Thursday, December 08, 2005

Just Leave the Money On the Nightstand

Numerous small towns in Northern California seem to get it. They know that their job is to be quaint but intriguing, the perfect blend of rustic charm and indulgent opportunity. They know the value of a wink and a smile, of the irresistible lure of a warm storefront and a sparkling promenade. They know that to nurture yoga studios and bakeries and independent bookstores is to keep their citizens entertained and amused, so much so that they don’t have to flee elsewhere to get their needs met on a regular basis. They understand, in short, that they should be places where locals and jaded city dwellers and dreamy travelers alike come to spend their money.

Sonoma gets it. Petaluma gets it. Mill Valley and Healdsburg get it. Napa Valley obviously gets it in a very big way.

But despite playing host to multi-million dollar homes and shiny automobiles of the most expensive sort, Novato simply doesn’t get it.

For the past umpteen number of years, while surrounding communities have populated their downtowns with a mix of pubs, clothing boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, Novato’s downtown has sported the same tired mix of dusty antique stores and second-rate jewelry shops, with just as many boarded-up windows as actual businesses.

In my exploratory forays downtown, I’ve repeatedly cringed upon stepping into a Grant Avenue storefront. I wonder: have these merchants EVER walked into a bookstore or boutique or café in San Francisco? Have they even once considered the art of arranging merchandise? Have they ever taken a class in the gentle seduction of the pocketbook?

Not once, not twice, but many times over, I’ve heard stories about how hostile
Novato is to new business. About how the review process is petty and harsh, about how many prospective businesses have given up rather than beg for affection. About how she makes eyes at every fast food company in the world, but turns a cold shoulder to more interesting businesses. About how notions of a vibrant, livable community are right near the bottom of her list.

The result is that while her neighbors have progressed from kissing to cuddling to shacking up with their citizens, Novato has become a hollow bedroom town. A town to which people come home to sleep, but not to play or dine or shop. A stubborn artifact of a town, clinging to its remembered roots as a rebel cowboy outpost, apparently not counting the loss of untold dollars to people who simply shudder at its pinched, closed-in, repressive ways, who would far rather drive a few miles in either direction to spend their money in a place that welcomes them with open arms.

Novato is the housewife who has long since tossed away her negligees and walks around in a stained t-shirt with a cigarette hanging between her lips. Love me the way I am, she snarls. And we try, oh, we do. But she isn’t exactly the stuff of our dreams. She’s been in bed with Costco and Target for so long that she isn’t good for much more than the occasional blue-light special.

But the rumblings of the new millennium might be making Novato think twice. And her change of heart can be attributed in no small part to a lust for good, healthy food.

Oh, yes. This is a juicy story: more about that in my next post.


At 12:05 PM, Blogger cookiecrumb said...

Be careful what you wish for. I bailed on Mill Valley less than a year ago, because it got over-boutiquified. All these strange new-money-people from who knows where moving in, flashing bling, elbowing you out of the way at Peet's, driving monstrous monstrosities. Where in Mill Valley do you think one could go to buy underwear? Right, Long's Drugs, because I couldn't afford the precious wisps of lace in the specialty stores.
After a while we began to call Mill Valley "Me Valley," because of the self-righteous arrogance of the people it attracted. By the time I left, I was calling it "Mean Valley."
I think Novato is an odd anachronism, and I believe you that the town's a whore for big-box merchants. But it's also such a dear getaway zone, away from the overpriced candle shops, the European body-lotion shops, the "you can't afford this" home furnishings...
I don't mean to rant. I just did, didn't I? Sorry.
Jennifer, I'm dying to hear your juicy news. I mean, I've been in Marin 15 years, and I've seen change -- glacial change, alas -- in Novato. Bless her little greedy heart.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Way harsh!!

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous kudzu said...

I actually used to go up to Novato from Mill Valley because of the twisty little downtown, before "improvements". The storefronts were old and there were trees up and down the street that had high curbs and plenty of parking...I really, really dislike the new look of the place. I spend a lot of time in the town because I have granchildren there, but we hardly venture into Old Town...There should be book stores and a decent cafe, and more restaurants (though that part of the scene seems to be improving) and now there are enough concerned people to get some projects moving --- probably what you're going to write about next...Anyway, don't despair. Get up into the hills or out toward the lake, pay attention to some of the good stuff in Novato. For instance: tomorrow from 1-5 the students of San Marin High are presenting a benefit for Habitat for Humanity, pulled together mostly on their own, with music and art and other diversions. And did you go to Nepali retaurant yet?

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Cookie, I agree with you about the overpriced "European" stores - but I do envy Mill Valley for their sense of community. You can walk around downtown and get coffee, buy a book, eat lunch at a nice restaurant - all within a couple of blocks. There isn't any "heart" in Novato to get away to...

Greg, I'm not trying to be harsh! Just watching and researching this suburban experience - it is fascinating - and I feel like I am learning so much.

Kudzu, you're right - there are great things here in Novato, too. I haven't checked out the Nepali restaurant yet! Shame on me... will try that soon. Thanks for the reminder.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Flamingo Frank said...

Novato is close to everywhere and everything...They have great outdoor activities in the area like mountain biking on Mt. Burdell. Proffesional tournament quality Disc Golf (Frisbee Golf) Course. 18 holes at Stafford Lake Regional Park just outside of town. Sounds like the place you should have moved to was just a few minutes up Highway 101...Its called Petaluma, which, turning into little "Mill Valley" or "mean valley". Be carefull what you wish for is a good one, but, "Be thankful for what you got" I think, is a better one yet. People like me would just die to be able to even own a house in marin or sonoma county... So some of this (most...) just sounds like spoiled arrogant views by pompous individuals who do not have the right concept of what life is all about. Instead of wasting your time wanting this, complaining about this. Why not go volunteer your time to help unfortunate people in your community and quit thinking of yourself all the time, and how the world effects "YOU". The last thing the guy on the corner with a sign asking for help is thinking is "where are all the Bookstores?" , "Where are all the coffee shops?".."Why cant anyone arrange these storefronts better?"...Do you even hear yourself?...How bout move to "New York" or maybe "France"...? Buc up little camper...your rough existence of a life will come around for you some day. Gee Whiz..

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