Bookshop on First Street on the quaint Bay Area
community of Benicia, Calif., Feb. 11, 2014.
Calif. — Heading south on Interstate 680, just past the
Benicia city limit sign, you’ll see a giant billboard,
all blue sky and golden sunsets, touting this very city as
promising "a great day by the bay."
look to the right, where the industrial blight of an oil
refinery spews brackish plumes of a sickly shade.
look to the left toward the Suisun Bay, where the mothball
fleet, essentially a naval junkyard, rusts nearby on the
just keep looking — and moving — forward, off the
freeway and onto its tree-shrouded streets.
gets better the closer you travel to its downtown
waterfront, where boutiques and antiques shops beckon,
where artists live and work in the shadow cast by hometown
hero Robert Arneson, where history is steeped like so many
loose-leaf bags at the popular Camellia Tea Room, where
outrigger canoeists can shove off for San Pablo Bay, and
where First Street at times resembles a puppy promenade.
the billboard so vividly illustrates, Benicia is putting
on the hard sell to attract tourists whose only
association with the town is the $5 they plunk down for
the bridge toll. It has hired a marketing firm, which has
branded this town along the Carquinez Straits the
"best kept little secret in the San Francisco Bay
Area." Locals are hoping that, with proper promotion,
Benicia could rival house-boat-happy Sausalito or even
tony Tiburon as a waterfront weekend destination.
a very quiet little place," said Nancy Steacker,
feeding bread scraps to the shorebirds at the foot of
First Street one recent lunch time. "It’s right in
the middle of everything, but you’re not really in
anything, you know."
really, is one of Benicia’s main selling points —
namely, its slow pace, homey feel, lack of pretension and
centralized location, easily within an hour’s drive —
to the masses of stressed-out city dwellers in San
Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. And it’s doubtful,
even with an influx of tourists, that the local vibe will
change much, since Benicia has weathered boom-and-bust
cycles before and retained its laid-back charm.
biggest boom, of course, was that glorious 13-month period
160 years ago when Benicia served as California’s state
capital, until Sacramento lured lawmakers away with
promises of a bigger building and more housing, a tempting
proposition since many legislators had been sleeping in
saloons on First Street. Benicia also lays claim to having
the first Army post in the West, where such military
notables as William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant
served, Grant spending time in jail for drunkenly conduct
that included firing cannons across the straits to
the early 20th century, when the fishing industry thrived,
Jack London worked as an officer on the "fish
patrol" and later used Benicia as a setting for
stories. And, during Prohibition, Benicia was touted as
the "wettest" city in Northern California, with
brothels and speakeasys connected via tunnels under First
Street for cannery and tannery workers looking for a good
that era Benicia’s wild youth. It eventually settled
into middle age as a reinvented haven for artists and
artisans. Arneson, the noted sculptor and leader of the
"funk art" movement, set up a studio on First
Street, where the popular First Street Cafe now sits.
Other artists followed, including feminist star Judy
Chicago, who constructed her controversial masterpiece,
"The Dinner Party," while living there in the
of that mid-century bohemian artistic vibe lives on just
east of downtown at the Arsenal, a re-purposed military
encampment where scores of artists now have live-work
spaces and hold twice-yearly open-studio weekends.
these days, the nexus of activity clearly can be found on
First Street, which has been designated by
preservationists as a "California Main Street
if heralding its ambitions, Benicia immediately hits you
with a small but glorious city park at the head of the
street. No less than 37 types of trees — an arborist’s
delight, ranging from crape myrtle to deodar cedar, coast
redwood to Canary Island date palm, black acacia to Aleppo
pine — are represented in a swath of green punctuated by
a Victorian gazebo.
best to park there and stroll the 11-block stretch leading
to the waterfront.
first stop will be the Benicia Antiques Mall, the largest
of the antiques shops dotting the street. Next to rustic
turn-of-the-century dressers and 1950s pin-up-girl frilly
dresses are curios such as a bronzed water pump, a Little
League baseball trophy, a vintage standup radio
microphone, Bob’s Big Boy metal trays and a boxer’s
punching bag. The proprietress, too shy to reveal her
name, lamented that several other antiques shops have
closed in recent years. But she then proceeded to reel off
a half-dozen other browse-worthy places on the street.
a morning of fervid antiquing, many find sanctuary at
Camellia Tea Room, two blocks down in a restored 1897
Victorian building. In addition to adhering to the British
custom of serving afternoon tea from bone china pots,
Camellia also features lunch of finger sandwiches and
other delicacies in a room festooned with ornate
wallpaper. Camellia can be seen as the antithesis of
Benicia’s brothel- and beer-drenched early days, but
owner Maryellen Hayes says it fits the town.
still kind of 19th century around here," Hayes said.
