B.G. Bates: One step at a time, she became a West Marin expert

David Briggs
WOMEN IN BUSINESS: B.G. Bates, a Bolinas-based Realtor, has been in the business for over 20 years.  
02/09/2017

On a recent misty Monday, a fresh house in Bolinas went live on the real estate listing database Bay Area Real Estate Information Services. Within minutes of appearing online, B.G. Bates, a real estate agent whose digitalized Rolodex might just be big enough to justify using an external hard drive, had assessed the home, where writer Anne Lamott reportedly penned her debut novel, “Hard Laughter.” 

“I’ve sold this home twice in the past,” said Ms. Bates as she scrolled through the database. “I’m known for a lot of repeat business. I’ve sold a place in Nicasio four times!”

Ms. Bates already had a few potential buyers in mind for the Bolinas listing but first she wanted to contact a client with a home for sale nearby. She wanted to help them gauge the local market.

“Call me a Realtor—with a capital R,” she playfully demanded. “It’s trademarked.”

Spunky and sprightly, Ms. Bates zipped throughout her office. When recalling her varied past, she retrieved relics such as a scrapbook that memorializes her years as an editor for this very newspaper. In her studio office, which appears to be an ordered chaos, she donned a professional grey cowl-neck sweater. Since her office lies yards from the front door of her home, pink socks could be seen peeking out above beige house slippers. 

For decades, Ms. Bates has positioned herself as a titan for West Marin real estate. She helped facilitate the deals for Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and the old Olema schoolhouse and has brokered “hundreds and hundreds” other deals. On average, she has on upwards of 10 house listings at a time (generally in Bolinas, Inverness and Nicasio) while serving multiple sellers. 

On her office wall is a whiteboard gridded in miniature boxes that designate information like addresses, pricings and recent updates on a property. Symbolic arrows are also strategically placed throughout the space. (She’s a model Sagittarius: extroverted, optimistic and enthusiastic.)

“Women in real estate are portrayed as ditzes,” she said. But that never prevented Ms. Bates from achieving her aspirations, a success for which she thanks her first role model. 

“I think back to my mother. She said to put one foot in front of the other. Not doing [it], that’s how people fail to get what they want. They think about the big picture all at once. The big picture is an assembly of many smaller frames; it’s a mosaic,” she said.

Ms. Bates was born in 1950 near Chicago. She said it was her father, a general practitioner, who first abbreviated her name. (“I was B. Gay in 1950. That was way before J. Lo!”) Her mother was a prominent voice in Chicago radio; after her death in 1971, newspapers ran a headline saying, “Beverly Gay of Radio Dies.” 

Yet Ms. Bates grew up California dreaming, to the chagrin of her mother, who deemed the state “too liberal.” “If Madison, Wisconsin was pink, then Berkeley was red,” she said of her mother’s position on state politics.  

Her first visit to California was in 1968, to scout out colleges. (Coincidentally, after her family expressed worry about earthquakes in California, a 5.4 quake struck Illinois and remains the region’s largest on record.) After watching U.S.C. best Cal in what was to be one of O.J. Simpson’s final college football matches, Ms. Bates was “sold on California,” she said. “But there was no way I was going get here, because I respected my mother.”

Instead, Ms. Bates flew east and began pursuing two degrees at Syracuse University: one in TV and radio and another in speech communication. Midway through her studies, her mother fell ill and Ms. Bates returned to Illinois to care for her. Ms. Bates said her mother’s death caused a fracture within the family.

As a result, “I was Daddy’s little girl and now I’m not,” she said. “There was no more financial support or emotional support. I had to learn how to live on my own. I’m 20 years old and the only thing I can hear is the sound of my mother’s voice: you can do anything you set your mind to and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. So I went about trying to prove it.”

Ms. Bates returned to California and landed in Marin, initially to work for Planned Parenthood in San Rafael. She desired to work in newspapers and made frequent attempts to write for the Point Reyes Light. Finally, she lucked out when new owners offered her a job as a features writer under the byline B.G. Buttemiller. “David Mitchell gave me my name,” she said. 

The androgynous name stuck, though sometimes with peculiar consequences. Early on in her journalism career, while she was purchasing groceries at the Palace Market, the wife of a local butcher noticed her signing her name and quickly challenged her identity.

“She said, ‘You’re not B.G.! I know him and he’s a guy in his mid-50s,’” Ms. Bates recalled with amusement. 

She soon learned that respect had to be demanded, but her years as a features writer and then a news editor of the Light would earn her the title “West Marin Expert,” as she writes in her advertisement in this paper. “Covering daily life in West Marin on a weekly basis at the Light built a base for my eventual specialized real estate business along the coast, and in Nicasio and Chileno and Hicks Valleys,” she said. Ms. Bates reported on tons of West Marin stories, including the congressional hearings of the Coastal Act in 1976 and wrote a three-part series detailing the history of the region’s Coast Miwok. 

She also transmitted her vivacious spirit onto airwaves. Ms. Bates worked as a talk show host for KTOB in Petaluma in the 1980s, interviewing Barbara Boxer and Lynne Woolsey and hosting an A.I.D.S. patient amid the hysteria around the disease. (She said her coworkers deserted the radio station the day her source came in.)

In 1982, she staked her biggest claim in West Marin real estate: she and her then-husband Robert Bates purchased land in Bolinas where they would eventually build a home and office. She’s affectionately dubbed the property Woodnote. “Just Woodnote,” she said. “Not Woodnote Ranch or anything like that. It’s just the sounds of the forest.”

When Ms. Bates became pregnant with her son in the mid 1980s, a friend suggested she consider a new career: in real estate. 

“He said, ‘Get your license, work four days a week while raising your baby and make $20,000 a year,’” she said. “I began working for Seashore Realty in the fall of 1987 and I immediately realized there was one too many real estate agents in Bolinas—and it’s me!”

The first house she sold was in Stinson Beach. The buyer still lives there today.

While working over the hill for Frank Howard Allen (she felt her efforts weren’t being properly compensated), she met Fred Angeli, who is now vice president of sales and risk management for Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty. He’s her trusted consiglieri: her chief counsel and friend. 

Regularly throughout the week, and occasionally on weekends, Mr. Angeli said he and Ms. Bates have a 4:30 a.m. phone call to discuss each other’s listings and sale statuses. “We’re early birds,” he said. “When you can’t sleep, you work.” 

He praised Ms. Bates’s ability to sell homes in this peculiar marketplace. “She works very hard and knows West Marin like no one else,” he said. “It’s more technical out there and she understands the laws and what she’s selling.”

In 2014, Ms. Bates was pursued by Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty and decided to take the job, but with one requirement: that they also recruit Mr. Angeli. By the end of the year, Decker Bullock became the top real estate company in the county. 

Real estate brokerage requires scouring database listings, assessing the law and negotiating escrows and sales, but Ms. Bates keeps updating her whiteboard in the office, remembering to keep dismantling the big picture.

“I just try to take bite-size pieces and not let it get too overwhelming. It certainly can!” she said. “I love my life, because I won it myself.”