Cottage Grove

Sunset for Cottage Grove’s Sunshine General

Then …

… and now

Cottage Grove lost two institutions this year: The first being the little store that could, Sunshine General Store, which in May finally ran out of steam after serving the community for 45 years. The second being Gordon Beaman, one of the store’s original owners and the glue who held it together for all those years. Beaman peacefully passed away, July 20. As sad as these two losses are, it is perhaps fitting that they should go together; Gordon was really attached to the store and was a force of constancy at Sunshine. It would be hard to imagine one without the other.

To tell the remarkable story of Sunshine and Gordon’s stewardship of this community asset, it requires sketching a backdrop. In 1976, the year of Sunshine’s founding, it was the nation’s bicentennial and the country was reflecting on 200 years of history as it gazed forward, trying to see what’s next for the American Experiment.

Reverberations of the tumultuous upheaval of Vietnam and the counterculture clashes were still sending out ripples even as celebrations of 200 years of democracy were taking place. Among the many new directions to emerge from the 1960s was a renewed interest in “natural foods” and living better through nutrition.

Whole grains, vegetarian diet, brown rice, organic fruits and vegetables, macrobiotics, tofu, herbal remedies, sprouts, bulk goods, vitamins, and other dietary supplements are just a few of the offerings to come out of this transitional time. While the idea that diet can affect health wasn’t so new – its roots go back to the 1800s – the hippie movement really propelled a resurgence of exploring eating natural, whole foods. Buying clubs, food co-ops, vegetarian restaurants, bakeries, and storefronts started popping up as like-minded folk sought healthy food at reasonable prices. Many were member owned or managed. One such business in Austin, Texas, grew into Whole Foods.

In Cottage Grove, an influx of inhabitants bringing new ideas with them had settled in as the Cerro Gordo Community attempted to establish a car-free utopia on the hill of the same name six miles out of town. Attending one of the promotional events recruiting potential members for Cerro Gordo that was held in Santa Barbara were Robin Bachtler and Tom Cushman. They had been studying at the university and were looking for a change. The pair made visits to the Grove to check out Cerro Gordo in 1975 and liked what they saw, but decided to wait until they had experienced a wet winter here before making a decision about going all-in and pulling up stakes. One person they met here was Bill Courtney, who learned of Robin’s experience working in health foods. This connection would prove providential in the founding of Sunshine.

Back in Santa Barbara, Bachtler received a call from Courtney. “Hey, the local store and restaurant Dandy Lion is for sale, are you interested?” Bachtler in turn called fellow east coast friend Marta Boyett, who had worked with her at Nature Food Centre in Maryland, to tell her about the opportunity.

“You aren’t going to believe this, but Gordon (her husband) is in Eugene right now, looking for a job,” Boyett replied. After some discussion, Boyett said, “You guys check it out and if you like it, I’m in.” Gordon, Bachtler, and Cushman met with Jon Reaksecker who had started Dandy Lion as well as owning the building, which was at 824 W. Main Street. The friends decided to rent the space and equipment instead of trying to buy it. The store already had some of the features, such as the bulk bins for dry goods and restaurant equipment, but the Dandy Lion had a limited selection and was open only for a few days a week. That was soon to change as the new name went up in May of 1976, and on June 14, Flag Day, an expanded operation, Sunshine General Store, opened for business.

The new partners brought different skill sets with them. Cushman was the angel providing seed money and electrical expertise to keep the aging coolers running. But the day-to-day operations fell to the other three. “Gordon settled into ordering and purchasing, Marta did the accounting and bookkeeping, and I was responsible for graphics, and we all pitched in on running things. We were babies in business, Marta and I were just 23, Gordon a few years older. We tried lots of things,” Bachtler-Cushman said.  

“In those early days we worked seven days a week, 24/7, lived in the same house, and basically did it for food we ate, trying to get the business off the ground,” added Boyett.

“We opened the Blue Sky cafe in the store serving delicious soups, sandwiches, cold-brewed coffee, and baked goods,” Bachtler-Cushman remembers. Boyett recalled, “The cafe was good, but we didn’t have the heart to keep both the cafe and the store running so we shut it down after about a year.”

The original team was not to last. “After the first two years I realized that I was not cut out for retail and I moved on leaving Marta and Gordon running the store,” Bachtler-Cushman said.  

An article in the Nov. 12, 1986 issue of the Cottage Grove paper quotes Boyett describing Sunshine at the 10-year mark. “First of all, the business is not just a ‘health food store.’ In fact the Sunshine General Store is, as the name implies, a store that offers a wide selection of foods and goods. We care about quality. This is where you get to try new things and we hope to be the research laboratory for the buying public.”

