Main Street Sonoma is long gone

When I was a boy growing up in Sonoma, there seemed to be at least two or three bars on every block of the Plaza, more if you counted the ones that were part of a hotel or restaurant (Union Hotel, Swiss Hotel and El Dorado, for example).

Fast-forward to today and it seems that there is a small but aggressive group of folks concerned that too many establishments serving wine will somehow ruin us.

So how many liquor or wine establishments are too many for downtown Sonoma? How many restaurants are too many? Ice cream shops? How about lawyers and real estate sales people?

Classic, old-fashioned Main Street, with small grocers, drug stores and haberdashers serving the needs of locals, has been gone from downtown Sonoma for decades. Only a very few (like Eraldi’s) have survived. The evolution of our small-town, small-shop economy began long before tasting rooms.

Safeway, which used be located where the art museum is today, moved west five blocks to Fifth Street West. Food City Market was located for years in the middle of First Street East between Spain St. and Napa Street. It closed and was replaced by a complex of shops, some of which sell wine.

Adobe Drug, now Pharmaca, used to be where the Sunflower Caffe is now, but moved to their new building in the mid-1960s. There were two other drug stores downtown in those days: Simmons Pharmacy, where Chico’s is today, and Fribergs Rexall Drugs, where Rudy’s Restaurant is on Broadway.

Shone’s Market was located across the street from Fribergs. There was a Greyhound bus station at the corner of Spain and First Street West. The post office was where Mary’s Pizza is located.

Mission Hardware burned down, and in its place a combination gift store and wine tasting room rose up.

The list goes on.

Many small merchants have come and gone in the downtown area over the last five decades. While Darwin’s theory may not be precisely applicable, there is no doubt that economic evolution is the major cause of the changes that occur continuously in the Plaza business community. How can it not be so?

Retailing was a hard way to make a living on the Sonoma Plaza even before there were large out-of-town shopping centers, outlet malls, Amazon, Zappos, eBay, etc. Today, trying to earn a living in a small retail shop on the Plaza has to be mostly a labor of love.

Yet thankfully, many people are still willing to give it a try.

Who is to say what came first, higher rents that squeezed out small, independent businesses, or changes to the national and regional economy and the way goods and services are sold. Either way, no city ordinance, quota system or micro-managed business-licensing policy would have made a difference for the better.

The mix of business types in downtown Sonoma today reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of our local economy, and also the realities of the marketplace in which we all choose to spend our money.

Over the past four decades, there have been a growing percentage of local residents who have chosen to shop in Santa Rosa, Marin, Napa and other places out of the Valley. Many more now buy a lot of goods online.

Had we made more of an effort to support downtown Sonoma businesses during that same period, would more of the old merchants have survived? Possibly. But who legislates that?

The mix of downtown Sonoma businesses is the result of many factors, mostly economic, over which city government has little or no control. And in trying to gain more control, dictating what types of businesses (and how many) can go where, our local government runs the risk of making things worse for Sonoma, not better.

Sonoma was a wonderful place to live and work in those days, and it still is today.