Schwarz. But she has now introduced a new distinctive collection of silver jewelry brought in by Peterson’s husband, Mohamed Aboubacar, who runs his own import business.

On display now is a new impressive selection of pieces made by members of the Tuareg tribe, who live in Aboubacar’s native hometown of Agadez in Niger. The Tuareg people generally inhabit the Sahara desert, in a vast area stretching from Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. For generations they have been internationally known for their hand hammered, meticulously engraved silver jewelry, often with symbolism and motifs reflective of their culture. The silver collection seemed like a nice complement to the store, said Peterson, despite making the name a bit of a misnomer.

“We’ll also be adding a new line of silver jewelry with gold nuggets,” said Peterson. “They’re made by various artists from the region. I like to think that we’re just adding more beautiful things to an already successful business.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet your merchant: Despite the big name, the Sears Hometown Store really is a family-owned business

At the age of 16, Debbie Kratz landed her first job at Sears in Yuba City. She worked as Santa’s helper, helping children pose while getting their holiday photographs taken. As luck would have it, there was a handsome young sales associate named Allen in the adjacent hardware and paint department who caught her eye.

Today, more than 40 years later — now with three children and nine grandchildren — Debbie and Allen Kratz say they’ve come full circle, as they’ve recently purchased the Sears Hometown Store in Grass Valley.

After a 26-year career at Hewlett-Packard, Allen’s job was abruptly outsourced overseas, leaving him in search of a new job. After working several years as a real estate appraiser, he was eager for more stimulation. He and Debbie had long dreamed of owning their own business, so when they learned that Ron Gaynor was retiring and selling the Sears Hometown franchise in Grass Valley, they jumped at the chance.

“We only had three weeks to decide,” said Allen. “But it was a pretty easy decision — it seemed like a good fit for us.”

In July, the Kratzes got the keys the store, and have since immersed themselves in the daily workings of owning an independent franchise.

“We are deeply grateful to our employees, some of whom have been here over 10 years,” said Debbie. “Their wealth of knowledge is invaluable — we call them our ‘gems.’”

Their parent company, Sears Hometown, is now a separate entity and no longer affiliated with the struggling Sears Holding Corporation, which operates through its subsidiaries, including Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart Corporation. For this reason, the Kratzes are able to make independent decisions when it comes to their inventory. Unlike the Sears Holding Corporation, Sears Hometown in Grass Valley will continue to carry tried-and-true brands, such as Whirlpool and KitchenAide appliances.

While Debbie says she’s got plans to make the showroom a little more “homey,” it will still continue to feature a broad selection of washers, dryers, vacuums, dishwashers, beds, barbecues, garbage disposals, water filters and softeners, weed whackers, leaf blowers, chain saws, pressure washers, snowblowers and more. There are even a couple of end-of-season kayaks on sale near the cash registers.

“We carry a lot of really good name products, and if you don’t see what you want here in the store, we can order it or you can buy it at our online store and have it delivered here,” said Allen. “Our main focus is offering excellent customer service. We want our customers to feel as though they’ve been educated on all the options and to have a good experience while they’re here.”

“I was a server at Wings Grill in Auburn for more than a decade,” said Debbie. “I understand the value of loyal customers — we’re looking forward to getting to know our customers here.”

When it comes to delivery and installation, in addition to one of their nine employees, the store contracts with Hale Appliance Services, Kirk Brothers Plumbing and Aable Appliance Services.

Another focus going forward, said Debbie, is becoming an integral part of the community. In preparation for the holidays, customers who donate $5 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation between Nov. 19 and 22 will receive a 10 percent discount coupon to be used toward a future purchase.

“It’s always been important for us to help out,” said Debbie. “We’re big on giving back.”

Located on Idaho-Maryland Road next door to Byers Enterprises, the Kratzes encourage community members to pop in, see what’s new and introduce themselves.

“We have such fond memories of Sears when we started our life together — this setting feels very familiar to us,” said Debbie. “We bought this business the day before our 41st wedding anniversary. We’ve truly come full circle.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Meet your merchant: Grass Valley (more than just a) skateboard store evolves over two decades

Since Goodtimes opened in 1997 as a small skateboard store in Nevada City, it has evolved into far more than a shop for young skaters.

Located on Mill Street in Grass Valley since 2001, today the shop has become the go-to place for current styles and up-to-the-minute brands of clothing, shoes and accessories for males of all ages.

“We don’t cater to one demographic — we have everything for the guy who works at the bank to the skater,” said owner Sam Anderson. “From tank tops and board shorts to button down shirts. I think people have finally realized that we have a pretty broad inventory.”

Both Anderson and his store manager of 11 years, Ian Fuenzalida, say they listen to their customers and attend trade shows to stay abreast of trends. Popular brands include RVCA, Brixton, Volcom, LRG, Thrasher, Supra, Lakai, Emerica, Salty Crew, Vans, Adidas and Converse.

One wall is devoted exclusively to shoes, another to flat-billed hats, socks, sweatshirts and T-shirts. The front is dominated by an impressive selection of sunglasses, including Ray-Ban, Electric, VonZipper and Spy.

The back left wall is all skateboards and accessories — some of which are custom designed — a reminder of, and tribute to, the core customers who helped catapult the store into the successful retail venture it is today. In celebration of their 20th year, Goodtimes has commissioned several artists well known in the skater community to create custom mining/Gold Rush themes on their skateboards, T-shirts and posters. Artists include illustrator Michael Sieben, currently the managing editor of Thrasher Magazine, Jason Adams, Ben Horton and FOS.

For its modest size, Anderson says Grass Valley has a relatively large skating community, much of which can be attributed to a well-designed skate park.

“In small communities like ours, skate parks are usually built by someone’s dad who’s a contractor, but we had input from pro-skater Chris Senn, and that was huge,” he said. “People come from Southern California to skate in our park, and our shop has become known regionally by association.”

“We’re definitely on the map — it’s in L.A., Seattle and — Grass Valley,” said Fuenzalida, with a laugh. “One of the most rewarding parts of this job has been playing a role in keeping the local skating community alive and thriving. A lot of places don’t have this kind of community. We’re lucky.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.