Over the past two decades, online shopping grew exponentially, not only during the holiday season but also throughout the year. According to a February retail sales report from the Commerce Department, online shopping hit a milestone recently—it was the first time in history that online U.S. retail sales were higher than brick-and-mortar purchases, excluding auto and restaurant sales.
Despite an increase in online commerce, with customers comparing prices from around the world and buying from the convenience of their home, there is still a substantial market niche for local artisanal wares. Many customers are seeking those one-of-a-kind items, especially for gifts—unique products lovingly made with care and not found in the Amazon world. Wrapping your fingers around an originally crafted pottery mug, feeling the weight of a handcrafted belt around your waist, or dipping bread into olive oil made just a short drive away delivers a rich experience worth more than the ease of online shopping.
This comes as no surprise to the hundreds of artisans, gourmands, and craftspeople in the North Bay, who work at what they love while producing exceptional products, appreciated by locals and tourists alike. They create everything from household and personal items to gourmet food and more, preferring the connection that only face-to-face dealings provide despite competition from the online world.
Preferring the personal touch
“Most of my sales are through the juried art shows that I do,” says Lori O’Neill, designer and owner of L. O’Neill Design. She creates handbags and clothing, much from fabric found on travels around the world. “I love dealing with the public. It’s the way I’ve done it my whole career. I’m not designing things on an annual basis that people can order from. They’re all one-of-a-kind with the fabrics I have. It’s hard to do that online.”
O’Neill started her business 31 years ago, selling items such as hair accessories and small tapestry bags, all made of cloth, to local shows and farmers markets. Through a personal contact, she was commissioned to produce 12 high-end exotic bags for an Ashram in India, which kicked off her business in earnest.
“It was the first time I had done larger bags. I loved them so much,” says O’Neill. “So I started making one-of-a-kind bags. The first big art show I did was the Sausalito Arts Festival in 1989. The bags sold well and I started doing a couple other major shows and slowly started adding people to the business.”
At the height of production, O’Neill employed three people to cut and prep the fabrics and up to six home sewers. For more than 20 years she and her husband attended all of the major national art shows around the country, going to up to 60 per year. The business expanded to include other clothing and accessories such as jackets and coats. However, even at her busiest, she preferred the one-on-one sales versus taking her business online.
“Once you’re used to making things by hand and finding customers that appreciate them, it’s hard to remove that connection,” says O’Neill. “The handbags are a little easier to do online sales with, but for the clothing pieces, I think people want to put them on and touch them and see what colors look good on them.”
O’Neill eventually scaled back her business for personal reasons and moved from an industrial location to resume her work at her Santa Rosa home, focusing on one-of-a-kind clothing, shawls and bags. She primarily works with kimono silks and other Japanese fabrics now, inspired by a trip to Japan, and attends numerous showcases such as the Bay Area juried arts shows in Sausalito, Los Altos, Menlo Park, and Pasadena.
Hand and heart crafted
Anna Wingfield of Napa Valley au Naturel loves connecting with people in a meaningful way. A certified aromatherapist, she started the company 20 years ago after living for some time in France. Wingfield was inspired by French pharmacies, which offer natural medicines and remedies made from herbs, flowers and essential oils. Today, she sells her products to people from all across the United States through the Etsy website and at the Napa, Calistoga and St. Helena farmers markets.
“Being a part of that community is really satisfying. There are so many people that do neat crafts and make wonderful food,” says Wingfield. “Wine is great, but there is so much more in this area.” She finds the North Bay a good place to sell her products, both to locals and tourists. Many of her Etsy orders are derived from travelers who found her products while visiting the farmers market on vacation in Napa.
“People here are supportive of local producers,” says Wingfield. “I think they’re open-minded to herbs and flowers and natural healing through plants. They appreciate beauty. I feel lucky to live here because I don’t think this business would have prospered for me like it has if I didn’t live here.”
Wingfield likes to call Napa Valley au Naturel “hand and heart crafted” for both the joy the line brings to customers, and the happiness she feels in creating her products, which change with the seasons and are always evolving. Like many artisans, she feels lucky to do what she loves and connect with people she appreciates while making a living at the same time.
“I feel grateful,” says Wingfield. “So many people don’t get to have the joy of doing something they feel like they’re meant to do, or that they’re good at, or that they can share with other people. I feel grateful to get to do something that feels useful, fun, purposeful and adds some beauty to the day of so many people.”
Also following her passion, artist Barbara Sebastian of Barbara Sebastian Studios in San Rafael decided to follow her heart 43 years ago when she left her teaching career to pursue her love of ceramics. She also created large corporate murals, but she started by working with clay and that’s been her primary medium for the last 10 years. Sebastian creates porcelain jars, teapots and bird statues, which are wheel-thrown and high-fired. The decorations on the surface are often hand-carved.
“A lot of people buy them as a little keepsake jar, or they buy one for every member of the family,” she says. “I love making them. They’re functional, but they are also decorative.” Sebastian sells primarily at art festivals on the west coast, preferring one-on-one contact to online sales. She fares better at festivals that charge an admission fee, rather than free street fair type events, since they have a tendency to attract people who appreciate and are willing to pay for higher end, handmade items. “I find that people who’ve had at least one ceramics lesson appreciate my work better than anybody else,” she says. “It’s interesting when I start to get some questions, where I know a person had some kind of ceramic class. I’m always happy when they buy something.”
For an area known around the world for its wine, it’s only natural that gourmet food producers would follow. Some are as old as the local wine industry itself. “The Hammond family has been growing olives since 1882, when the property was homesteaded,” says Cathy Hammond, Owner of Napa-based Atlas Peak, which produces Mission and Arbequina olive oil, olives, blended spices, and more recently, flavored balsamic vinegar.
