The Bolinas Market: Serving community across time

05/06/2020

The villages of West Marin are grateful to have local food stores that have stayed open to keep food and supplies available. In Bolinas, the Nassrah family has owned the Bolinas Market for the last 41 of the 150 years that the business has continuously served the town. Inside the historic building you may sense the previous generations that shopped here; above the checkout stand, you will see the new generation depicted in layered photographs of local babies.

In 1870, J.C. Gibson built his new store and family home in the maritime port area we know today as downtown Bolinas. Other small stores had been established in various parts of the township since the 1850s, but Gibson’s store anchored the area as a center of commerce, drawing locals and customers from Willow Camp (today’s Stinson Beach) and the Olema Valley. Well into the 20th century, the business served as a mercantile, selling ranching supplies, hardware, food, shoes, clothes, lady’s hats and more. For years the store also housed the post office and town telephone. 

When Gibson died in 1893, businessman Frank Waterhouse, who had created the Brighton Avenue subdivision, acquired the store and hired locals to run it. The mercantile was a busy hub of activity owned by Achille Boniati and Joseph Petar when the great 1906 earthquake struck before dawn on April 18. Estimated at 7.9, it destroyed their building. 

In order to continue the business, Joseph Petar moved the store into his family home across the street. By 1908, the newly constructed Boniati & Petar mercantile opened—the very building we shop in today, more than a century later.

The Petar brothers, raised in Bolinas, bought the business in 1929 as a successful partnership; Joseph ran the store and Louis captained a big boat, the Owl, which transported people, mail and agricultural goods to San Francisco and returned with mercantile supplies. After 1933, trucks took over suppling the store for the next series of owners, including Jack Pepper, the grandson of Frank Waterhouse.

The contemporary chapter of the business’s history began in 1979, when John Nassrah, an immigrant from Ramalla with a master’s degree in math and engineering from the University of Houston, became the owner. His new wife, Samira, joined him from Jordan in 1988. The longest-serving employee is the highly skilled, Stanford-educated, tirelessly friendly butcher Diane Swingle. The shop features storefront bulletin boards and an outdoor mural painted by local artists. 

The Nassrahs have been extremely generous to their community, donating to the school, the community center and others, giving abundant food for community events and throwing parties; quietly, John took care of people in need. When he died in 2014, hundreds of people came to honor him. Since then, Samira and her family members and employees have continued to provide continuity for the essential service of this 150-year-old community business.

 

Elia Haworth is the curator of coastal Marin art and history at the Bolinas Museum.