George Webber | Sonoma Stories —
Perhaps the most pleasant aspect of being forced to “Stay-At-Home” during the pandemic was all that extra time in the kitchen. Many of us were already enthusiastic home chefs, and some of us turned into raving culinary lunatics when we realized there was nothing left to do but spend six hours making the perfect Rainbow Baked Alaska. Enter Sign of the Bear!
This legendary kitchenware store on the west side of the Sonoma Plaza has been making life delicious since 1972. Sign of the Bear showcases an enormous collection of cooking essentials: gadgets, knives, glassware, cutlery, and crockery, among a host of traditional and modern kitchen appliances. Do you need the Three-in-One Avocado Slicer, the Corn Prep Peeler, and the Oxo Simple Pineapple Corer and Slicer? Yes, you do!
Owners Stephen and Laura Havlek purchased Sign of the Bear from founders Dick Forman and Gene Quint in 1990, kept the Sonoma-centric name, and – 33 years later – run one of the most eclectic kitchenware stores in America. Stephen calls it “a hardware store for people who love to cook and entertain.”
Both Stephen and Laura grew up here in Sonoma. Stephen is the son of legendary Sonoma interior designer Beth LaBelle, who owned the store Kaboodle on the Plaza for decades. Stephen grew up helping out, and was a frequent visitor to Sign of the Bear, just two doors away. Laura is the daughter of Janet and Bob Nicholas, whose family has been here since George Nicholas founded Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in 1937.
After college Stephen ended up in Southern California, “but the farther from Sonoma I got, the more I wanted to come back home.” So, he moved back, married the local girl, and together they acquired Sign of the Bear. “From day one, we wanted to be a store for everyone,” Stephen says. “We stock tools in a range of prices, so whatever you want to spend, we can help you. We get a lot of very positive feedback and it’s humbling. We still feel lucky everyday that this is our work.”
A visit to the store reveals an artistic sensibility and a sense of humor. It’s fun, and the items themselves are often darned amusing. “Part of our job is to entertain people; after all, the only reason people go anywhere is because they enjoy it. Even a cookware store should be fun.”
At the heart of it, a store like Sign of the Bear is a moment-to-moment experience. “Hopefully as customers walk through the store, our displays invite customers to play with products and discover why we thought each product was so cool we bought 20 of them in hopes they’ll also love it and buy one.”
Locals Stephen and Laura are happy to sell to visitors but view their real mission as serving Sonoma. “Part of what makes Sonoma special is our Plaza,” Stephen says. “Sonoma has a real sense of place. Visitors respond to that. The added foot traffic from tourism supports a bigger variety of local restaurants, stores, and wineries than would otherwise be possible – and we all benefit from that.”
Will the summer of 2023 be the year that local hospitality providers have been waiting for since 2019? “There is a lot of positive energy in the store,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of Bay Area day-trippers, we’re seeing a lot of people from all over the country. I expect this year will be great.”