"That feeling, and the water at the end of the
street, is our (charm) to people. We get a lot of
day-trippers from the 415, 925 and 510 (area codes). It’s
part of the city’s branding. We have a lot of ladies
shops in town, antiques and salons. We’ve got salons up
the ying yang — if you don’t have a good haircut in
this town, there’s no reason — and they are promoting
it as a ladies’ day trip. And we’re part of that,
political life can be viewed a block and a half down at
the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, where for that
glorious 13 months this town laid claim to the seat of
power. A handsome brick building, accentuated by gleaming
Doric columns, straddles the corner of First and G
restored state Senate (downstairs) and Assembly (upstairs)
chambers are made to look as they did in 1853, with desks
lined in orderly rows and a chandeliers dangling above and
a wood stove in the corner. The Capitol, the only
remaining structure from the state’s peripatetic days
when the seat of government bounced from San Francisco to
Vallejo to Monterey, is open Thursdays through Sundays for
tours. Proving that bureaucracy reigns even when a Capitol
has long since gone dormant, the ranger refused to talk to
a reporter because she wasn’t "authorized" to
do so. Regardless, a self-guided jaunt around the rooms
shows that legislators worked in opulence, even if many
had to sleep in saloons because of a housing shortage.
than a block away, at Bookshop Benicia, you can thumb
through tomes touting Benicia’s glory days. But, judging
by volume, it looked as if owner Christine Mayall does
most of her business selling fiction in a cozy space that
encourages browsing and certainly wants to attract the
get people who sail into the marina on weekends," she
said. "We meet all sorts of interesting folks that
no doubt, are traveling with dogs. Up and down First
Street, dogs and their human companions roamed. From a
pair of bichon frisés named Peekaboo and Freeway, to
Yorkie mixes named Olivina and Georgie, dogs took
advantage of water bowls left out for them. They can
explore (leashed) on the city green near the waterfront
and frolic (unleashed) on the small beaches just off the
First Street Promenade.
and Dana Godwin, with black lab mixes Drake and Olive in
tow, said merchants don’t bat an eye when someone walks
through the door with a four-legged friend.
like Sausalito in that respect," Skip said. "A
lot of the restaurants have outdoor seating, and that
attracts people with dogs. All the B&Bs and hotels are
Parella, owner of the upscale wine and craft beer bar, The
Chill, allows dogs on her patio, as does the First Street
Cafe, the restaurant at the Union Hotel and other
eateries. Such openness to canines has earned Benicia the
status of the fourth most "dog-friendly" city in
the nation by Dog Fancy Magazine.
by that honor, James Long, owner of Pups ‘n’ Purrz on
First Street, helped organize the annual A Great Dog Day
by the Bay, featuring a Disc Dog competition, a
toss-and-fetch tournament, an owner-dog look-alike contest
and a dog beauty pageant. One item Long has trouble
keeping in stock is cod sticks ($1).
the day of the peddlers fair, I sold out all 60
sticks," he said. "People came in the next day
wanting more and I was out. I had to get more fast. I
think it’s because of the water. The dogs can smell the
fish. They’re like, ooh, fish."
water is a lure to humans, as well. The Ninth Street Park
and Boat Launch is home to the Benicia Outrigger Canoe
Club, and avid canoeists Anne Grove and Wayne Kocher say
paddlers come from all over because of the easy access to
the water. Grove and Kocher were just pulling out their
Huki V2-X tandem canoe from the water after an 8-mile
paddle to beyond the Carquinez Bridge and back.
never gets crowded, lots of room on the water,"
Kocher said. "You do have to keep your eyes open for
the barges. Today, it was tranquil. But it can get very
windy. That’s the only complaint. But it’s always a
great day on the water."
too, on land in Benicia. For once, a billboard told the
Antiques Mall: 918 First St. (707) 751-1400;