We were headed up to the Bay area for a couple of social events, but as is often true when we travel by car, the stops along the way are a big part of the fun. I love checking out the main streets and peripheral neighborhoods of towns and cities that I have no reason to be in, exploring curious non-destinations where people I will never know live and work. I enjoy peering into shop windows, pondering variations on the theme of front porch, and discovering aging buildings that speak of past grandeur. The best thing is when the town has its own little historical museum, replete with wonderful photographs and artifacts, often staffed by elderly ladies whose grandparents lived there too. Atascadero, where we stopped for a late lunch yesterday at the Carlton Hotel restaurant, has one of those museums, but it was closed.
We did, however, take a pleasant walk, pausing for awhile in front of the beautiful Colony Administration Building, which is currently under restoration but still impressive. Designed in 1913 by San Francisco architects Bliss and Faville (who, coincidentally, were also the architects for the Hollister House here at the Ranch) it was clearly meant to instill a kind of civic pride, embodying the ideals and hopes of California. Its warm honey hue is the color of the native clay used by a local brick factory, and it is crowned by a domed rotunda, now covered by plastic and scaffolding, which initially housed a public library and was serving as the City Council Chambers when the San Simeon earthquake damaged the building in 2003 and forced its closure. Across the front facade are inscribed these words: The most valuable of all arts will be that of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.
I was struck by this spirit of industry and optimism and its agricultural emphasis. Later I did some reading about the building and the place and learned that Atascadero was founded by the publisher of The Women's National Weekly as an urban experiment, an "ideal city" based upon families living simple moral lives in harmony with nature, each with an acre or so of land, and compatible cottage industries nearby, in particular, flower seed production. Homes were built, many of which still stand, fruit trees were planted, and a 17-mile road to Morro Bay was constructed, now known as Highway 41.
But when we passed through, it was President's Day, and while construction workers were busy at the Administration Building, most of the businesses were closed and the nearby park and streets were virtually deserted. I noticed a sign for an old-fashioned hardware-and-everything-else kind of store that appeared to be open and I went inside to look around. I like the smell of such stores, and the eclectic assemblage of goods they offer. This was a family-run business, no chain name in sight, and it was a little like stepping back into time.
In the top picture is Rick Grisanti, the proprietor, whose parents, Joe and Olga, founded the store in 1947. It has been at its current location since 1962, selling sporting goods, athletic equipment, plumbing supplies, gardening supplies, paint, gifts, housewares, and toys, with friendly banter thrown in free. The old guy at the counter, to the right, whose name I did not get, told me that his father and Rick's father had been friends, and that he still has the FM radio he bought here fifty years ago. He also told me that I should come back in 2013 when the Administration Building opens up again so I can go inside. "Oh, it's really worth seeing," he said. "Long time ago, I got married up there."
"Can I help you find anything?" asked Rick.
"Oh, no. I'm just looking around," I said.
"Well, just take anything you want," said the old guy. "Everything is free today."
"Yeah," said Rick to me. "Free to you. He's pickin' up the tab."
I told them in my effusive way that I thought the store was charming and the town was interesting, and it was fun talking to locals. "It's like a real community," I added, stupidly.
"What do you mean 'like'? " said my old-friend-whose-name-I-didn't-get. "It is a community. Spent my life here. Been goin' by the cemetery a lot lately, though. I keep telling myself, 'Well, not yet. Maybe soon, but not yet'."
Rick gave me his card and invited me to stop back next time I was passing through. I told him I would, and I'll buy something too.
Then I stepped out into the vacant streets lined with blossoming trees. Fruitless pear trees, Rick had said when I asked what they were, "...and sometimes they don't smell so good, but they're real pretty, aren't they?" A breeze came up and for a moment seeds and white blossoms filled the air like snow.