St. Helena is a very prosperous town, though you wouldn’t know it walking down Main Street. The hollowing out of our storefronts is both depressing and an embarrassment. There are no easy fixes and Councilwoman Anna Chouteau emphasizes that the Main Street “problem is complicated.” She points to the City loosening up permitting “so you can have a pop-up in empty spaces” and that she and her colleagues are working “to update all our zoning.” She says our new Assistant City Manager has “the economic background and direction to focus on Main Street.” Yet the challenge of reinvigorating Main Street will not be quickly met.
But wander off Main Street into our neighborhoods and the view is brighter. We are a self-selected grouping of well-off individuals and families. Folks choose to live here if they can afford to do so. And once ensconced in town, we tend to stay. We can thank Prop. 13 for that, keeping our taxes low, year after year and decade after decade. We, resident by resident, are the bedrock of St. Helena’s economy.
We are Harry and Harriet Homeowners, regularly improving, expanding and upgrading our properties. Brian Pope, sales manager at St. Helena Appliance, says that when customers come in to shop “they tend to go for the high-performance brands,” what he calls “trophy” appliances. He says that “chef-wannabes” want their really hot burners.
A relatively effortless though expensive home upgrade is a new paint job, if you don’t handle the brushes yourself. That includes me. Richner Painting here in St. Helena has been freshening up our homes for three decades, and is experienced working with the over-the-top paints I chose from the English maker Farrow & Ball. According to a profile in The New Yorker, “Farrow & Ball paint is believed to offer an unparalleled depth of color …” What that means is it costs more. I went what Churchill called “totus porcus,” whole hog. Nine different colors, some with silly names like “Dead Salmon” (sort of taupish brown) and “Porphyry Pink” (reddish).
I convinced myself that a good re-painting could last a couple of decades. So amortized over many years, the cost didn’t seem unreasonable. Some St. Helenans have the energy (and pocketbook) to paint more often. Indeed, Nina Richner at Richner Painting says there’s constant demand for their services. She says, “We have a lot of people who want to revamp every three to five years to get a new look, a new feel.”
St. Helenans love to travel and we spend our savings on distant shores. Travel is a means to escape our cossetted cocoons and meet the world. Recently, the Star recounted Tom Rinaldi’s 50th anniversary trip to Vietnam, which he looks back on with great pleasure. Rinaldi says “that’s what money is for – spending on what we dream about.” Another St. Helena vintner, who went on two big foreign trips this year, chuckled and confirmed Rinaldi’s view: “You better do it while you can.” His view is that there are “too many places to see and not enough time.”
Consumer analysts have confirmed what they’re both saying, that we’re spending more on experiences and not just things. Suzan Rada – who worked with both quoted travelers — would agree with this conclusion. Her St. Helena Travel is celebrating 50 years in business and her tag line is “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.”
Rada says that St. Helenans “are looking for something different and outside the norm.” She says her clients’ interests are “very exotic” and that “South Africa and remote parts of Southeast Asia are popular this year.”
St. Helena Travel helped me on a recent trip to Turkey and Greece. A highlight was my return visit to Athens. I got the obligatory tourist shot of me in front of the Parthenon. Once home, I framed it alongside a similar photo, from 71 years ago. The columns looked the same; I didn’t.
Coming home from a big trip is both a trial and a relief. While it’s good to be home, St. Helena is a long way from where many of us want to go. Plus that dreaded last 75 miles from SFO. So exhaustion and jet lag set in. After 21 hours traveling back from Athens, I had a further problem. I wasn’t sure I was walking into the right house; Richner Painting had done its work while I was away. “Dutch Pink” took a little getting used to.