Ask the average Sonoman to list the one place in town where they are most likely to run into people they know, and the odds are high they’ll say either the Plaza or Sonoma Market.
Ask anyone in Glen Ellen where they are most likely to encounter their friends and they will instantly answer either the Post Office or Shone’s, otherwise known as Glen Ellen Village Market.
To say that Don Shone and Dale Downing have created a Valley institution is like saying that Will Bucklin makes a nice, organic, dry-farmed zinfandel field blend. (It’s an understatement of profound proportions, but worth noting if you’re searching for a bottle of Bucklin’s outrageously good zin, because you can find it at either market).
The grocery store partners, who will be anointed Saturday night 2014 Sweethearts of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, have been in business now for 50 years, most of that time together, and the spaces they’ve created are as much ours as theirs – which is to say that citizens of the Valley practically inhabit both stores.
In fact, some Glen Ellen residents will tell you that they love their village, but if Shone’s wasn’t there they wouldn’t be either.
And while the city of Sonoma has several grocery store options, Sonoma Market seems to occupy a different dimension in the lives of its customers – they don’t just shop there, somehow they become members of an extended family.
Some of that, no doubt, has to do with values. This week, the drugstore giant CVS announced it would stop selling tobacco products by October, taking a $2 billion hit in sales. Well and good. But Dale and Don did the same thing almost 20 years ago. Then, said Don, “Dale heard how snuff was killing kids, so we threw it out too. We lost a lot of money, but it was a good move for us.”
But ending access wasn’t the end of the story. “We make bets with our employees,” Don explains. “If they want to try to stop smoking, we’ll pay them $300 if they can stop for six months. If they screw up, they have to do 15 hours of volunteer work.”
Deals like that suggest a somewhat unorthodox work environment.
One employee, Don remembers, “smoked like a chimney. I told him $200, he said nah, that’s not enough. I finally got him up to $600 and he did it. We’ve had great success, probably 20 or 30 people over the years.”
Those years began in 1963 when Don opened the Glen Ellen market everyone just called Shone’s in the stone building now housing a tasting room across from where the old and infamous Rustic Inn once stood. The Rustic, a saloon of legend frequented by Jack London in his day, and later by an eclectic melange of humanity ranging from writers (including, for about a year, Hunter S. Thompson) to bikers, awestruck tourists and employees from the Sonoma Developmental Center, eventually burned more or less to the ground after catching fire once too many times.
That was in 1974 when Don and Dale were both volunteer firefighters, and they were actually present when the flames erupted. “The old saddle sign, which was never lit, finally turned on, and the jukebox, which didn’t work, came on, and then the place basically burned up.”