I met with Jim a couple of weeks ago at the property he owns just south of Philo on Highway 128. He lives in a beautiful house alongside The Madrones small business complex, home to some of the Valley’s lesser-known but up-and-coming wineries. We sat down to talk in the kitchen with a cup of tea and some freshly made deli sandwiches that Jim had kindly picked up at The Boonville General Store.
Jim Roberts was born in Upland, in Riverside County, southern California although he basically grew up in nearby Orange County — “behind the orange curtain.” His parents were Rosemary Taylor and Herbert Roberts, “My father was second or third generation Californian, and although my grandfather was in banking, they were mostly farming people outside of L.A. They were very working class and suffered in the Depression along with many others. My mother was Cherokee/Scots/Irish and she can be traced back directly to Pocahontas. Some branches were what were known as Black Dutch, a group with a mixture of Cherokee and African American who were mainly in Alabama. My grandparents all died when I was young and my mother went into ‘show business’ after running away at fourteen. A Jewish family took her in and her talents encouraged. She was Miss Florida 1954! She joined a dance team and on one trip to a gig in California she decided to stay and found work at a restaurant. This was where my Dad was the manager. He had been married and had a daughter, my half-sister Connie, but his wife committed suicide. He and Mom hit it off and were married in 1957.”
Jim’s father worked at a famous restaurant called The Stuft Shirt and he and Rosemary started a family with Howard and Diane coming along four and six years before Jim and then they moved when he was two from Upland to Tustin, near to Newport Beach and the nationally known restaurant. “The restaurant was fine dining in those days with many celebrity guests such as John Wayne, among others. It was an ‘event’ restaurant where many people went to celebrate special occasions and had a really good reputation. On many days my Dad wore a tux and dickie to work — he was the manager and president of the corporation that had three restaurants. My mother had her own catering business for a time and she would host at the restaurant in the evenings.”
“I had a really nice upbringing and we lived in a big old Spanish-style house that had been abandoned and which was not in vogue at the time. I have lots of fond memories of that property — climbing the trees, raising chickens and rabbits, bicycling, the veggie garden. Apart from the fact that the house had some property it was a typical LA lifestyle I had, with lots of hanging out at the beach. We also had a house in Mexico and would go there as a family sometimes.”
Jim attended the local schools from elementary all the way through Tustin High School. His father worked many hours and his mother was often working too. “I guess I was something of a latch-key kid. My parents certainly instilled the work ethic in me. I was close to my siblings and had a good, happy upbringing and have no negative memories. I was a little introverted, and still am kind of that way. I had good friends but did spend a lot of time alone, not unlike today. My mother had an antique store and I became very interested in this as early as the age of nine or ten and would go along with her to auctions in L.A. to get inventory.”
The Stuft Shirt closed in the late seventies, the primary owner decided to purchase vineyard land and pursue a wine business. Jim’s father was laid off. “We had some financial hardships around that time. I was about twelve or thirteen and it was not easy for an ‘old school’ restaurant man like my father to find a job. We were not from money on either side of my family, my parents had earned what they had and now Dad was out of work. My parents had certainly been middle class and successful but then it was tough for a couple of years.”
“I was a fair student at school, I guess, but did not really enjoy high school and dropped out in my senior year. I was simply more interested in not being there. I smoked a little pot, hung around with my best friend and his hippy brother; we had eclectic taste in music, listening to Billie Holiday and the Rolling Stones. By that time my parents had broken up and I was living with my Dad near to Laguna Beach. I had enjoyed horticulture and art at school and wanted to explore my creative side. Strangely, as it turned out, I wanted to move to either Maine on the north east coast or more likely Mendocino in northern California — I had read about the area or the rugged coastline and wilderness really appealed to the southern Cal boy in me as something very different. I could not wait to get out of southern California. I had always felt somewhat lost there; it was so vast, track housing for miles on end. I would go on long bicycle rides and some parts were beautiful but by the time I was eighteen I was ‘lost’ and had no sense of myself. Sure I did some partying there but it never really appealed to me. I wanted out.”
