As the Kincade fire scorched California's Alexander Valley mountains above Jimtown Store this October, Carrie Brown packed what she could into her car and said goodbye to her store and cottage. Her small slice of Sonoma County was the only life she’d known for 30 years, and after three years of smoke and fire and evacuations, she was low on hope.
While Jimtown survived untouched, Brown’s hope finally gave out. It was yet another blow to the survival of her business, and she recognized that she couldn’t continue. Last week Brown told her many friends and customers that Jimtown Store will close Dec. 30.
That was hard for a lot of us to hear, although it wasn’t out of the blue. The series of fires in Northern California since 2017 have drained the resources of many small restaurants and other businesses.
And yet Jimtown isn’t just any business. The country store became a touchstone for Sonoma County, an icon that reflects our whimsically homey past as well as the modern gentrification of American food and wine.
“We wanted to create the sort of place we loved to discover when we were traveling,” Brown said of Jimtown. “And we wanted to be part of a community.” Brown’s late husband, John Werner, had been a partner in New York’s once-famed Silver Palate gourmet shop, and together in 1989 they bought an old roadside store along Highway 128 just outside Healdsburg. The store dated to 1893 but had been closed for many years.
The timing was ideal. When Jimtown opened in 1991, sleepy Sonoma County was just blooming into a wine and food destination. There were still empty stores on Healdsburg Plaza back then, not the swarm of luxury clothing shops and tasting rooms of today.
Jimtown stood out immediately. It was a place with personality, a blend of country hospitality and urban kitsch that never came off as snobby, a reflection of Brown and Werner themselves. The original store was an eccentric mix of antiques, old-fashioned toys and candy and even canned goods and staples, but over the years the cafe’s food became the focus.
The menu remained modest in scope and unfussy but almost everything was made from scratch, and you could taste the difference. I need some of their Buttermilk Slaw while I still have the chance, and maybe some Chain Gang Chili, made with smoked pork and beef. A favorite sandwich is the Jimtown: prosciutto with Point Reyes Original Blue cheese and house-made fig-and-olive tapenade on a crunchy French baguette.
The wine selection remained small, local and inexpensive, but when there are wineries like Silver Oak, Stonestreet and Jordan nearby, most folks bring their own bottle for lunch, and corkage was always cheap.
Jimtown's run has never been easy, Brown says. Business boomed in summer and fall, but winters were tough; catering and specialty products helped pay the bills. As Healdsburg became more moneyed, it brought good and bad. “There were more and more people appreciating what we do,” Brown said, but the flip side was the rising cost of housing, hastened in recent years by the number of second homes replacing single-family residences.
Combined with the remoteness of the location, it became increasingly difficult to find qualified help. “We’re seeing the hollowing out of the middle class,” Brown said.
Yet ultimately, wildfires and related long-term power outages dealt the final blow. “They happened three years in a row at our busiest time of the year—harvest is our busiest catering time,” Brown said. Without that burst of income to sustain the business through the winter, it was only a matter of time. “The losses have been substantial. It finally got to the point that I said, 'Basta. Enough.'”
As the clock winds down on Jimtown, Brown is not sure about the future. She might sell or lease the store, but the California native prefers to stay in Sonoma County. “I have a lot of creative juices and ideas,” she said. Brown will be at the store every afternoon it’s open through the 30th. “People can come by and say hi.”
Or goodbye, to the Jimtown Store we know and love.