Oscar Gamez: Thirty years at Toby's Feed Barn

04/10/2019

When Chris Giacomini thinks back to his earliest memories of Oscar Gamez, whom he hired 30 years ago to work at Toby’s Feed Barn, he still remembers the dictionary that Mr. Gamez carried. 

Born and raised in Sinaloa, Mexico, Mr. Gamez spoke little English when he came to West Marin. He worked hard to break down his language barrier with dedication and the aid of the dictionary, recalling that during his early days at Toby’s he did not know the English names for the animals with which he worked. 

“When you don’t speak the language, the choice is you learn English or you learn English: whichever you like,” Mr. Gamez said. His mantra at the time—which he has kept to ever since, is this: “When you go to work, be willing to work hard and be willing to learn, and you can get ahead in life.” 

That philosophy has made him an integral part of the community and business he has called home for the last three decades. He celebrated 30 years at Toby’s in February.

“Oscar is just the salt of the earth,” said Melissa Giacomini, who has known Mr. Gamez since she was 8 years old. “He’s always positive, amazing with customers, and he has the patience of a saint.” 

Mr. Gamez first came to Point Reyes Station from the Los Angeles area in 1986. He had heard there were jobs to be found and he worked for a year as a landscaper and as a dishwasher at Barnaby’s by the Bay, a restaurant in Inverness at the time. But when he was unable to find housing at the end of that year, Mr. Gamez decided to move back to Mexico. “I was crushed by having to leave West Marin,” he said. “I always thought I had to come back.” 

Indeed, within a few months he returned, working in construction and landscaping before taking a job at Toby’s in 1989. “I started as a store clerk, delivery guy—all of the above,” he said. “It meant doing hay deliveries, loading the barn, greeting customers, doing the register.” In short, all of the tasks that he still performs as the store’s manager. 

The job allowed him to bring his wife, Alvia, up from Mexico, and they raised their two children, Oscar Jr. and Brian, in West Marin before moving to Petaluma 11 years ago. 

“There’s no one like Oscar,” said Laura Takahashi, who has worked alongside Mr. Gamez at Toby’s for 27 years. “If you don’t know something, go to him.” 

Mr. Gamez has built his repository of answers through commitment and curiosity. While still relatively new to the job he would learn everything he could by tracing knowledge to its sources, calling a chicken supplier over queries about chick illnesses and seed suppliers about what plants might do well in the shade. 

When he first started at Toby’s, Mr. Gamez estimates that 60 percent of the store’s inventory was hay and feed. Now, he said, those items make up less than 20 percent of the store. “People don’t have as many animals as they used to,” he observed. Most of the remaining customers for those items own horses or smaller ranches (larger ranches, he said, tend to have cooperatives for such supplies). 

Toby’s, much like the town in which it sits, has changed a great deal over Mr. Gamez’s tenure. “For starters, what used to be Toby’s warehouse is now a yoga studio,” he said. 

Toby’s Feed Barn was first a livery stable built in the early 1900s on Third Street; it moved to its main street location in the ’70s. Bags of dog food and feed used to sit in stacks where people now come to fold into downward dog. 

But Mr. Gamez has kept up with the changes. “As people have gotten older in the community, he’s really coming forward—helping them out, delivering stuff or whatever they need,” Mr. Giacomini said. “People just reach out to him because he’s known to them. He’s just a very dedicated soul.”

Mr. Gamez acknowledged that he was a familiar face for many in town. “A lot of people know me because I’ve been here—” He nearly said “too long” and then smiled, “Not too long, never long enough!”

A quick rundown of what Mr. Gamez can be expected to do within a day: open the store, set up the store, bring in the fruit, bring out the firewood, clean the barn (which, as a repository of hay bales as well as an event space, must be cleared of stray hay at least once a day), attend to customers, work the register, balance the books, order inventory, and pick up feed and pet food from suppliers. 

He hangs new white paper floating lanterns whenever the old ones dangling from the rafters tear or break. When Toby’s hosts weddings, Mr. Gamez is usually the one who stays until the barn clears out near midnight, to close the doors. But he has no complaints about working on bookkeeping in his office while enjoying the wedding bands. “I love music, and 98 [times] out of 100 the music is nice,” he said. 

There are other tasks, too, which fall outside those defined responsibilities. Years ago, when three steers ran loose from Toby Giacomini’s property on Highway 1, he helped chase them down and back into the pasture.

While the jack-of-all-trades quality of his job might exhaust another man, Mr. Gamez loves the variety. “If you were doing deliveries all the time, you might get tired of it. If you were doing bookkeeping all the time you might get tired of it,” he said. “But this is a little bit of everything all the time, and that keeps it interesting and fun.” 

On his two days off from Toby’s, Mr. Gamez can still be found working. On Fridays, he performs landscaping tasks at a home in Dillon Beach, cleaning windows and pulling weeds. On Sundays, he works from home. “My wife always has a long list,” he said. “The ‘honey-do’ list: gardening, helping my wife clean the house.” 

Only on vacations does he allow himself to sit back and do nothing, but even then, work sometimes finds him. While visiting his mother in Mexico some years ago, he offered to paint her house; he ended up spending 35 hours over three days scraping, prepping, priming and painting. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Mr. Gamez recalled, laughing. “But hey, I said ‘I’ll help you, Mom.’” 

Mr. Gamez served on the board of the Coastal Health Alliance for four years and helped translate articles for the Light from English to Spanish. In his few moments of spare time at home, he said he and his wife occasionally go to the movies. “I like action movies,” he said, “but my wife likes romantic comedies—so you know where I go.” 

Mr. Gamez also loves to exercise; as a young man he would regularly run four miles in the morning and lift weights in the afternoon. Now Toby’s serves as his workplace and his gym. “People complain that loading hay is hard. It’s not! It’s exercise,” he said. It was an optimistic answer characteristic of a man with a warm, ready smile who often brings his fellow employees popcorn from the neighboring hardware store. 

“He’s always looking out for everyone,” Ms. Giacomini said. When her father, Chris, had an accident in the barn three years ago, she said, “we couldn’t have done it without Oscar—just the peace of mind knowing everything was covered because he was there. We felt really supported by him; he’d even come to the house to visit and check in with us.” 

While his 30-year tenure at Toby’s is the longest of any of its current employees, Mr. Gamez has no plans to retire any time soon. “I might look old, but I have another 11 years to go before retirement,” he said, adding that even then, he would work part time if he could be useful to the Giacominis. 

“This is paradise,” he said. “Seven years ago, we went to Hawaii—and you know, Hawaii is amazing. When I got back, I was talking to my friends about it and they asked, ‘Would you move to live there?’ No. Why would you want to move to paradise if you already live in paradise?