After serving health-conscious shoppers for nearly 25 years, Optimum Natural Foods in north Napa is closing its doors.
Owners Barry Gill, a former Napa City Councilman and longtime public school teacher, and his wife, Chenue Gill, are closing the store in Silverado Plaza Shopping Center on Feb. 28. A sign in the window tells passersby that everything must go.
“For us, 25 years has been a good run,” Chenue Gill said.
Their store is one of the oldest tenants in the north Napa shopping center where Trancas Street meets Big Ranch Road and Soscol Avenue.
Chenue — with a masters degree in business administration — joined the retail business as Barry Gill’s partner — and nine months later they married. “He is my soul mate,” she said.
The couple said their customers and vendors have been an inspiration to them throughout the years.
Why are they closing now?
Blame corporate America for jumping on board the health food movement — elbowing out mom-and-pop-owned businesses. Independently operated natural food stores are going the way of the old-fashion hardware store, Chenue Gill said.
“We used to go to the trade shows and talk directly to the owners,” Barry Gill said. “That isn’t the case any more.
“Things started to change about five years ago,” Barry Gill, 88, said. “Some of our customers say we did our job too well.”
Chenue Gill, 65, said independent health foods stores have a future because customers want to talk to someone who knows the products well.
The Gills and their employees will hold an old-fashioned Irish wake for the store on its anniversary, April 1. “We have people who have been with us for nearly 16, 17 years,” Chenue Gill said.
Barry Gill decided to open Optimum Natural Foods after spending 31 years teaching English, first at Ridgeview Junior High, then Napa and Vintage high schools. He served on Napa City Council for six years during the 1960s.
He used his teacher’s retirement pay to start the natural foods store, without prior retail experience.
“We get people coming in to the store who were my students and now they are customers,” he said.
Chenue Gill said one of Barry Gill’s teaching colleagues had a theory for us his business success. “If Barry jumped off a cliff,” she recounted the teacher saying, “the angels would catch him.”
So what is in the future for the Gills? She wants to get involved in another project, but is not quite sure what she wants to do.
“I want Barry to write a book,” Chenue Gill said. “A book of poetry. He is quite the poet.”
Barry Gill said he might write a book about life and the wisdom that he has gained over the years. Of growing older, he said, “It’s better than I expected. I just go with the flow.”
“Maybe I’ll have to go out and look for another job,” he said smiling.