San Anselmo

“You have reached the town of San Anselmo…office hours are 8:30 to noon and one to four o’clock, Monday through Thursday…on Friday we are closed to the public.” So states the answering machine at San Anselmo’s town hall, where operations have been cut back significantly.

First it was the rejection of a citywide parcel tax, then the flood of ’05 and finally the recession of ’08. However, stroll down San Anselmo Avenue then up Sir Francis Drake, and except for a few empty storefronts, you’ll feel everything is coming up roses. Teapod, an open-air organic tea bar, has live music, Kismet has expanded and now offers shoes, two local moms purchased Dogville and stalwarts such as Chadwick’s of London, Sunnyside Nursery and Ludwig’s Wine, Spirits and Cigars (opened in ’39) appear as busy as ever. For a look at a town that’s been clobbered yet keeps on clicking, do yourself a favor and visit San Anselmo. The sidewalk spirit can be infectious.

And apparently, more such spirit is on the way. “We’re really excited about ‘San Anselmo Vision,’” says Connie Rodgers, the never-say-die president/CEO of the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a European-style marketplace and townhouse project with plenty of underground parking.” The ambitious three-story project will replace several blocks of outdated strip commercial development on the southern end of San Anselmo Avenue, she adds. “We know it’s doable. We just have to do it.”

Meanwhile, a San Anselmo fait accompli—one that has everyone talking—is the recently completed Red Hill Community Park on Shaw Drive off Drake Boulevard. According to the town’s recreation department, the $2.2 million, two-plus-acre complex features a soccer and lacrosse field, a baseball diamond and (especially popular) a dog park. “I’ve been on the town council for 17 years,” remarks San Anselmo Mayor Peter Breen, “and for 15 years we’ve been trying to get a community park together.” And how has it turned out? “It’s probably the finest sports facility in the county,” he says.

In turn, Breen is possibly the best mayor San Anselmo could hope for. “I was actually born in San Anselmo, 72 years ago,” he confides with a smile so broad it’s almost a laugh. “We have a wonderful, well-spirited town. Us older folks anchor the town and because of the good schools, young families are moving in all the time.”

Along with much of San Anselmo, Breen is looking forward to Sunday, October 4, aka Country Fair Day. “The whole town will come together with a parade of kids, fire trucks and lots of noise.” The event honors the reopening of town’s fire station, which was extensively damaged by the 2005 flood. “We’re back in great shape,” he adds. “We’ve recovered indeed.”

It seems like a similar verdict applies to the local real estate market. Vance Frost of Frank Howard Allen Realtors, who is also a director with the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce, has noticed a recent upswing in sales. “Bank of America and Wells Fargo are getting competitive with loans over $417,000,” he says, “and that’s a real good sign.” San Anselmo’s highest 2009 sale, Frost reports, was $2.6 million for a home on 23 acres off Summit Road; the lowest was “around $255,000” for a lot with a house he calls “pretty much a tear-down.” Family homes on average-size lots in San Anselmo “are like the rest of Marin County,” he adds; “they sell for between $750,000 and 850,000.”

But when it comes to the people of San Anselmo, that just-like-elsewhere aspect may not apply. “I’ve been here 31 years,” says Battalion Chief Joe Langlois of the Ross Valley Fire District’s San Anselmo station. “I’ve met folks, then I meet their children, and now I’m meeting their grandchildren—I don’t know if that happens much anymore.” One of his responsibilities is to train the town’s volunteer fire department. “They augment our crew. There’s 20 of them and they’re very reliable—we really count on them.”

And through economic downturns, floods and near-droughts, San Anselmo has stood behind its downtown merchants—and vice versa. “Some have been here a long time in the same place,” says the chamber of commerce’s Rodgers, “and some have expanded into new locations.” An example of the latter is Heidi Krahling, who recently opened Marinita’s, a high-energy regional Mexican restaurant just up Drake Boulevard from her renowned Insalata’s. “People are calling her new location ‘San Anselmo’s stimulus package,’” Rodgers jokes.

As for the businesses that, like faithful residents, seem to have been around forever, it’s a lengthy (and often clever) list: Debbie Does Desserts, Marin Coffee Roasters, Eden Day Spa, Fleet Feet Sports, Bubba’s Diner, Comforts, Jack’s Drugstore, Seawood Photo, the ever-so-charming San Anselmo Inn, Lo Coco’s Pizzeria, Whyte’s Books, the San Anselmo Barber Shop (opened in 1927, same two chairs, same barber for 57 years), Doodlebug, Taco Jane’s, Cedar Chest, Grasshopper Pilates and enough antique stores to qualify as Northern California’s antique capital.

If that’s not enough nostalgia quotient for one town, note this: both the Bank of America and Wells Fargo here have high-ceilinged, marble-floor interiors where people happily stand in line to talk with tellers. As is often asked about San Anselmo: Was Norman Rockwell its town planner?