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Incredible Inverness

West Marin town exudes history and charm



Historic building in the center of Inverness

Photos by Tim Porter

The directions to the West Marin hamlet of Inverness are simple: Take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. That’s it! It’s that easy. Pick up Drake Boulevard at Highway 101, head west through Greenbrae, Fairfax and San Geronimo Valley, jog right for a mile at Olema, and then Sir Francis Drake reappears and goes right through cozy Inverness.

But don’t drive through Inverness. Depending on the time of day, stop for a fresh-from-the-oven pecan sticky bun at Busy Bee Bakery; maybe have a pizza from Priscilla’s Pizzeria; or if it’s dinnertime, when did you last enjoy Czechoslovakian food? For over 45 years, Inverness has been home to Vladimir’s, Marin’s one and only Czech restaurant. All three eateries are easy to find; they’re smack dab on Sir Frances Drake.

But if you’re searching for the community heart of Inverness, that may take some looking. Some will say it’s Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a 1917 former hunting retreat half a mile up Argyle Street that’s now a world-renowned dining destination with nine rooms for overnight guests (Prince Charles and Camilla stayed there in 2005). “We love Manka’s,” says Sydne Bortel, who along with her husband, Allan, has lived part-time in Inverness since the mid-1990s. “That’s where we connect with people; other than that we stay pretty close to the house.”

Year-round locals will tell you the heart of Inverness is its barely 1,000-square-foot, 7,000-volume public library at 15 Park Avenue. “Around here, the library is pretty much ‘it’ when comes to a community facility,” remarks Kerry Livingston, an Inverness resident of over 30 years. That said, “facility” might not be the word that best describes the building itself. “It was once a home known as The Gables,” adds Kerry’s husband, Dewey, a respected West Marin historian. “It was built in 1893 by Alexander Baily, one of the original settlers, and it’s the oldest substantially built home in town.” Adjacent to the library is Jack Mason Museum, currently showing a collection of Inverness photos (curated by Livingston) taken in 1906, the year of the great earthquake.

A third nomination for community heart of Inverness comes from Elisabeth Ptak, who lives in town but works for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) in Point Reyes Station. “I think Tomales Bay represents the heart of Inverness,” says the 35-year resident. “We see it every day, we walk beside it, some swim in it, many sail on it, and we visit Chicken Ranch Beach and look across Tomales Bay and enjoy beautiful views of Elephant Mountain.”

Other than that, life in Inverness is a tad on the quiet side—which is what many if not all residents prefer. The Bellwether, a country store with tasteful clothes, gifts and art objects, is next to the post office and across Drake Boulevard from the Inverness Store, a grocery and deli still recovering from the floods of early 2006. But don’t confuse quietness with conformity. From a retailing standpoint the community boasts two decidedly innovative businesses—one purveying an austere aesthetic, the other dealing in more exotic goods.

“Our furniture is strictly from the Shaker tradition, which exemplifies simplicity and utility,” says Tom Williams, who with his wife and son has operated Shaker Shops West on Inverness Way for more than 30 years. Along with accessories (even Shaker herbs), the family markets Shaker-inspired bedsteads, cabinets, tables, and rockers—available assembled or in kits. All the merchandise is displayed a showroom that during the First World War was the home of Attilio Martinelli, another original settler of the area.

Two miles south on Drake Boulevard in Inverness Park, is the home of Spirit Matters, a store like few you’ve ever visited. “As we say, we sell oddities and deities,” says owner Nonnie Welch. Her shop’s rare wares include colorful scarves, accessories and jewelry from both the Far East and West Marin, along with Tibetan devotional paintings known as thangkas and statues of Kwan Yan, the bodhisattva of compassion. As for deities, the store’s front yard has a wide variety of Buddhas of all shapes, sizes and materials, as well as one-of-a-kind garden furniture and fountains.

Also available in a variety of shapes and sizes—and prices—is Inverness real estate. “We recently cracked a barrier,” says rental agent William Barrett with nearby Stinson Beach’s Seadrift Realty. “A nearly new property with four bedrooms, a pool, spa and waterfall, on three ‘manicured acres,’ came on the market for $3.5 million.” Adding to its allure is the address: “It’s on North Dream Farm Road,” Barrett notes with a laugh. “Don’t you just love the sound of that?” As for the other extreme, he cites one recent listing: “Home in very poor condition, was built in 1923 with two bedrooms, one bath, on a small lot.” Its price? “Try $319,000,” Barrett replies. “It’s a good example of what ten times your money will bring you.” Life in Inverness has much to offer.

Image 2:  An abandoned fishing boat on Tomales Bay

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