With this in mind, at 18, Jim set out alone in his car with $400 and headed north. “I had never lived alone, nor traveled alone. I got as far as Carmel when a very bad storm hit. I had never seen rain like it so I stayed around town. A few days later I decided to get a room there and then found a job at a landscape nursery, with a waiting job in the evening at a restaurant — I had bussed tables at my Dad’s restaurant so knew some things about the business. I worked at the nursery for a year and then told my boss I wanted to go it alone and started my own business. I did OK and one customer was Mrs. Nordstrom, of department store fame. I lasted about a year before returning to LA but during that time I did manage to make one trip up to the village of Mendocino. It intrigued me but I was not quite ready for the move; it probably felt a little remote, now I think about it, and there were still things I needed to do.”
Jim’s mother had moved to Hawaii and so he moved into her house. He enrolled at Irvine Valley College to study art and did quite well. “I was an OK artist and was one of just 20 out of twelve hundred artists to be invited to the Laguna Beach Festival of Art. However, I was struggling to make ends meet although I was selling a little of my art and waiting tables part-time. I decided to visit my Mom in Hawaii and rented a studio in the red light district there.” Jim painted street people and was represented by three or four galleries and helped my mother with her home design business. He soon grew to dislike the gallery system and somewhat abruptly gave up his painting.
“Looking back, I gave my art up almost overnight. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It seems like I have always been able to re-invent myself easily and have thrived on doing that. I like it. I have always had opportunities and although I have had some good fortune, mostly I have created those opportunities as opposed to just going out and getting any job as my default move.”
Now in his mid-20s, Jim decided to utilize his art abilities in the world of film and commercial post-production. “I had a couple of very lucrative years in LA and San Francisco but I don’t think I was ever quite trained well enough in that field and fell short in some areas. I left the business and moved full-time to SF where I waited tables at some high-end restaurants such as The Elite Café and worked for the artist Marco Sassone. I made good money but still drove my old 68 Volvo and prayed it would run every day. Then in 1986 I was laid off and decided to spend a summer in Mendocino. I worked at both 955 Ukiah and The Hill House restaurants, often doing a double shift a day. I had a good time that summer but it was too foggy and the coast was not for me. However, on returning to the Bay Area, I came through Anderson Valley and just fell in love with it, and the weather was so much nicer than at the coast. I think I decided then that I’d like to live here one day.”
Upon the suggestion of his mother, Jim next moved to Hawaii once again and this time he worked full-time alongside his mother in her interior design business. “It was the right time. She worked on many unbelievable homes and I was her assistant, doing everything from hanging wallpaper to deciding on design and hardware. It was the time of the Japanese purchasing boom and they would come over with suitcases of money and buy luxurious homes on the waterfront that we had been involved in building from the ground up — spec houses that we had put together, working with two or three developers who would each have a couple of houses on the go at the same time. The business had a huge following there and we were also hired to help market finished houses that were not selling. The business was Rosemary Roberts Design and we worked out of her house. We never got caught up in all the razzamatazz and did very well indeed. We would fly to LA and buy the furniture, sending it over to Hawaii in large containers. We might have as many as a dozen or more houses on the go at any one time and I learned a lot about the industry which was to help me in my own business later.”
However, by 1991 the Japanese recession had hit and the whole market collapsed. “We were on a buying trip for some multi-million dollar projects and almost overnight the market just shut down. It was like the market here in 2008. I returned to San Francisco and got a job with the Orkin Pest Control Company at their interior plants division — quite a change! Prior to leaving Hawaii, in the days of that Japanese boom, as a result of being so impressed on earlier visits, I had bought two acres on Hwy 128 just outside Philo and my mother had bought a 160-acre ranch in Yorkville. I figured it might be good to have some commercially zoned property here as I might want a little art shop here at some point — an art, antiques and garden item shop, called ‘Sun and Cricket’.”
Jim lived in a small apartment with a partner in the Noe Valley district of San Francisco but it was a tough couple of years for Jim in that he could not find a decent job where his expertise would needed. “I did land the Macy’s account for the company and learned how to cold call and how to have nothing and yet sell it as something.” In 1994 Jim became the director of design for Model Home Merchandising but realized there was a clash in business styles with the owner of the company. “It was like a three-ring circus and after a year I had had enough. I figured if I stayed there any longer I wouldn’t be able to maintain a good reputation in the industry, so I left and after a break decided to go it alone.”
