The Joseph Boston Store's past comes to life with popups, local products and a vision for the future.

by Dave Faries

March 7, 2019

Anne Banta smiles broadly as she gestures toward some of the features tucked inside the historic Joseph Boston Store. There’s an old safe, thought to be the first in Monterey, where miners from gold rush sites sometimes secured their finds. There’s a desk, used by the proprietor during the store’s 1850s heyday. “This is the original floor,” Banta exclaims, still beaming.

She is a volunteer with the nonprofit Historic Garden League, the group responsible for tending to the Casa del Oro grounds. The store is a feature of the Monterey State Historic Park, with sales benefitting the league. So when she turns the conversation to merchandise sold in the old adobe shop, Banta’s tone takes a more purposeful turn. Since 1985, the landmark has stocked Victorian-style pieces, tourist souvenirs and other gift shop items, for the most part.

Shortly after Banta and her husband moved to Monterey County from the San Francisco Bay area, she became a garden league volunteer. It was a way to meet people, while perhaps scaling down her strategic marketing career. Then a year ago, Banta was asked to organize the retail side of the store.

“I didn’t want to sell a lot of goo-gags,” she says. “I wanted to tell a story.”

In January, the garden league shut down the store for a couple weeks, volunteers cleared the shelves and began rethinking their offerings. They settled on a new vision, one that had been percolating in Banta’s mind for several months – and one that would not only tell the story of the past, but also the present and the future.

Banta began stocking local, artisanal products – food for the most part, as well as handmade soaps and crafts. There are labels from Pacific Grove’s Happy Girl Kitchen, Big Sur Salts, Carmel Berry Co., aromatic (and environmentally friendly) sprays from Kimberli’s Garden Creations out of Carmel and more.

The goal is to feature local products and goods from local entrepreneurs. She hopes the store will become a destination for residents as well as tourists, with an inventory that changes with the season.

“You have to have a reason to keep coming back,” Banta explains. “How many times can you buy a teapot?”

At the same time, she also began clearing plastics from the shop, working with purveyors to change their packaging.

“A year from now I’d like to get everyone in Old Monterey to sign a pledge – no plastic water bottles,” Banta says. “We can make a stand. I’m hoping I can take that message outside of the store.”

The plastic packaging question would not have existed in a general store of the 1850s, but it works with Banta’s vision: to stock items that would have been found in a general store of the 1850s, though with modern usefulness.

Casey Aguilar of Monterey Food Tours includes the store on her itinerary. Her walks combine tastings with a little local history. That put Banta and the historic landmark on a new path.

“One day Casey and I met, and the light bulb came on as to how I could honor the history of the Joseph Boston Store,” Banta recalls.

General stores in the 1800s offered a little of everything, including foods. Banta began reaching out to local producers. She also swung into market research mode, developing spreadsheets, comparing sales results month to month, seeking feedback to determine what customers found appealing.

She chuckles at the notion of someone scouring an Excel spreadsheet on a wireless tablet in a historic adobe. But then she also finds similarity between her research and the day-to-day grind of the 1850s. Goods came into Monterey from all over the world: coffee from Costa Rica, sugar from the Sandwich Islands and pickles from England.

“I’m sure Joseph Boston would have had his ledgers,” she observes. “Those investments were huge. They must have been thinking about what I’m thinking about every minute.”

One notation found on an order placed by Boston or one of his staff indicates some of that frustration. “Olives we cannot sell here,” it reads. “The barrel we have is nearly full yet.”

Banta’s next task is to let people know that the historic general store is a destination for modern shoppers seeking local goods. She hopes to launch a culinary speaker series. For now, garden league volunteers are focusing on a series of pop-up tasting events, hoping to draw crowds and introduce their new mission.

Ironically, the first scheduled pop-up is titled “Everything Olives,” with tastings of cured olives, oils and a tapenade. Banta hopes it turns out better for her than that barrel of olives did.

“It’s the best-kept secret in town,” she says of the store. “We’re working on changing that.”