If you grew up in Santa Rosa, then Downtown surely played a central role in your coming-of-age. It’s where you procured your clothes and music, and where you watched the movies that shaped your outlook and clarified your path.
Take The Last Record Store, which for years occupied a spot across from the library before moving to the Junior College Neighborhood. It’s where I bought my first rock albums at age 13, then turned up the amp to Metallica and the Sex Pistols before becoming a lovesick teenager and requiring something like The Cure. By the time I was 19 I sheepishly asked for Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook. I’ll never forget the owner chuckling, “This kid has gone from Death Metal …” If Downtown served as the stage for my adolescent development, he served as my acutely observant theater critic.
Of course, Downtown doesn’t only facilitate transformation, it is also subject to it, which can be good or bad depending on your point of view. My first publication was a 1994 op-ed for the local daily about the trend of grunge kids panhandling for fun and profit. They presumably lived in one of the valleys—Rincon, Bennett, Hidden—but this was their way of protesting bourgeois norms or something. It’s comforting to note that today’s Downtown panhandling is far more authentic.
Returning to Santa Rosa after being away for 20 years, I try to focus on the sweet side of the bittersweet sensation that comes whenever I head Downtown, which isn’t easy given the eyesore redesign of Old Courthouse Square. So let us take a nostalgic flaneur’s stroll through the area around Fourth and Mendocino and see what we find. We’ll start our metaphoric meandering at Mirage Florist, where as a young dandy writer in the mid-’90s I’d grab a daily flower for my lapel from the charming owner Sharzad. From there, our first stop is quite clear: Treehorn Books.
In days gone by I browsed there constantly, dreaming of one day building a collection of its rare and antiquarian books. Treehorn is still here after all these years, having weathered all the changes in society and the marketplace—Amazon, device addiction, a lack of interest in reading. For me it’s not only a deeply personal memory-place, it’s Santa Rosa’s greatest oasis of high culture; the city’s very own Library of Alexandria.
When cafes began popping up everywhere in the ’90s, I liked nothing more than sitting in the coffee houses reading something like Baudelaire’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe and imagining I was in 19th-century Paris. There’s now a perfect spot to fuel such reveries: Crooks Coffee at 404 Mendocino Ave., which boasts Gothic decor touches, a large portrait of Poe and even employs a raven as its mascot. The master of horror fiction would also surely agree, alas, that the afternoon sun is far too bright and that the tall windows should be properly hung with heavy damask curtains reeking of opium.
Freshly caffeinated, let’s see what other treasures we might find. Positively Fourth Street, a kind of New Age shop for expediency’s sake, carries opium, at least in incense form. It also carries my favorite incense brand from India, called Prabhuji’s Gifts. But what people really burn these days, a clerk tells me, are bundles of sage, which are used as part of cleansing rituals when moving into a new home—or exiting California. With all the destabilizing chaos of the past year, sage has become a popular detergent in the house of the spirits.
Santa Rosa now has a plethora of thrift shops, which is one of the best recycling programs ever devised, since one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Intrepid Thrift Store at Fourth and B is always worth a browse whenever you pass by; since new stuff comes in daily and at thrift-store prices, it’s not hard to justify an impulse buy. You won’t find many comic books there, however. In the ’80s we went to Sawyer’s News or a shop called Perelandra in Railroad Square, but today there’s Outer Planes Comics & Games at Seventh and Mendocino, in a building that as I recall once housed a Wherehouse Records back in vinyl’s glory days.
It’s right across the street from the old pool hall, where we went to learn how to play after seeing The Color Of Money, starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, in 1987. That building is now home to Trek Bicycle, which offers a wide selection of bicycles in a studio-like layout that is pleasant to the eye, though lacking the nostalgic rubber smell that pervaded childhood bike shops. If you’re out for a ride and get a flat or your gears start slipping, you’ll find Trek’s service fast and friendly.
As lunchtime rolls around, gourmands are surely pleased to find that Downtown offers more than just Italian. Besides the two large landmark Mexican cantinas—Tipsy Taco at Mendo and Seventh and La Rosa at Mendo and Fourth—there’s such international fare as The Golden Bun (Vietnamese), New Sizzling Tandoor (Indian), Best Of Burma 2 (Burmese) and Falafel Hut (Middle Eastern), in the old Arrigoni’s location at Fourth and D. That’s just half a block from Ting Hau, which is old enough to be a legend in what was once known as Anarchy Alley, but which today has more cows—on the mural—than punk rockers. Besides, today anarchists are practically everywhere.
For something sweet, head over to Sift Dessert Bar at 404 Mendocino, but consider yourself warned: addiction is highly possible. It’s known for cupcakes that are no kid’s fare, and sells several hundred sophisticated concoctions—such as red velvet, cookies and cream, and a raspberry cake with champagne frosting—per day. For something more befitting a special occasion, head over to Tudor Rose English Tea Room for pastries-and-beverage at an unhurried pace.
As the afternoon fades, local brew connoisseurs can start their beer crawl with the words, “Pick me up at midnight,” so plentiful are the offerings for the hops-inclined. Those seeking more potent potables can opt for Perch + Plow overlooking Old Courthouse Square, where cocktail banter is sure to turn to the design of public spaces.
Or maybe music—for I must end this ode to Downtown and its power to bring about and reflect change with one grumpy harrumph. If anything is in need of transformation Downtown, it’s the music. The same droning, computer-generated dreck seems to play in every shop and cafe, an inescapable soundtrack of banality that follows shoppers everywhere they go. To lift customer spirits, thereby putting them in a better mood and perhaps encouraging them to spend more money, I suggest such pop music genres as ragtime, blues, jazz, bossa nova, Motown, soul, doo-wop, gospel, rockabilly, ’60s British Invasion and ye-ye, ’70s classic rock and disco, and ’80s New Wave.
I’d say you could find all that at The Last Record Store, except that earlier this year it finally lived up to its name.