Vintage, furniture shops have called Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square home for decades

In Santa Rosa’s Historic Railroad Square, four stores have something in common besides location. Their decades in business, supported by their principles and their customer service, keep valued patrons returning year after year and bring in new clientele excited to shop even during the ongoing pandemic.

Whistlestop Antiques

Among the biggest draws attracting newcomers to the antique shop are the big display windows. The ever-changing displays are constantly refreshed by one of the dealers who aims to showcase eye-turning goods with the hopes a treasure will soon find a new home.

Whistlestop Antiques got its start in Railroad Square when rent was just 10 cents a square foot. Forty-eight years ago, Barbara and Russell Donahue rented half of a former auto repair facility for an antiques and secondhand store.

“Railroad Square was considered a colorful area in 1974,” Barbara Donahue said.

Three years later, the business was doing so well, they took on partners: Carl and Phyllis Moura, Dee and Harry Richardson, and Jim and Tillie Botz. Together the team paid off the other tenant and doubled their square footage.

Around 1976, the partners bought an edifice for $350,000, retrofitted the building, installed display windows and added a second story. They now house 10,000 square feet to display antiques and collectibles. Some of that square footage is rented to 36 businesses with items to sell.

Three of the couples — the Richardsons, Botzes and Donahues — continue to be active in the business today. Together they have weathered the ups and downs of the business, including the ongoing pandemic.

While things were tough at the beginning of 2020, business has been picking up. Fall offered “amazing” sales, according to Tillie Botz, and sales continued to be brisk through January.

She added customers have come from the Midwest and from back East to shop here. The purveyors are proud to say they “have something for everyone.”

“We get to meet really interesting people, and that makes it fun to work here,” Botz said.

Botz said during the last decade, antiques had fallen out of favor, but now there’s a real renaissance. They often see “thrifters,” whom she describes as young people who want to buy used goods instead of purchasing newin an effort to lessen their impact on the environment.

For Jewelry Tech, an individual “store within the store,” the draw is proprietor Byron Blodget, who has been in the jewelry business his entire life. His shop offers both sales and jewelry repair. Signage and displays help differentiate which items are for sale by Blodget and what is sold by one of the other 36 vendors.

In addition, there are train sets upstairs. Whistlestop Antiques also carries vinyl records, chalkware, glassware, furniture, old signs, toys, shells, postcards, books, and one of the largest collections of Life magazines around.

The store follows COVID-19 protocols, and all shoppers must be masked.

Welfare League Thrift Shop

Neighboring Welfare League Thrift Shop has been caring for residents of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County for 83 years. Located on Fourth Street for more than four decades, the nonprofit membership organization of 150 focuses on community well-being, particularly programs to benefit children. It was founded in 1939, when 20 women met with a public health nurse to address the welfare of children and infants.

The thrift shop carries clothing, vintage wedding attire, dolls, artworks, books, vintage linens, footwear, and holiday and craft items. Customers will also find new Snoopy clothing and stuffed toys.

The members of the organization can be found helping customers at the thrift shop, and all merchandise is donated, said Mary Gwen Neisingh, the nonprofit’s board president.

All thrift shop sales fund the Welfare League’s community service programs.

One such program is “Christmas Unlimited,” where members help parents select a new outfit of clothing, a toy and a new book for each of their children. Another program they support involves gathering small travel-sized toiletries for care packages that are then given to women’s shelters and others who need them.

The organization funds scholarships to Santa Rosa Junior College students who are in their second year studying health and education. And the Welfare League offers mini-grants to organizations. Last year they funded 14 proposals.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the thrift shop closed just like other businesses that were deemed non-essential. Shop workers are mindful to only allow six customers in the narrow shop at a time, and each visitor must sanitize their hands and wear a mask.