Sonoma Sport closes its doors after 35 years

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After 28 years of working seven days a week as the owner and manager of Sonoma Sport – the longtime athletic store in the Sonoma Marketplace shopping center on West Napa Street – Tom Zralka is looking forward to a day off. The closing of his Sonoma Sport store, however, leaves downtown Sonoma with one less retail store for locals.

Zralka, 71, is retiring. He expects to close the doors to Sonoma Sport for good on Thursday, Feb. 28. On Monday, he was busy selling the remaining merchandise and arranging for the donation of most of his store fixtures including glass cases and display units to area nonprofits.

“They are welcome to come take whatever they need,” he said.

Zralka has run the store seven days a week for decades without a staff.

“I just don’t have the (store income) to be able to afford an employee,” he said.

For many years, Zralka’s brother, Al, helped out, but when his 74-year-old sibling’s wife took ill, he was no longer able to assist at the shop.

“Now, I need to close the store and if we are closed for days at a time, it is hard to catch up from that,” said Zralka. About a year ago, when faced with his own health issues, he began planning to close.

Zralka grew up in Chicago but has lived in Sonoma for almost 30 years. Prior to moving to Sonoma in the early 1990s, he was a consultant in Southern California. In 1991, he bought Sonoma Sport from Ed Lang, who had started the store seven years earlier.

Despite increasingly tough competition from online sports stores and large chains, Zralka changed his store’s stock seasonally, and carried equipment and apparel for almost a dozen sports, including baseball, football, swimming, soccer, skateboarding, as well as renting skis and ski apparel.

“It was nice having a local option for sports equipment and apparel,” said Jane Hanson, owner of Sonoma Aquatic Club.

“A lot of customers are calling it the end of an era,” said Zralka. “There are fewer and fewer stores like this in Sonoma.” Zralka said there has been an outpouring of goodwill from his customers, who have been stopping by to say goodbye ever since they heard the news of the store’s closing.

“I have lots of customers who bought their first (baseball) glove here and who now bring their kids in to shop,” he said.

Sonoma parent Sheila Martin has shopped at Sonoma Sport for years, picking up cleats, soccer socks, baseball socks, pants, gloves and bags for her kids.

“One day when my daughter Lola and I went in to buy catchers’ gear for baseball, the owner was so supportive and encouraging of her choice to play baseball,” said Martin. “He special-ordered what she wanted, and gave us a discount. I’m really sad that he is closing. He was dedicated to being a really great customer-service oriented business.”

For more than 20 years Zralka outfitted the kids in Sonoma’s soccer leagues – but a few years ago, he said, league officials and coaches began directing players to Big 5 and Dick’s Sporting Goods for their uniforms and supplies.

“It was big loss for me,” he said. “It would have been nice if players could have been urged to buy local.”

Sonoma parent Catherine Ackerly Coturri likes to shop local and she said that she has gone to the store every year since her daughter was little to try on and pick out cleats.

“Now, with Payless also closing, we will most likely have to travel out of town to get gear,” said Coturri.

On Monday, Butch Alvarez, a well-known local mailman who retired last year after 40 years, stopped by to help Zralka pack up. Customers and well-wishes came in and out.

As for the remaining hats, bats and fixtures, Zralka hoped by Thursday to have sold or donated everything. He was sanguine, not bitter, about the turns of events over the past decade that have made owning and operating the store so difficult.

“The last thing I want to do on my way out is to throw stones,” he said.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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