One of the great long running shops along Main Street Placerville from 1978 to 2001 was Val Sullivan’s “The Last Straw.” Tom and Val Sullivan and their daughters, Kim and Kristin, were my neighbors, living on the steep Big Canyon Creek Road. About the time I was seven, Val decided that simply being a stay at home mom wasn’t going to satisfy her enterprising nature and she tested the waters of opening a business with a small craft display positioned in the colony of artisans that made up the autumn craft fair of the El Dorado Orchards in Apple Hill. My mother became Val’s partner in crime and they invented a name for the venture: The Last Straw. This name was painted on a sign that adorned the folding screen setup of barn wood and hay bales and it was this name that forever defined Val’s businesses from then on.
The Apple Hill version of The Last Straw sold a variety of oddities, including a very popular hand puppet handmade by my mother. The puppet was made of a plain muslin with bright yarn hair and sold with a box of crayons. The idea was that you used the crayons to draw on your own face and wardrobe. My mother sold a number of her paintings from her art school days and Val created dried flower arrangements. The shop was only in operation on weekends and so in-between my mother would have to sew more puppets to keep up with the demand. They tried the stand at a few different apple barns to see if business changed, but returned to El Dorado Orchards in the end. At that time, El Dorado Orchards was the real pioneer in Apple Hill craft fairs. As Val and my mother sat around waiting to sell something, Val began spinning her dreams of opening an actual store.
And so it was that Val took over the old Kay’s clothing store at 448 Main Street in 1978 and stuffed it with baskets, cards, nicknacks, dolls, dried flowers and a myriad of home decorative items of a country theme. The blue tiles that defined Kay’s clothing store were covered up with wood from an old barn to further transform the shop into a warm and wonderful environment full of endless goodies. There was nothing else like it on Main Street at the time. My mother wasn’t a partner in the Main Street store, though she designed the logo used for the street sign, business cards and advertising. For many years my mother designed all the shop’s newspaper advertising in calligraphy by her own hand.
The natural thing to do for the holidays was to fill up the shop with Christmas decorations and a forest of trees on which to display them all. My mother became the chief tree decorator and took on the initial decoration duties at the Placerville shop and an additional seasonal shop at the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento for years. Once I was in Sacramento for college I worked many a season at the Arden Fair Shop as well as occasionally at the Placerville shop. Val drove up and down the hill between the two stores, keeping a personal eye on everything. She told me once that the Christmas business brought in as much money as the entire rest of the year and so it was natural that the emphasis on selling Christmas would grow into additional shops.
The Placerville shop kept growing like the Winchester Mystery House. Val kept opening up sections of the large back room to make space for furniture pieces and a kitchen shop. There was still an upstairs storage room that was maintained as such, but otherwise every corner was filled with floor to ceiling merchandise. The Last Straw became quite a useful gift shop, whether it was for those unique kitchen gadgets, fine home decor, birthday cards or stocking stuffers. And then there were the months of the Christmas wonderland kicked off by a special after hours party to start the season with good cheer and good commerce, featuring a forest of some fifty decorated trees. The place always had a wonderful atmosphere to it––smelling of pine, cranberry and cinnamon.
In 2001 Val decided that the Placerville shop was no longer worth the effort and decided to establish versions of The Last Straw in other Sacramento area Malls such as the Galleria in Roseville, Arden Fair Mall and Downtown Plaza. She was forever conniving to open other shops down into Fairfield and Concord. More Christmas shops for the holiday season seemed like a good idea, but Val was personally overseeing all of these stores to the point of exhaustion. It was an ordinary day of no particular significance that Val called my mother from her home to say that she was suddenly feeling strange and should be driven to the hospital to be checked out. The doctors previously thought she had an ear infection, but she was losing her balance and knew something serious was going on. My parents drove over to pick up Val and found her in a manic state––her hair standing on end as if she was electrified. Val told my mother to hunt through her van to get some business papers to take with her to the hospital because she was getting ready to sign a deal to open a new store in Concord. My Mom crawled around in the back of the van and found the documents. Val’s daughter Kristin was called and would meet them at the hospital. Val Sullivan never walked back out of the hospital.
Val’s illness turned out to be Creutzfelt-Jakob’s Disease. The condition is a deterioration caused by the spontaneous mutation of protein in the brain. The cause is unknown and the rare disease moves quickly and is fatal. In the hospital, Val seemed hyper positive that the doctors would figure out how to get her through the illness. My mother showed up several times a week to help Val with mind exercises to help refocus the direction of her brain power. Val couldn’t answer easy questions like, “What color is the sky?” but she kept trying and told the nurses that if anyone could get her back on track it was my mother, because she had been a teacher. She sat up in bed planning to give away her sale table items form the store as gifts to the doctors and nurses and seemed to have plenty of energy, but one day my mother showed up to find Val curled up in bed: “She suddenly looked one hundred years old.” From the time my mother received that fateful phone call to Val’s death on September 12th, 2004, it had only been four weeks.
I was home that August for my Birthday and a short getaway from my home in New York. While visiting Sacramento friends I decided to walk down K Street to have a look at all the changes. I came to the Downtown Plaza, which I hadn’t seen in years and came across a surprisingly familiar sight––my mother’s logo for The Last Straw on a little shop. There was a lady inside minding the shop, which was filled with glass items that had nothing much to do with the merchandise that typified the original shop in Placerville, but there it was: a Val Sullivan shop. I wondered if that employee was aware of Val’s condition. At that very moment I knew that Val wasn’t going to ever walk into that store again and that employee would soon be out of a job for that shop would have to close. It was eery to sort of know the future while observing someone who had no idea how their world was about to change.
Today the Placerville shop has shed the barn facade to reveal the old Kay’s clothing store blue tile and now houses Placerville Antiques. When I walk into that space now, I see the still recognizable features of the rooms and feel a certain ghostly impression of my childhood, for I was in that store so often and was on intimate terms with its growth, offshoots and people––all of which was as much a part of my growing up as anything fundamental you could name. I can stand in the middle of the shop and feel for a moment a sense of all that went on there, but then glance around and see it as a most unfamiliar place. Now with antique shops dominating Main Street, it would be welcome to have The Last Straw back for the sake of variety, but you’d have to have a Val Sullivan to really make it work. She had an eye for finding intriguing and attractive things to sell and to pull it all together in a display that was rich and delicious. The last time I saw Val she was visiting New York and we had a good meal together. She wanted to know the best place to walk and see a lot of the good retail shop windows. I sent her to Madison Avenue between 60th and 80th Streets. She said, “I just want to see what they’re doing with their windows.” I thought to myself that Val always knew what to do with her windows and Madison Avenue really didn’t have anything to teach her.
|Val Sullivan and Joan Jackson at The Last Straw Christmas party.|