In 1996, Jim knew it was time to start his own interior design business. With $1200 he began Taylor Roberts Inc, an interior design company, based in his kitchen. “I soon had two projects, one in the City and one in El Sobrante. ‘How did I do that?’ I ask myself looking back. It was a very competitive business and hard to get off the ground but the timing was perfect with the housing market on the rise With a couple of projects a year I would have created a job for myself in my field of expertise. I did not expect to it to get any more than that.”
Meanwhile, Jim was developing his property in Anderson Valley. He planted trees, improved the building, and had tenants. He visited for weekends every couple of months or so but eventually moved on to the property himself and stayed for longer periods of time. He had been in a serious personal relationship in the late nineties but that had broken up and in 1998 he decided to bring his new business to the Valley — “To ‘get out of Dodge’ as it were. I hired my first employee, Barry Chiverton, as the bookkeeper, and we were installed in an ugly trailer that I bought for $300. As Barry would say, ‘It was either an ice box or an oven depending on the time of year.’ Taylor Roberts of Philo was born and it just kept on growing. I continued to work on the property and my house. Offices were built, remodeling done, gardens put in. I had made a sketch of what I would like many years earlier — a little mission-style development. I was ‘Father Whatever’ and that is what we created.”
“We soon had ten employees and had a number of builder clients, mostly in the Bay Area, with one in Hawaii. Our expertise was merchandising and market, studying the psychographics and behaviors of new homebuyers, as apposed to just staging a home and making it look nice. We wanted to know how society was living; what their homes meant to people. We had many growing pains and it was a challenge to get good staff here, where very few had any training in the design world. I had never had employees before but eventually we had a staff of forty here and in the warehouses in Ukiah. We had a great run for quite a few years.”
By 2008, after a number of years of great success, the economy took a dive and the interior design business was adversely affected as much as any industry. Jim says he worked very hard to keep things going. “I did the best I could. For the most part I treated people very well and the staff were well paid. I introduced profit sharing, bonuses, flexible workweeks, and a social responsibility committee to organize donations to the community. It is tough for country businesses and ours was deadline driven making it even tougher. The staff worked really hard and we created an efficient corporate environment in an area where most had never had a corporate job. We had a really good team and remained very down-to-earth with no attitude, which is refreshing for that industry and we created a pleasant work environment. It was miserable having to deal with the lay-offs and I handled the first one horribly. We needed to work smarter and make adjustments when the workload went down. I did not do this and did not realize that this was a business not an employment agency. I had a very hard time saying no to hiring and had many staff and took on many new jobs — opportunity is one thing that can wipe your life out if not handled effectively and I was flattered into performing more.
“Anyway, that all ended, people lost their jobs and I was crucified in the local newspaper and did not respond well. Meanwhile, along with the dive in the economy, I found out that the company’s accounting was way off. It was very hard to stay on top of where we were financially during the jobs we had. Nevertheless, it was my ultimate responsibility. The economy changed, and people made mistakes. We all contributed and were not prudent but even if we had been it was ultimately the market that killed us and we may not have recovered anyway. It was a fun ride but I wanted out. I felt really responsible and took it all on and internalized it.”
“Money has never been my main motivation. It was always the by-product of working hard and doing a job well. It gives you a chance to succeed of course and I liked that we did things well and created jobs. In the end I felt so bad about the lay-offs and we had just eight staff left. I felt so bad about it; it was difficult to even go into a local restaurant or store and face the community, so I decided to leave the Valley. I returned to the Bay Area where I lived for two years, visiting the Valley occasionally but I didn’t have many ties here and I’m sure a number of employees did not want to see me. I basically took a couple of years off. I worked out, lost weight, took a mental retreat, and thought about what I could do next. A few jobs still came along that I ran from down there and I was very fortunate that a few employees stuck with me to do those. I still do a couple of jobs a year.”
With the steady demise of Taylor Roberts, Jim sold his property in the Bay Area and endured a bad financial period. “I decided to return to the Valley in 2010 and ‘save the farm’ as it were; and save myself at the same time — I had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the property in one way or another. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I had empty buildings and a big mortgage and it was like walking into a time warp with everything exactly as I had left it.”
