The facades of some downtown Sonora businesses haven’t changed. But from the inside, a contingent of established downtown merchants are exiting the Sonora business game to invite new owners into the fold.
The Sportsman and The Lighthouse Deli — both well-known and well-loved downtown institutions — expect to change ownership this month. The Banyan Tree, a clothing and retail store located on South Washington Street, went out of business at the end of September.
All the business owners said dedication and time investment were crucial to operating a downtown business. Their reasons for parting ways with their respective businesses varied, but they all reinforced the principle that adaptability to changing circumstances would be the barometer for any new or re-imagined business’ success.
“The same original clientele is still there because it’s generational. People have been coming there since they were little kids,” said Chet White, who owns The Sportsman at 90 S. Washington St. with his wife, Debbie. “We've just added a layer of different clientele, a younger group, and now this is a place for them to come to as well.”
The Sportsman is still in escrow, White said, though he hoped that it would change hands to the new owners, Colleen and Preston Leslie and Matt and Brittany Divine, within a month. White declined to comment on the sale price of the business.
“It should be seamless,” White said. “They are very ingrained in Tuolumne County with sports, trap club and shooting events. They have a lot to do with youth and sportsmanship and sportsmen.”
White and his wife have owned the business for only about 14 months, he said, but the momentum they established since then — adding craft beers from a tap, offering live music, updating the retail space and providing branded merchandise — will provide the new owners with a basis for continued success.
The Sportsman was opened by Vic Filiberti in 1947, said manager Steve Kane. And since its inception, the business has been dedicated to the merchandise advertised on the illuminated, vertical and green marquee above the entrance — cold beer, knives, guns, ammo, hunting and fishing supplies, gifts and sodas.
The market for those products hasn’t changed, White said, but the methods of attracting customers to downtown business (especially historic and ingrained institutions) has transformed to meet modern conventions.
“We tried to cover more bases. We’ve cleaned it up as far as opening it up and made it more visible from the outside. It’s no longer so dark and gloomy,” he said. “We offered later hours on Friday and Saturday nights. The sign on the door says 11 a.m. to whenever.”
The business typically closes about 9 or 10 p.m., before “the hard liquor crowd is on the street,” White said.
And even for a business colloquially known as a place to sign firearm documents before getting a beer (“one of the few places left in California” where you can do so, Kane said, due to the business not shutting down between ownership changes), the updates have proved successful.
This past year, alcohol sales, mostly from the craft beer taps, out-paced firearm and merchandise sales, White said, though the split has historically been about 50-50.
White said people are drawn to The Sportsman for it’s unique licensing quirk, and promoting that along with placing an emphasis on customer service has shown to be a benefit over the past year.
“We get a lot of visitors just to see the uniqueness of The Sportsman and we capitalize on that. We've made some really good friends,” he said. “We just don't want to interrupt that or ever mess up any historical value. We want to keep moving forward in a positive way that the community is OK with.”
The decision to sell was easy, White said. He and his wife want more time with their 14 grandchildren.
“We are lacking on family time. That's what the whole crux of what our decisions is,” he said.
White will remain in his position as transportation director at the Sonora Union High School District, he said.
Kane has seen four owners over his 14 years working at The Sportsman, he said, and not much has changed except for the “beer culture is more diverse.” The interior of the business, set with more than a dozen mounted animal heads, historic photographs and firearms behind a glass case, has been the same for as long as he could remember.
White said he could not speak specifically about the new owners’ vision for The Sportsman, but reinforced that they will likely support a tried-and-true business strategy, which has sustained itself for over a year.
Colleen Leslie could not be reached for comment on a number provided by the City of Sonora from her business license.
On any given lunch day during the week, the Lighthouse Deli at 28 S. Washington St. will likely be packed with customers. The kitchen churns out stacked burgers, robust salads and signature sandwiches, sold in-house or delivered to professional offices scattered throughout the downtown area.
After nine years of ownership, owner Brian Farmer said, sales are still strong among a clientele of established customers, even though the business is, uniquely, closed on Saturday and Sunday.
But an 80-hours-a-week schedule has taken its toll, Farmer said, and new owner Thomas Silva will take stewardship of the business after Oct. 20 to “reinvigorate” the restaurant.
“This town really wants the next ‘it’ kind of thing,” Farmer said. “This town is starving for new things.”
Like White, Silva plans to retain core offerings that have made the business iconic, but expand into new areas that hopefully will invite new customers, new clientele, and a new future for the business, Farmer said.
The new owner will seek out a beer and wine license and may plan to open a tap room at the business or brew his own beer. The business’ operating hours — now 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday — may also be expanded to include breakfast and dinner, Farmer said.
The intent of the transformation would be to augment the restaurant’s reputation as a public meetinghouse — now for downtown professionals, Tuolumne County Superior Court employees, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputies and Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office employees during the lunch hour — to the greater community at large.
“We’ve gotten to know everyone in this town as a result,” Farmer said. “That’s the part we’ll miss.”
The business is currently in escrow, he said.
Farmer purchased the former Main Street Deli in September 2009 after a career in the restaurant management business.
During his time operating the Lighthouse Deli (renamed for his mom and stepfather’s fascination with lighthouses across the country), Farmer said the one distinguishing characteristic for success was dedication.
“You have to be ready to work very hard, long hours. Be prepared to work very hard,” he said.
The building was built around 1855, he said and features modern additions such as a mural of the Seul Choix Lighthouse from Gulliver, Michigan, on the main wall. Exposed brick, excavated from an old mine, lines the opposite wall. Both are below a white rolled-plaster design on the ceiling.
Though food and drink establishments may still be rejuvenated in downtown Sonora, retail businesses are facing increasingly difficult challenges to compete with online marketplaces, said Patricia Tippett, owner of the now-closed Banyan Tree Store.
Tippet has operated the business at 59 S. Washington St. for about 18 years after it started in Twain Harte, and then at a storefront adjacent to The Sportsman.
Over time, Tippett said she has seen the town change from a destination to a community longing for direction. Without a steady flow of tourist traffic, Tippet has seen her sales of “eclectic merchandise,” including clothing, furniture, housewares, jewelry and antiques, deteriorate, she said.
“I don’t think my business is going to make a difference. I see a change in retail in Sonora,” she said. “We have to take the sign down. It’s been fun.”
The business closed to the public on Sept. 30, she said, and an upstairs renter, Columbine Designs, left on the same day. In the final weeks, a closing sale removed much of the merchandise, including more than 300 clothing items and large, wood furniture.
Tippett blamed the demise of her business on both a lack of available customers and the increasing competition with online marketplaces that could provide her clothing items at a bargain price.
“I can’t compete with Amazon. I was a dressing room for Amazon,” she said.
But she still retains hope that the architectural peculiarities of the entire building (which she co-owns with her son) will entice a new owner to reimagine the space.
“I would like to see it as a building in Sonora where people can see it,” she said. “We won’t rent it unless we approve it. We don’t want anyone to change the ambiance of the building.”
Built around 1858, the bottom floor changed uses dozens of times over the decades, she said, and was an optometrist office when she purchased it. The top floor, which overlooked the old Chinatown district in Sonora, was formerly a brothel, she said. The building also includes a two-bedroom apartment accessible from South Washington Street.
The bottom floor has tiered levels, and portions of the floor lined with beams of birds-eye maple originated in the “old gym” at the former school complex at the Sonora Dome, she said.
Carved teak beams and architectural details were imported from Bali, and the building also includes a metal Victorian-style roof on the ground-floor.