The store, called the Seed Bank in a nod to the building?s original use, will sell more than 1,200 varieties of heirloom seeds, along with garden tools and related items.
Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, based in southern Missouri, said he chose to locate here because ?fifty percent of our mail-order customers in California live within a one-hour radius in Petaluma.?
With 190 varieties of tomatoes, 150 varieties of squash and more than 100 melons, Baker Creek has one of the largest selections of organic and heirloom seeds in the country.
?All our seed is non-hybrid, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), non-treated and non-patented,? Gettle added. ?We boycott all gene-altering companies.?
Gettle hired Amish workers to help transform the interior and signage of the building last week to prepare to open on Monday. The workers, with their traditional hats, Abe Lincoln beards and plain clothing, turned the heads of onlookers and attracted dozens of walk-in customers before the store was open for business.
Jerry Orton, a business consultant helping Gettle launch the Petaluma store, explained, ?They are some of the hardest-working and honest people I?ve ever known. We brought them out from Missouri, where they all have farms. I would rather have them working with me than anyone else.?
Orton said the feedback has been very positive so far. ?Everybody seems to be ecstatic. All of the local business people seem to be very happy that this kind of business has located here,? he said.
Although they were looking for a smaller building, they decided to lease the Sonoma County National Bank building, built in 1926, because of its prominent location and historical appearance, Orton said.
?Jere is part of a worldwide seed preservation movement, and the idea of leasing this building just sort of clicked,? Orton said. ?Calling it the Seed Bank was a natural fit. It fits perfectly with Baker Creek?s theme of heirloom seeds that trace their origins back to a time when foods were healthier with no GMO content.?
A secondary reason to open a West Coast branch was because winter ice storms in southern Missouri can cause power outages. ?When the power is down, our business is shut down,? Orton said. ?This store will serve as a backup location for our mail-order business.?
Gettle, 28, had an interest in gardening and seeds when he was very young. He planted his first garden of squash and tomatoes when he was 4. Within a few years, he was saving and exchanging seeds. At 17, he sent out his first seed catalog to 550 gardeners, filling all of the orders himself from home. ?I had fulfilled my dream to be a seedsman,? he said.
This year he printed 150,000 copies of the 124-page, full-color catalog. In it, he writes, ?It is amazing to harvest vegetables grown by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Luther Burbank. There is just no comparison to heirloom vegetables, and people are starting to wake up to local and heirloom food.?
Gettle?s decision to locate his store in Petaluma appears to be a stroke of good business sense. There is a growing community of locavores ? people who advocate for locally grown food ? as well as an extensive network of farmers markets in the North Bay. Although a 2005 ballot measure to ban GMOs in Sonoma County failed, there is a heightened awareness of genetically modified seeds and foods in Sonoma County.