The Mill Valley Market and Farm: A Canepa Family Legacy
In 1929, Genovese immigrant Frank Canepa took an important wrong turn. On his way north from San Francisco, where he worked for a North Beach produce market, heading for Corte Madera, he took a left somewhere along the way, wandered into Mill Valley, and immediately felt at home. The small enclave on the eastern slope of Mount Tamalpais reminded Canepa of the villages in his Italian homeland, and he knew right away that he wanted to open a produce market in the little town.
What he didn’t know was that his presence as an able-bodied young man was about to become critical to the town’s very existence. On July 2, 1929, the hills above Mill Valley sparked up in flames—speculation is that a passenger on the Mt. Tamalpais Railway threw a cigarette butt into the dry fields of the mountainside—and the town that Canepa had just fallen in love with was suddenly at risk of being destroyed.
Canepa grabbed a shovel and dug trenches in Cascade Canyon for the next three days, fighting the fire side by side with the men who would soon become his neighbors and friends. The Great Fire of 1929 would burn over 2,500 acres from July 2 to 5, destroying 117 homes, but many more would have been lost if not for Canepa and others who risked their lives to protect the town.
Thanks to the bravery of these men, and a miraculous shift in the wind, the hamlet of Mill Valley was saved and Canepa then set about his plan to open a small produce market in the town center. Originally situated on Throckmorton Avenue (the current site of the Mill Valley Hat Box), the Mill Valley Market is a local business legacy that is carried on today by the third and fourth generation of Canepas.
The story of the Canepa family is unusual in this day and age. It is the story of family and community, of personal commitments and long-term relationships. Frank Canepa happened into Mill Valley, saw something he liked and decided to set up shop. Right off the bat he had an opportunity to provide a service for his fellow townspeople, those who would become his customers. This is an old-fashioned scenario, and one that Frank Canepa’s grandson and current Mill Valley Market co-owner Doug Canepa feels is the key to health and happiness in society.
“Michael Pollan has got it right with his ideas about supporting local farms, but that isn’t the whole picture,” says Doug, who now co-owns Mill Valley Market with his brother Dave. “Pollan is talking about supporting local agriculture, but all businesses should be local. It is about supporting the small independent operators who give back and care about the community. The pharmacy, the shoe store, the hardware store....”
The current Mill Valley Market is located just a few blocks from its original spot in downtown Mill Valley, kitty-corner from the historic Depot Café, and indeed has an “anotherera” feeling. Stop by midday and you’ll find friends lingering and chatting at the deli counter. Local teens tend the cash registers and politely ask customers if they found what they needed, or would they like help out with their groceries? Doug and Dave Canepa themselves work the aisles, making sure the store is doing justice to their impressive array of local purveyors of most everything from pickles to granola to coffee. On a recent tour of the store, Doug stops to show me the latest arrival on their shelves, Mill Valley Honey, fresh from hives in Tam Valley.
“It was the beginning of the Great Depression when my grandfather opened the store,” says Doug. “He started his business bartering, and extending credit. It was, ‘You cut our hair, you get groceries. You deliver our children, you get groceries.’ And we still extend credit. We are one of the only markets in the area that still does that. We are old-fashioned.”
Frank Canepa’s two sons, Robert and Jim, followed him into the grocery business, working side by side with him at the Mill Valley Market. Education-oriented Robert started the Shop N’ Give program to support 120 local nonprofits and schools. To date the Mill Valley Market has contributed over $881,000 through this program. Doug and Dave’s father, Jim, whom many consider the “heart and soul” of the business, greatly influenced what the Mill Valley Market has become today. Jim Canepa worked in the store well past his retirement age, until he died in 2007.
“My father grew up in the store. As a boy he folded items in newspaper before there were paper bags. He swept the sidewalk and stocked shelves,” says Doug. “He was raised in the store, and he worked in the store until the day he died.”
Jim Canepa was also the person who followed through on a vision to bring fresh produce straight from nearby fields to his customers. He and his wife, Jean, bought a small farm in Glen Ellen (Sonoma County) and sowed the seeds of “Farmer Jim Produce,” growing fruits and vegetables for the shelves of the market. According to Doug, his father reveled in the task of farming. He spent as many days as he could afford away from the store working his plot of land.
Jim and Jean regularly took their grandchildren up to the farm to help out, and it was Doug’s son Wesley who particularly loved working the farm with his grandparents. According to Wesley, he had a hard time keeping up with his strong grandfather.
“We would come up to Glen Ellen at 7:30 in the morning and it would be 105°,” says the 20-something, shaking his head. “Grandma and I would work with Grandpa until noon, then we’d call it quits. But Grandpa would stick it out. He would never come in. He’d stick it out all day long, until 6pm.”
Wesley now has primary responsibility for managing the certified organic Mill Valley Market Farm in Glen Ellen, where the Canepa family grows produce year-round for sale in their store.
On the day I visited Wesley and his father, Doug, on the farm they had just harvested 14 cases of red leaf and red butter lettuce heads, and were prepping the fields for summer and fall crops. The idyllic plot of cultivated rows is framed by blackberry bushes and oak trees, a lush riparian forest to the south and, to the north, the farmhouse and a hillside of olive and fruit trees.
“This little valley definitely has its own microclimate,” says Doug as we watch Wesley fix a line of drip tape. He credits his son with having both the necessary work ethic and a farmer’s attention to the elements.
“Wesley is an amateur meteorologist so he will read the weather, which helps a lot.” They, along with many Bay Area farmers and gardeners, found that 2012 was not a good year for tomatoes. “On a good year we harvest 5,000–6,000 pounds of tomatoes,” Doug continues. “Last year, it was only 1,000. We try all kinds of crops here, and learn as we go.”
Doug mentions accountability several times in the course of our conversation, as he feels it is one of the important elements in strengthening community ties, and an important part of the argument for supporting local businesses.
“For instance, with the GMO issue,” Canepa says, “people know me. They know me well enough to know that they don’t even have to ask.”
Members of the Canepa family coach sports teams at their alma mater, Tamalpais High, and over the past several years the family has formed relationships with several downtown restaurants, providing bounty from their farm for many of the dishes at Vascos, the Sweetwater Café, La Ginestra and Balboa Café.
“What I hope is that we are creating community that builds on itself,” says Doug with satisfaction—a hard-to-come-by satisfaction that involves the multi-tiered essentials of family, work and community.
Back at the market in downtown Mill Valley, Dave’s son, Ryan, is well versed in the workings of the retail side of the business, and so it is that this next, fourth generation of the Canepa family in Mill Valley, is poised to continue Frank Canepa’s legacy in his beloved little town. And, to think it all began with a “wrong turn.”