Jim decided to rent the space to various small wineries. They were struggling as distributors dropped them if they were not big enough and a number of such wineries were interested in taking a space at what was called The Madrones — the converted offices of Taylor Roberts. Lula, Drew, Bink, and Berridge wineries opened tasting rooms in the complex, although Berridge has now left. Jim also got to do his shop ‘Sun and Cricket,’ as well as a couple of guest accommodations for travelers “It has worked out and it seems as if these small wineries with links to the Valley are doing well here. I am enjoying what we have here and I am able to enjoy the area and the community again. I work a couple of days at the shop and am meeting more and more people. I am going out in the Valley a little more although I am not a very social person. Given the choice between attending an event or working in my garden, I would choose the garden.”
I asked Jim for a quick verbal image of his father. “A really nice man; patient, quiet, with a great dry sense of humor. He died about 20 years ago and I have very fond memories of him, he and I would go to Mexico together, although he did work a lot and was often not around. He was of that generation — they worked and provided.” And Jim’s mother? “She is still going very strong; definitely a can-do-it-type. She is enthusiastic and works really hard at whatever it is she turns her hand to. She moved here to love about fifteen years ago and I have a lot of fun with her. She has a few close friends and spends lots of time in her garden.”
“I love the Valley’s natural beauty and the connection to nature you can have here. I love farming and gardening, the country life. I plan to put on a number of workshops in rural practices = food preservation, olive oil, birding, foraging, etc. I am able to pursue hobbies such as mountain biking and paddle boarding on the river. I have met a number of wonderful people here and near points beyond. There is little I do not like although sometimes there is some small-mindedness here and an unwillingness to embrace outsiders. I have no thoughts of moving on at any time soon, although I would like to live in Europe at some point, Italy particularly. I would like to get to Hawaii over the winter months on a regular basis too.”
I asked Jim for his thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation.
The Wineries? “I like farm-based businesses. It is a hard business and while grapes are the thing here now, perhaps it will be something completely different in twenty/thirty years. I don’t think the winery industry is an evil thing. I enjoy the beauty of the vineyards, though I want to see the natural beauty of the valley maintained.”
The AVA? “I think the point of view has softened in the last few years. I thought it was a bit of a bully-pulpit at one time but not now.”
KZYX local public radio? “It provides a good service and I am glad we have it even though a lot of the programming is not to my taste.”
Changes in the Valley in recent years? “All-in all, people think it has changed a lot but in reality I don’t think it has. However, old timers passing and new people arriving is a big change and I feel for the old-timers who may not like the changes. Personally, I have never been afraid of change, I like it.”
I posed a few questions to Jim.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “A new project and spending time in nature.”
What annoys you; brings you down? “Negativity, intolerance, petty gossip.”
Dound or noise you love? “Wooden bells on sheep or cattle; the huge set of chimes on my deck.”
Sound or noise you hate? — Music played openly with a heavy base; the sound of guns — I never really hunted although my Dad and I had matching hunting jackets!”
your ‘last supper’? “Probably a pasta dish of some sort.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “My Dad or some friends I have lost.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? — “My two dogs — Winston the French bulldog and Charlie the Pug, and my laptop computer.”
Does anything scare you? “My temper.”
Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? — “Katmandu in Nepal.”
Favorite film? “Harold and Maude.”
Favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “I played a lot of tennis as a teenager but these days it would be gardening or perhaps mountain biking or paddle-boarding.”
Profession other than your own you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “The other side of the design process — the construction design.”
Profession or job you not like to do? “Anything repetitious.”
Age when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “To the high school dance when I was 16.”
something you would do differently if you could do it over again? — “I don’t really have a ‘rear-view-mirror’ and have not really lived my life that way.”
Something that you are really proud of and why? “I have always tried to treat people fairly.”
Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “I am a kind person.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Spirituality is important to me although I do not follow any organized religion. Yes, I have a few ‘woo woo’ things about me. I believe we are brought ‘back to the fold’ and so ‘Welcome back’ would work for me.”
To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. The next interview will be July 25th. The guest interviewee from the Valley on that occasion will be Sharon Sullivan.