From the ashes: Remembering the Herb Shop
This July would have been the 30th anniversary of continuous operation of the Herb Shop in Nevada City.
The fire that consumed the old Elks Building last month took not only the business, but the original herb jars, a handmade wall case, an antique clock, old posters for concerts held there, and a thousand other pieces of memorabilia from owners, employees and customers.
As a customer and previous owner of the Herb Shop, I’ve watched with sadness as the walls steadily came down on a history of creativity and earthiness, and on the business innocence of another generation.
The store opened in July 1972, and evolved along with the town. It was one of the first businesses opened by “back-to-the-landers” in Nevada County. At that time, Nevada City was almost a ghost town.
Rents were so cheap that storefronts went for $50 to $100 per month. Two couples who owned the Herb Farm together opened the Herb Shop as a place to sell their wares. They averaged $25 a day in sales in their first months.
The details of those early days were passed down to me in story form during my more than 10 years of ownership. Kathy Keville, still an herbalist in the area, and a man named Mel, who occasionally appeared for a small herb purchase, contributed their personal histories of the years between 1972 and 1976 when the Herb Shop was in its original, tiny Main Street location.
The business eventually passed to Alexis Dyer and moved into a long narrow space in what was then the Elks building on Pine Street. When Dyer and Micki Boudreaux became partners in 1978, a new era began.
The Herb Shop not only sold herbs, but became the first espresso coffeehouse in Nevada County. Cards and gifts were added, and the store became a meeting place for newcomers, families with young children, students and anyone seeking to make connections in the rapidly changing community.
In 1980, Micki took over as sole proprietor and put more of her zany creativity into the place. I vividly remember studying for college courses amid espresso and conversation, the window display replete with large plastic goose lamps, flying wooden seagulls, and multi-colored flower garlands. There was a light to the place; it was a focal point of music, art, culture and alternative everything.
This mirrored the blossoming of the “alternative community” in Nevada City. The Herb Shop’s business grew rapidly, and it became an ally of other alternative businesses as they started willy-nilly.
With Nevada City’s growth and economic prosperity, the Herb Shop’s next-door neighbor, Friar Tuck’s, was growing, too, and owner Greg Cook wanted to expand into the Herb Shop’s space.
The Elks proposed that Micki move into the newly vacated place next door. With some doubts, she accepted the offer and suddenly the cozy Herb Shop was rattling around in more than 2,000 square feet.
The expansion and need for more capital proved to be more than Micki wanted to contend with, and in early 1984, she sold the business to one of her employees, Donna Natalie.
Soon afterward – while I was doing some bookkeeping for a client at a table in the Herb Shop that functioned as my office away from home – Donna asked if I would be her bookkeeper. To this day, I have all the original books as a result of that alliance. More was to come of that moment than I could ever know.
By October, Donna realized that she was not up for the financial burden of running such a large business, but felt committed to the future of the store and offered to sell it to me. I was stunned and excited.
Against all odds, and with three young children, I put together a financial plan and business proposal, secured about five loans, and became the next owner of this hub of the community.
Many people still come up to me in town, saying, “I remember when you ran the register at the Herb Shop, had twin babies and a 3-year-old running underfoot.” Among the challenges I encountered in those days – along with being young, inexperienced, and a mother of three – was maintaining all of the Herb Shop’s homeyness while making it more of a going concern.
Many of the changes I made were met with chagrin: putting in the first cash register, making it a “no-smoking” store, adding more clothing and jewelry, and redoing the pricing and menu. The Herb Shop needed to inhabit the new space fully and make a profit.
During those early years, many community members offered me advice, helped me with late-night painting parties, and supported the store through its transition. It still felt like their community spot.
KVMR-FM, Rainbow Mountain Inn, musicians, artists, therapists and just folks wanted to partner with me to ensure the success of this favorite mecca. When I saw clothing as a viable way to increase profits, Laura Solano came on board to help.
We bonded over our mutual love of the store and tried to remain faithful to its original vision. We nailed up a community bulletin board, started a folk music series, and managed to make enough profit to raise our kids and keep the business going.
But the competition steadily increased, and the funkiness we so loved was becoming less the fashion as slicker stores came to town.
In 1995, Laura bought the store from me. She went from the department store idea to sharing some of the business ownership in a business co-op format.
She invited someone to open a deli and welcomed back our beloved employee Lovie Bucknell as the owner of Herb Shop Records. Fire took the building just as this concept was beginning to unfold. All of the owners lost everything in a single day.
A lot has happened in 30 years. California has burgeoned, Nevada City’s downtown area has bloomed once again, and kids have been born that are now fully grown. The Herb Shop lies leveled.
Another transition is in store for its spirit. Laura and I have been friends for 17 years. We are mourning together, while at the same time celebrating all that the Herb Shop was, knowing that what has been will never die. And we’re also wondering what will happen next!
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