Wet weather was made for attic exploration. As a barrage of raindrops thump steadily on the roof, you stumble about the family antiquities. Some are puzzling fragments that you attempt to piece together to re-create a civilization long buried. Some are true treasures, wrapped in layers of cloth and wood that you dare not disassemble, unless that PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” comes to town.
Admittedly, attics are not a common architectural feature of California homes. The longing for such from apartment dwellers like myself can perhaps best be compared to phantom pains. Antique stores therefore become a surrogate for the attic-less, and Petaluma’s historic downtown fulfills that role, even when the skies are clear.
Victorian misses: In 1995, the entire downtown landed on the National Register of Historic Places. If Petaluma seems the Hollywood-manufactured vision of quaintness, it’s because it has starred in films including “American Graffiti,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Heroes,” “Phenomenon” and, mysteriously enough, “Howard the Duck.”
The roughly five-block area features exquisite 19th-century homes, some designed by architect Julia Morgan, who was best known for the sybaritic Hearst Castle. And the small-town U.S.A. feel isn’t limited to the houses. An old feed mill is now a shopping center and spa. The 1886 McNear Building, actually two complexes that housed a national guard armory and a silent movie theater, is now Mystic Theater and McNear’s Saloon. The surname McNear, by the way, pops up quite a bit, as in McNear Canal and McNear Park. The McNears were a grain agricultural dynasty who helped build up the town.
It’s not just the cheese: Antiquing is actually secondary in Petaluma’s claims to fame. Its first claim to fame originated in 1875 when one Lyman Bruce invented the modern egg incubator there. About 50 years, 4 million chickens and 10 times that many eggs later, the town gave itself the nickname, “World’s Egg Basket.” The town’s squawking days have given way to the business of wine grapes, milk and telecommunications, although it has managed to crown itself with yet another nickname: World’s Wristwrestling Capitol commemorated in “Peanuts” strips by the late Charles M. Schulz.
Consumer anthropology: Twice a year the town hosts an antique fair. The next Semi-Annual Outdoor Antiques Faire will be April 30. In the meantime, more than 150 antique dealers have set up in about a dozen shops, ranging from the American eclectic Waddles-N-Hops crammed into a two-story structure to the streamlined Zitan, which sells Asian antique furniture such as a $25,000 Chinese wedding bed. Both are on Kentucky Street, parallel to the main Petaluma Boulevard. Salvation Army and Goodwill serve up second-hand thrift, while Chelsea Antiques displays clean-cut, white shades of country elegance so very popular nowadays. Re-use applies to clothing as well in shops like Fashion Revivals and Vicki’s Secret-Designer Consignments.
Most importantly, the town boasts not one but two bookstores: Reade Moore on Fourth Street and the larger Copperfield’s Books on Kentucky Street. Beware, their stacks of new, used and rare books can cut into valuable antiquing time.
New goods, new age: Practical, present-day needs can also easily be filled here. The requisite hardware store, jewelry/watch shop and camera seller share the same block as Flyfishing Etc. and the new-age Earthwood on the main thoroughfare. One block back on Kentucky Street, Heebe Jeebe General Store actually caters to amusing, trendy kitsch with an Asian accent. Down the street, Jungle Vibes Nature Store does educational toys and books with an expansive world view. Young visitors also have their own clothing and toy store (Crackerjax) and hair salon (Lions & Tigers & Hair).
Chewing on your words: Petaluma has many cafes, delis and bakeries for necessary dawdling. Yes, that ubiquitous coffee shop is here, but Petaluma holds its own with its local roastery, Petaluma Coffee and Tea. Copperfield’s Cafe gives you a place to read your newest literary acquisition, and Deaf Dog Coffee wins for drollest name. As for restaurants, family fare dominates with many Italian pizza offerings, and the occasional Thai and Japanese restaurant mixed in. Busy McNear’s Dining Hall and Saloon is the classic burger-and-mozzarella-stick-joint, replete with big screen televisions. The brunch compromise can be an eggplant sandwich layered with provolone cheese and French toast in brandy sauce.
Marking the calendar: Petaluma flaunts its past whenever possible. Victorian era-clad docents lead free walking tours May 6-Oct. 29; call the Petaluma Historical Museum & Library on Fourth Street at 707-778-4398 for information. The California Wine Country Carriage Classic trots downtown May 19-21, with Petaluma Adobe Living History Day and Through the Garden Gate Garden Tour on May 20. The Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.petaluma.org, includes a calendar, history, maps, links and visitor information. You can also call the visitor program, at 877-2-PETALUMA (877-273-8258).
Details, details: A rainy weekend can make for smooth, traffic-free driving when it scares away the other motorists. Take 580 west to the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. The interstate becomes 101 north. Exit Petaluma Boulevard South, which leads directly downtown.