A few months ago a friend sent me a shocked message with an article that another beloved small Sacramento business was closing it’s door, this time our neighborhood Panama Pottery. “Another one bites the dust” is what I believe my friend proclaimed, and she was right. This year alone we’ve seen the closing of Capital Nursery on Freeport Blvd and Alphabet Moon in Davis – one of the last remaining ‘mom n pop’ toy stores in the area – so where is a locally-minded mama supposed to to buy her little plants and wooden toys now??? I always feel a tiny bit of personal responsibility for these closings, I mean as much as I claimed to love these stores I suppose I could have frequented with my almighty dollar more. But somehow the news of Panama Pottery closing was like an arrow to my heart.
For those of you regular readers you may have heard me mention this awesome pottery studio/retail pot supplier before (that’s the clay kind, not the green y’all). I first waxed poetic about PP here in an ode to my South Sac neighborhood and sang the praises of pottery mulch here in an ode to my dry garden. I especially love the mark this historic pottery business makes on 24th street, which I drive up and down multiple times a day on my usual grind. As a raised -in-Berkeley-girl I always feel like I’m passing a little bit of home when I see the stacks of terracotta pots and garden art against the urban backdrop of the light rail tracks and the rusted old machinery. A little bit of funky-artsy grit in the midst of an otherwise neglected and trash-strewn strip of Sac.
Plus, this institution is almost 100 years old as evidenced by the mountain of pottery shards where I go to cull my pottery “mulch” for my garden. I like to think about all the potters over the last century who broke a pot and tossed their pieces on the ever-growing pile. Anywhere that has been in one place for so long just has a wonderful energy – as if it has seen all the changes of an ever- growing town, and withstood them all.
So…it was with a heavy heart (and a vulture -like eye for getting some good deals on liquidating inventory) that I stopped by Panama not long ago. Their everyday prices were already very reasonable so the huge 50% off sign really got my blood thumping. I needed a few large pots for some transplants and wondered if I might score some original garden art by one of the many talented artists that work in the production area and used to sell in the retail shop.
I got all that and more! I got really great news! Turns out that the artist studios will remain open as always, and that the retail area will go through a soft close while they change and re-focus the business, and celebrate just before Valentines Day with a hard opening timed to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Panama Pottery. The head of the new retail business, a friendly and energetic woman named Maria told me the opening will be an event they are calling “The Heart of Panama Pottery” referencing the original pottery stamp in the shape of a heart (see pic at top) and tying into the Valentines holiday and of course the love felt by the community for this centenarian business.
A brief aside: another one of Panama’s appealing qualities is it’s ability to grow and be re-invented by different owners throughout the years. Although they are working on developing a new website (www.panampotterysacramento.com), the about us page on the old site still offers some insight into how the business has changed over the years: from strictly wholesale, to trying to lure retail customers in by adding brightly painted murals, to bringing in the La Casita strand of the business that sells plants and pre-planted cactus & succulent gardens in a variety of terracotta plants.
The pottery business was opened in 1913 by Swedish immigrant Victor Axelson who was an artist and hand-craftsman there, even after he sold his share of the business after the First World War. Starting in 1943, new owners Noble and Ouweta Leonard operated Panama Pottery through fire, bankruptcy and personal loss until the early 1970’s. The business was then taken over by Ramon and Arselia Santos who had both been been long time employees, doing everything from bookkeeping to driving delivery trucks. When they retired the current owners took over in 2006 with an eye to building the retail business by stocking artisan pottery, sculpture, and art.
Taking the time to read through these articles about the history of the place, I was struck not only by a sense of how much Sacramento has grown and changed (check out the great pictures of the turn of the century potters with the original PP crocks) but also by the fact that so much love and family commitment has been poured into this business over the last 100 years. You can almost feel the soul of the place coming through the story of it’s evolution. So many people have built their dreams in one place and crafted their futures in the forms of the clay which became their signature product. No wonder I always got such a good feeling walking in there!
And although I’ve never visited it, I have often heard lore of their giant room-sized kiln in the artists’ studio, which I’ve heard is dubbed “Martha”. People have told me this kiln an “invaluable community resource” and that it’s a must-do, to walk inside it and feel the energy of the heat-fired bricks which have help create so much art for so long. Therefore I was even more thrilled when Maria told me that Panama will be hosting a Dia de la Muertos celebration at the end of the month, building an altar to the ancestors inside the great kiln.
Maria said that starting next Saturday (Oct 27th) the public are welcome to visit, bringing a photo or a remembrance of their loved one to add to the altar if they wish and there will be a community celebration on Nov. 1st in honor of Day of the Dead.
I actually got a little shiver when Maria told me this, thinking of my recently deceased mother. It was she who first introduced me to the tradition of ancestor altars and she who would have loved Panama with it’s combination of gardening, handcrafted art and one of a kind pottery. It seemed so fortuitous to me. There I was shoveling pottery shards into burlap sacks to take home and dress my garden beds when I learned that one of most favorite places in Sacramento was going to continue to live on and that there is a little rainbow inside myself which stretched right from my heart and the thoughts of my mom, straight into the heart of Panama Pottery; the giant kiln which will become a sanctuary created to remember all those people and things which have passed on.
Is it any wonder that I’m in love with this place?!
So people – Listen Up! The final word is this : Panama Pottery is still OPEN!
Anytime you come by and see the gates are open, head on in. There is still a good selection of pots for sale at really great prices as well as plenty of pre-planted pots, perfect for gifts or instant garden decorating. The pottery artists will be selling over the holiday season and in early 2013, the retail business will re-open with a bang!
Until then.. drop in, support your local business and experience little piece of Sacramento history for yourself!
(“Favorite places in Sacramento” is an on-going series within this blog, click here for installments #1 and #2 . If anyone has suggestions for future features, or a favorite place of your own to share, please contact me through the comments section – cheers!, Rucha)