Boyett pointed out that what they had pioneered at Sunshine was now being adopted by larger grocery chains, such as bulk foods. In the same article she foresaw the coming of locally grown organic produce as an important trend that has been realized, as evidenced by the South Valley Farmers Market. Sunshine offered home-brewing supplies, a necessity if you wanted a decent brew before the coming of craft beers. She also pointed out that the store’s customer base had grown steadily over the years and reflected a cross section of the community.

Other sources recall that was not necessarily the case in the beginning. The brightly colored Peter Max style sign that bore the name of the store had caused comment as not being appropriate for Main Street and Sunshine was viewed with suspicion by some locals. In contrast, for the alternatively minded, the store was a welcome oasis in a timber town. “Meet you at Sunshine” was a common phrase among certain circles of the community. “Sunshine was like a portal where you could enter another world and meet people like you,” said one of the speakers at his memorial gathering.

In 1983 Boyett and Beaman effectively ended their marriage but remained good friends and continued as business partners until 1990. Times were pretty tough in the 1980s. A lasting recession combined with the move to automation in the lumber mills led to about a third of the local workforce being laid off. “Lots of people moved away and it was very hard to pay the bills at the store. I had to take a second job, moonlighting in addition to working in the store. It was very touch and go,” Boyett said.

In the ’90s a group of employees, dubbed “The Dream Team” by Beaman, helped him guide the store forward. Conversations with Carol Palmer and Chuck McLeod, who along with Sage were the core of the store’s employees for over 10 years, helped reveal a portrait of Beaman that was unknown to me from our simple friendly transactions as a customer.

McLeod, now in business himself at The Old Mill Farm Store, along with partner Debbie Lavois, recounted: “Gordon was a very intelligent, smart man. He was a character with quite a wit, and really knew his stuff about vitamins and herbal supplements and helped so many in the community with health issues. I had a lot of fun working at the store. Sometimes he could be a bit challenging, but everyone who really knew him, loved him. He was too afraid to go into produce in a big way, but when I showed him we could make a profit on vegetables, he gave me a free hand and it was a big part of the store after that.”

Together McLeod and Lavios echoed the sentiment of Sunshine being a hangout spot and also commented the store is one of the few places that really played music, as opposed to muzak, from Beaman’s extensive music collection. Also his ability on the dance floor. “At the community dances at Echo Hollow he was so fluid and that really attracted attention,” Lavois recalled.

That sense of rhythm extended to his musical ability. Gordon was a talented singer and musician, and played guitar, drums, and cornet. He would often sit in with local bands on horn, playing at venues such as The Upper Crust. Gordon had an eclectic musical taste and could play all sorts of complicated African rhythms on drums.

“At its height Sunshine was the place to be and most of the people I know now I met at the store. Gordon could be hysterically funny and quite quippy. He could drop one-liners as well as go off on a tangent that would leave you just gasping for breath. My then-partner Sage wanted to write a book called ‘Store Stories’ describing all the magical things that happened there.

“Even though the cafe portion of the store had closed after the first few years Gordon never gave up his vision for having a restaurant there. The log-cabin look to the interior is part of that and there is a stove and pizza oven still in the back,” Palmer said.

“Gordon, in addition to his many other talents, was a very gifted painter, and really viewed himself as ‘Renaissance Man,’” Boyett said. 

“He was known an intensely private person who also closely guarded others privacy. Being in the store, Gordon could have been the biggest gossip in town with all the people coming through, but he was quite cautious about inquiring into other’s business without their permission,” a speaker at the memorial said.

An announcement on social media and a memorial wall at the Bookmine spread the news of Beaman’s passing and many tributes poured in of how their lives had been affected by Beaman and Sunshine. “He gave me my first job (some folks walked in as a customer and walked out as an employee)” … “I started coming in as a kid and was still going there with my kids” … “He helped me in so many ways” … “We called him ‘Mr. Friendly’” … “He led community volleyball games for 25 years,” etc. 

One thing all agreed on at his memorial gathering, held on Sunday, Aug. 1, was that Gordon was abhorrent to change of any kind. As a source of constancy, he resisted the internet, computers, and any changes in the way Sunshine was run or laid out. In doing research through the CG Historical Society files for this story, I came across so many announcements of grocery stores opening in town: Ray’s, Market of Choice, Shop Smart, Price Chopper, Food Warehouse, Thriftway, Sav-a-Lot; all come and gone while icons Gordon and Sunshine General Store, chugged along doing things the way they always had and outlasting them all.

Thank you Gordon Beaman and all who had a hand in keeping this unique community treasure going through your patronage, work, creativity, and sweat.  

The sunset of Sunshine and Gordon will leave a darkness that can only be eased by the memories of the good effects both had on Cottage Grove. R.I.P. Gordon Beaman & Sunshine General Store.

Read full obituary here.

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