Lorna Birdsall, owner-operator of the Golden Carrot natural foods store in River Park Center for the past 29 years, is calling it quits on Sunday.
“I'm grateful to the community for the support they've given and the faith they've had in me for 29 years,” Birdsall said in an interview. “A lot of people these days don't have community, and I've had the most wonderful community.”
Her retirement, she explained, has nothing to do with her store’s profitability, although that has been squeezed by the recent profusion of larger natural food competitors.
It has more to do with the death of a close friend. After the loss, Birdsall, 63, said she took a long look at how she wanted to spend the last third of her life. With her fourth grandchild on the way, it seemed the right time to close her doors.
For decades, a walk into the Golden Carrot has been a journey of visual juxtaposition. In a tiny shop, organic leeks and eye-popping designer socks vie for attention beside a vintage peanut grinder and rows of mysterious teas, herbs and supplements.
Birdsall may be seen nodding empathetically while she listens to someone describe a pain or problem they've come to talk to her about.
In a town known for its high-end customer service, Birdsall took the concept to a higher personal level.
“I taught my employees how important it is to be compassionate to your fellow human beings,” explained the soft-voiced Birdsall. “That we are all family, and that you have to look someone in the eyes to know how they are really feeling.”
Often customers came in just to talk about their feelings. Some of them bought supplements and others got something that didn't come with a price tag.
“I did a lot of networking over the years,” said Birdsall, “and introduced people here in the store who later became friends, or got married or started a business together.” She also grieved with her customers when they experienced personal losses.
A give-back community grew around Birdsall's ultra-personal business practices. After the earthquake in 2000 smashed up most of the store, Birdsall showed up to work the next morning and found nine customers waiting to help sweep up rubble and hose off the floor. And her employee, James Carter, had already replaced the shattered front shop window.
When the Golden Carrot was burglarized several years ago, a former employee showed up the next morning and installed a safe. But Birdsall never modernized the security system, which is still a battered two-by-four braced across the back door.
The down-side of being a shop owner and a giver of health advice and referrals is that there are no vacations. “I have had no social life,” explained Birdsall. “All my friends are customers because I'm always here.”
“I served a generation of families, and then the children of those families,” explained Birdsall. “And some of my employees have been the children of former employees.”
Birdsall opened the shop in 1985 with former husband Dr. Douglas Weed, a Napa chiropractor. Birdsall bought out Weed's share of the business in the early 1990s, and the shop prospered for the first 24 years. The 2008-09 market crash marked the first time when Birdsall had to struggle.
All three of Birdsall's children helped the store in some way, although the youngest, 21-year-old Haley Rekdahl, spent most of her life in the store. Birdsall recalls draping a blanket over her breastfeeding baby as she worked the cash register. And Rekdahl recalls coloring on customer bags and reading books in the refrigerated walk-in. Later she worked as a clerk for her mother.
“We've been crying a lot,” Rekdahl said. “I grew up in this store. It's the place I feel the safest.”
Beyond sympathy, Birdsall gave advice based on a lifetime interest in medicine and alternative health care.
“People would come in from very far away to seek Lorna's advice, and they brought in all kinds of questions and concerns,” said Sharyn Lurie, a former employee. “She truly cares about people, and everyone knows and feels that.”