John Nassrah, Bolinas benefactor, dies at 73

02/13/2014

Whenever Samira Nassrah speaks of her late husband, she calls him, “my John,” a term of endearment for her partner of 26 years that conveys her loss in a way no slew of words ever could. “Nobody can replace my John. I mean it. I told everyone, not because he’s my husband, but because he’s such a nice guy,” she said tenderly.

John Nassrah, who owned the Bolinas Market for almost four decades and acted as a benefactor to the community, both with donations of food and funds and community-wide parties he threw over the years, died in early January, at 73. 

John was born in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in 1942, and received a scholarship to attend the Friends School, an elite private high school in the city. As a young boy, he and his father would go hunting, giving away at least half of their catch to neighbors, prefiguring the turkeys that the market would donate to the community center decades later. 

When he was just 16, John moved from the Middle East to Houston, Texas, where he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in math engineering from the University of Houston. He moved in with his uncle and his uncle’s European spouse, who sponsored him. They were both quite strict. (“Because his wife is German,” Edmond Hattar, Samira’s cousin, explained.) 

The day he arrived in the United States, the couple agreed to cover his tuition but set him up as a door-to-door carpet salesman to earn his keep. They threatened to send him back to Ramallah if his grades lagged and also enforced unbending rules, like an 8 p.m. curfew. 

“One time I remember he told me he came back at ten o’ clock and they wouldn’t open the door for him,” said Edmond, who has lived in John and Samira’s home for the past year and a half. But the young man was grateful for the discipline, believing it shaped him for the better.

After graduating, John briefly returned to the Middle East before relocating to the Bay Area, where his father, stepmother and brother then lived.

But Samira said John wanted a quieter life than cities offered and that, despite his engineering degree, he longed to own his own business. One day, a friend in San Francisco showed him a newspaper advertisement for a market for sale in Bolinas. The owner at the time was not beloved in town.

“It was owned by someone who wasn’t a very nice man,” said friend Jack Siedman. “John kind of rescued it in a sense. [The previous owner] didn’t care about the community…There was concern over who would buy it, but it was just perfect. He moved to the town and became a Bolinas person.”

When John first arrived in 1978, he lived in the store itself, working long days and sleeping in the lofted area where beer logos now hang until he found a home. In those days, Edmond said, John spent a lot of time at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, playing pool and imbibing spirits. He even had a chance to purchase the establishment, which sat directly across from his own, but around that time he decided he needed a partner. He soon met and married Samira, all within the span of a few months, and dedicated himself to his new wife instead of a new business.

Samira, who lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, visited the Bay Area in 1987 for a cousin’s wedding. A Nassrah relative also in attendance told Samira that John, then 44, was seeking a wife. A dinner date in San Francisco was soon followed by a flight to the Midwest: because her parents were in Jordan, he traveled to Chicago to ask permission from extended family to marry her. “It is the old-fashioned way, our culture,” Samira said. “He was old-school.”

That mentality carried over to the store itself. John had little interest in making sweeping changes over the years or altering the interior to make the store, which is well over 100 years old, look slicker. 

“He doesn’t want to do nothing for the floor or anything. He doesn’t want to add anything, he doesn’t want to be like Safeway. He wants the old-fashioned way,” said Samira. She added that customers there can still accumulate tabs paid at the end of the month.

Edmond added, “John is trying to keep everything as it is, because he’s very like the town and the community here. The people in this town like to have everything as it is.”

He did relent on one small item, however; at Samira’s pleading, he added a credit card machine to the counter in 2010. But she had no desire to make any other changes. And, she said, “Everything he likes, I’m gonna keep doing it.”

John was old school in his personal life, too: He did not have a cellphone or a computer and carried only a single credit card, which he used exclusively for big purchases, preferring to use cash whenever possible. 

John’s quiet generosity permeated the town. For many years, he sent $100 every month to the public school in Bolinas, to be used for whatever the school believed it could be best used for, and he sent food for its fundraisers, too. He also donated organic, free-range turkeys to the community center for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, said Randi Arnold, the development director there. He helped fund a remodel of the kitchen facilities and sent money for general operating expenses, “which is very important to us,” she said. 

Ms. Arnold is a neighbor to the Nassrahs, and she would often encounter them on walks through the neighborhood on the Big Mesa. “They were quite in love, and it was just adorable. I always told them that when I grow up, I want to be as sweet as them.”

John threw magnificent feasts around Samira’s birthday, which is in early October. The parties went like this: the festivities kicked off around 6 p.m, and hundreds of people arrived throughout the evening. Music pervaded the scene and hors d’ouevres and beverages abounded on tables set up for the occasion. When attendees plucked bare one plate of snacks, another bountiful platter appeared in its stead. People danced to live music as the hours passed, but anyone who imagined the dining portion of the evening concluded with the setting of the sun was met around 10 p.m. with a huge succulent lamb appearing along with rice dishes and other Middle Eastern fare, everyone salivating at the aroma, and the feast continued. For weeks afterwards, conversations in town would return to that night, recalling the juicy texture of barbecued meat on their palates.

John, who always liked to be in the company of others, was happy when surrounded by people enjoying food, drink and music. But although he too loved to eat, especially big hearty meals accompanied by his favorite scotch, he himself did not dance, Samira said. He was shy in that regard, and he only danced on their wedding day, when she dragged him onto the open floor.

John’s munificence extended to everyone in town, including those down on their luck, said Ralph Camiccia, a friend. “When I was fire chief, he’d have to deal with the street people. Sometimes he’d get upset, but the next thing I knew he took them under his wing.”

Pluto Maroon, a street guy who passed away in 2008, occupied a particularly special space in John’s heart. He and Samira let him park the R.V. where he lived in front of their home, at the end of a street with an expansive view of Bolinas Bay and Duxbury Reef. In return, he cared for the Nassrah’s garden, which John loved; Samira said one time he wept when wild animals ate the roses in their plot.

“When Pluto died, John was really moved,” Mr. Siedman said. “Funny in a little community how different people are, but they really bond together.”

Edmond said that after John passed away, the family realized that about four or five years ago John had purchased three burial plots: one for himself, one for his wife—and the one where Pluto lies. “We buried John next to Pluto,” Samira said.

Though John spent the last few months of his life in the Middle East, where he underwent treatment for cancer, he requested his body be flown 15 hours back to Bolinas for burial. He also asked that a community meal follow his funeral. 

After he was laid to rest, on a rainy day that followed a year of virtually endless dry skies—a fact quietly noted by those who gathered at the cemetery that day—hundreds and hundreds of people arrived in downtown Bolinas to remember John, lines snaking around the community center as people scooped up roasted meat, crispy falafel with yogurt sauce, pita, rice, salad, thick stewed eggplant and more, with plates everyone could fill and fill to their appetite’s content, just like at the old parties.