Because food and wine go hand-in-hand, Hammond believes Wine Country is an especially good place for her to do business, which she does primarily at local farmers markets. “The North Bay is an excellent place to sell,” says Hammond. “We have a lots of folks that enjoy cooking. The local folks have a huge appreciation for my products. I have gained many friends in the local community by seeing them at my market booth often. I have watched all the kids grow up. That’s the joy of working farmers markets.”
Being a smaller artisan producer is not without its challenges. While she loves being a farmer and working outside, Hammond must defer to Mother Nature during olive production and harvest. Besides the normal agricultural challenges such as drought or frost, wildfires have added to the struggle. “The biggest challenge has been losing a lot of product to the wildfire that came through the property,” says Hammond. “I had half of my crops sitting on the trees when they were covered with retardant. But on the other hand, it was a blessing the trees were saved.”
The spirited side of Sonoma County
For those who prefer a cocktail more than a glass of wine, the North Bay is lucky to have a local producer of Brandies, Whiskies, Rums, Vodka, Gins and other unique spirits. Fred and Amy Groth, who fell in love with Sonoma while they were on vacation from Boulder in 2008, started Sonoma-based Prohibition Spirits Distillery about 10 years ago. “We were wine tasting and felt like this was our local version of Italy, and we were wondering where the limoncello was,” says Amy. “We knew how to produce it, so we jumped in and became the first distillery in Sonoma since prohibition with our first product, Limoncello di Sonoma.”
Five months after visiting Wine Country they packed up and moved, with three young children all under the age of five, to Sonoma to start their business. Together, they’ve produced more than 60 products, including the brands Chauvet Brandy, Jack’s Gin, Hooker’s House Whiskeys, HelloCello, Sugar Daddy Rums, Solano Vodka, Nocino, and Spritz Apero Americano. “Our business grows as the industry grows,” says Amy. “We feel like we’re always on the cutting edge with products. We’re constantly educating ourselves and growing as humans, which reflects on our products as well.”
Though the company sells online, it does so locally through a tasting room at Cornerstone Sonoma. Its products are also available throughout the Bay Area, southern California, and out of state at retailers such as Broadway Market, Sonoma Market, Whole Foods, BevMo, Costco, and Total Wine and Spirit. “People would be surprised to learn about how small our company is,” says Amy. “We have done a lot within the past 10 years and there is only a handful of us. That said, we have big hearts and huge dreams, so we’re not that small at all.”
Influenced by our wine culture
Living and working in Wine Country is a source of inspiration and opportunity. Several artisan producers got their start either catering to workers in the wine industry or using salvaged materials related to wine production.
John Kelly of Napa Valley Leathercraft started his business about seven years ago, initially selling handmade leather belts to vineyard and cellar workers who appreciated the durability and sturdiness of the belts. “They’re strong belts and will last an eternity,” says Kelly. “I started primarily designing them for the vineyard workers, and then some of the cellar workers grabbed them and liked them. It kind of morphed from there.” Now everyone seems to want them, including tourists.
Today, Kelly sells belts for men and women almost exclusively at local farmers markets, in addition to some out-of-state email and phone orders from referrals or repeat customers. Meanwhile, he’s expanding into the leather bag market and plans to design and produce leather vests. Like other artisans, he prefers in-person sales and doesn’t plan on establishing an online presence.
“I’ve never sold one item off my website,” says Kelly. “People have to look at it, touch it and feel it and try it on. It’s not something I would be happy sending through the mail, sight unseen. Someone will say it’s too big or too small—there are all kinds of variables.”
Kelly notes that most people would be surprised to know how much work goes into his products. His prices are higher than at a standard retail store selling mass-produced belts, but he uses only the highest quality leather. Many belts sold as leather on the market today contain just a fraction of the material, with the center being plastic or even cardboard. Kelly calls the market for cheaper belts a “false economy” because his belts hold more value in the long run since they almost never need to be replaced. He enjoys selling in person at the farmers markets and notes that most customers appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of his products.
“People who frequent the farmers markets are a different breed of people,” says Kelly. “They are looking for high end, good quality stuff. As long as we can keep the quality up then we’ll always be in business.”
Kent Varty of Petaluma-based KV Designs didn’t start making products for the wine business, but he uses salvaged industry materials to craft wine-barrel fire pits with wood or granite countertops. He’s an experienced mason for a landscape company building fireplaces, outdoor kitchens and pool decks. After coming across the idea of a fire pit made with a wine barrel online, he decided to make one himself a couple years ago. Family and friends loved the idea, encouraging him to start his business.
“Nobody has done granite countertops. People have done wood or cork. But being the mason that I am, I got into building them with granite, which turns out really awesome,” says Varty. “I’ll go find remnants that are big enough and I don’t always know what color it will be—I work with whatever I get. I cut the granite myself, polish it, and fit it to each barrel because each barrel is different.” The one-of-a-kind fire pits are quintessentially California; customers appreciate the wine country connection. The fact that they’re handmade with recycled materials adds to the appeal.
“I’ll usually look on Craiglist or find some barrels at Heritage Salvage. I just look around. You can find people on the side of the road selling them. They’re everywhere,” says Varty. “In the North Bay people seem to like handmade stuff. Recycling these barrels and getting them out there—people around here love that.”
Love and admiration for hand-made goods isn’t new, but times certainly have changed. A few decades ago, many stores stocked such items. A wide range of consumers understood their value when Internet sales exploded, forcing many of these shops and boutiques to close their doors. Fortunately, despite the ease and affordability of mass-produced items, most of which are imported from other countries, there are still artisans—and customers who appreciate their craftsmanship. O’Neill is confident that regardless of the altered market for her products and others like them, that bond will always exist. “I think there will always be an appreciation for handcrafted things,” she says. “There is a niche of people who are still looking for something special.”
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