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The Marin Fruit Company: A Peek into the Past

by Annie Sutter


This story ran in the Marin Scope in 1998 when the store closed after 83 years in Sausalito.

Last week a Sausalito landmark, the Marin Fruit Company, closed its doors, and its owners bid their customers and friends an emotional goodbye. "We are retiring" read the announcement taped to the window, "after all these years it is with great sadness to end an era of 83 years of a family run business. Please join us for a good-bye tea to reminisce, January 31, 1998. Nathan - Theodora Yee and Laura Jen. "And the people flocked to the store to say good-bye. Even before the tea began, well wishers began arriving, bringing cookies and scones and little sandwiches and a huge cake inscribed with "we will miss you." Trays of canapes donated by local restaurants, chocolate covered strawberries and tarts and flowers piled up on top of the freezers and the check out counter. People strolled past the bins where produce once was stacked, now filled with photos, newspaper clippings, memorabilia of several lifetimes. A big shiny cash register "not for sale, we've had it since the 30s," presided at the check out counter, still ringing up purchases throughout the day.


After 83 years of doing business in the same location, things can pile up. And what a "peek into the past" these things afforded those who passed through the store that day. The Yees displayed items found while they were cleaning out, saved and hidden in all the little out of the way places that things sneak into over the years. Bottles, boxes, tins, containers, and cartons on the rear shelves contained Wings Cigarettes, McCorrrick gelatin, Phenix bouillon cubes, and Schrader's ant powder. A grim female face frowning from the label of "Mrs. Stewart's Liquid Blueing" indicates that one must be serious, indeed, to spend time "blueing," the bottle cost 26 cents. We find that Major's Cement "is good" for repairing, among other things, "bisque statues and for tipping billiard cubes." Fifty cents will get you a can of Swift's Cleanser, $1.25 for a carton of cigarettes, 15 cents for a loaf of bread. Nathan's memory spans many a company change. "These are the tops of Uneeda cracker box tins - that became Nabisco, here is a Lucas Dairy milk bottle, that became Stornetta, and this one, a Marin City Milk Company bottle, was before my time" said Nathan. He pointed out a package of Ivory Snow showing a mother cuddling her baby, "a collector's item," he said, "because that's Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow girl." Chambers, you may recall, went on to find fame in a very different field.

Alongside the register were stacks of receipts. In 1933 Aschoffs Bakery billed $14.25 for 95 loaves of bread - and 40 cents for two dozen rolls. Mondavi Burgundy delivered by the case in 1967 had a suggested retail of 45 cents a bottle - the price had escalated by 1970 to $1.89 a bottle.


People kept dropping in, and soon the wake-like atmosphere brightened as they moved through the store, admiring a little embroidered grocer's apron made by Nathan's mother when he was a boy, seeing two clocks that must've spent decades on the rear wall, one advertising Dad's Root Beer, and a Proctor & Gamble clock featuring "electric time." There was the ever familiar Coke sign, stacks of wooden milk cartons, rows and rows of red packaged boxes 'American fruit jar rings for canning,  and a large sign warning that "this store is equipped with Theft Detector Equipment."


People shared memories from over the years. "I remember a pole with a grabber on top that they used to reach high on the shelves, Willie would do that." And then Willie's daughter, Jackie Yee Choy, heard that and added, "It had a hook on top and a string, and you had to maneuver the box so you could get the hook on it and then squeeze the box. My father invented that contraption." A couple came in and handed Theodora a pink rose and said that they bought a basket of strawberries twenty years ago and took it across the street to eat, and that night he proposed to her, and she said "it's all because of you, and we're still together." The Ward family's recollections of the store span many generations. Ann Ward said that her mother-in-law remembers Yee Toc Chee, the Yee's grandfather, walking the streets selling produce from a basket on his shoulders, and Ann said that her son Jay "hung out there after school." What constitutes hanging out? I inquired. Jay answered, "Oh, sitting on the stool, twirling around, filling our faces with candy, bothering Willie. It was really special to be invited into the back room and see the old guys sitting around a card table." Another former schoolboy remembers a big fiber drum out on- the sidewalk full of dog biscuits - about five flavors designated by color. I'd walk by on the way home from school and dip into the barrel on the run, hoping to bring up my favorite color (it was charcoal, so I tried to grab a black one) but you had to go by fast so Willie wouldn't catch you." Then I asked him if the family was so poor that he had to eat dog biscuits, and he said "oh no, I just didn't have a Baby Ruth in my pocket."

Those who couldn't attend the tea sent notes, and they were taped to the front window. This one says it all. "I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Willie was so good to us. We all relied on him to carry us - sometimes months at a time when we were too broke to pay him. The closing of the store is like a death in the family to us. The last remnant of the golden age of Sausalito."


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